What's in a name? Or, can you break with tradition without pissing people off?

Recently I was asked to write a little something on short notice for a feminist publication. Although I was the only one who was going to get credit, Biffle and I collaborated on the piece, a mostly-true (although condensed and simplified) account of some of the challenges of coming up with a last name for our soon-to-be-in-the-world progeny. It turns out that it wasn't quite right for the publication that requested it, so I figured I'd post it here.

One evening early in my pregnancy, my husband was talking with his parents about the baby.

“Well, son,” his father said, “I hope if it’s a boy you name him James Walter Biffle III.”

“I don’t think we’re going to do that,” Walter warily admitted. “In fact, I don’t think the baby’s last name is going to be Biffle. It’s going to be Biffle-Piepmeier.”

There was a long, long pause before his father finally asked, “Why is that?”

Walter pointed out there are two people in our family currently, each of whom has a different last name, so why should the baby’s last name automatically be just Biffle? While the silence continued, Walter tried harder to explain. He talked about our efforts to create an egalitarian marriage, about changing cultural norms around family names, even attempted a brief history of the patriarchy, but none of it made sense to them. His parents had never bothered to question tradition, and in fact, rather liked it. Their feelings were hurt, they said. Worse, they were embarrassed. Was this a rejection of them? Their family? What would their friends think? What would our child think?

Many straight couples with different last names opt to give their kids the husband’s last name, and I can see why: it’s the normal practice, and people understand it. A hyphenated last name like our baby will have can be cumbersome. What's more, there’s no drama when you go with the father’s last name. The man’s family is happy, and the woman’s family probably won’t be upset. People don’t freak out when you follow tradition.

After he got off the phone that night, Walter and I talked. We’d suspected that his parents probably wouldn’t approve of our naming choices, but we’d underestimated how hurt they’d be. Of course our decision wasn’t a rejection of them—-Biffle is going to be part of the baby’s last name!-—but there didn’t seem to be any way of getting them to see that.

I considered capitulating, going with the choice that would appease two of the new baby’s grandparents. Was it worth it to upset Walter’s parents for the sake of our principles?

The answer, we both realized, is yes. For us, the last name of this new person signifies something we believe, not just where one of us came from. This baby will be equal parts Biffle and Piepmeier and will be part of a family that’s striving to recognize both parents’ contributions, a family in which both of us are head of the household. Why should we go along with a practice we don’t agree with just because it’s familiar and easy and keeps people from being upset? But good traditions are important, and that’s why we’re trying to create some new ones. In this case, a tradition that recognizes the power of an equal partnership, not a partnership based on the principle of one person having to give something up.

Yes, Biffle-Piepmeier is possibly the world’s most inelegant last name, but we’ve decided that there are worse things than being inelegant. And worse things than upsetting our families.

Besides, many of my friends with kids have assured me that this is only the first of many parenting choices we’ll make that will upset one set of in-laws or the other, so we might as well get used to it.


nashvillemidwife said...

We are anything but traditional, but are choosing to go with his last name out of convenience. For the sake of equality, she will be getting a first and middle name that are important and rather unique to my family to go along with the last name from his family.

His family would be perfectly ok if we used a different last name (in fact, his name is pretty meaningless as far as family names go - there's a long story there involving suicide, adoption, and deadbeat husbands). My family, on the other hand, would not be okay with giving the baby my name. We've been married over 10 years and my mother has yet to accept the fact that I didn't change my name. There would be no end to the frustration that would ensue if we give our baby a last name she doesn't even recognize as valid. I like to choose my battles, and my mom is already pushing formula and doubting my resolve to cloth diaper; she's already made disparaging comments about our ability to give this baby a "good" name based on our history of pets with unconventional names. I just don't have it in me to go down that road.

malachi said...

Where does your child go from there? If they have a child someday, where does the hyphenated naming convention leave them?

Keith said...

I like the idea of creating new traditions to replace outdated ones. My only question is, what happens when kid A with hyphenated last name has a child with kid B with a different hyphenated last name? Does their child then have a four-part last name? (the geek side of me has to evaluate everything to see if it's sustainable in the long term)

FWIW, I had two friends who got married and coined a new last name for themselves that was a synthesis of their two family names. I suppose the same could be done for a child. Biffmeier, perhaps? :) Piffle? :) (sorry...)

Alison said...

Malachi and Keith, I'm so glad you asked. You are both asking a question I've come to call "The most common name-change question," and I blogged about my answer a couple of years ago.

And Nashville Midwife, I am with you about choosing your battles. It seems like parenthood is going to be full of them.

Totally0Random said...

Biffle-Piepmeier is far from being "the world’s most inelegant last name." Anderson-Wyman is hardly better, and Ratanathanawong-Williams has you beat!

Anonymous said...

I don't have time to read the entire discussion right now, since I have work to do, but my 5 minute scan didn't answer my (and, I think, Keith's) question about your possible future grandchildren, not about marriage name changing (which is something we agree on).

Say you have a child with your hyphenated last names and we have a child with our hyphenated last names and they get married and keep their names and then have a child, what would that future child's last name be?

As Keith is pointing out, lastname1-lastname2-lastname3-lastname4 is not a sustainable tradition.

Alison said...

Malachus, you probably missed it because it's not a very definitive answer. What I said was, "we--as a culture--haven't figured that out yet. We may have to wallow around in some confusion for a while, trying different things."

Anonymous said...

Oh, I read that, but I didn't see that as an answer.

I believe that if you're going to replace a tradition with something, that something should be sustainable.

Rob said...

I dunno. I kinda think Bifflemeier has a nice ring to it...

Biffle said...

Pablo Picasso's full name is as follows:

Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso

He solved the multiple name issue by leaving several of them out for his day-to-day use.

Ula said...

I think Biffle-Piepmeier is a great last name! And as a personal preference, I like the idea of using both last names instead of a combination creating a new name, as I think that retains the family connection better, but that's just me. I'm pretty sure my parents will be thrilled if I ever get married and decide to keep my last name, just cause I'm part of the last generation of my last name (no cousins on my dad's side) and that means our name lives on.
And a congratulations on your forthcoming baby! I was just hanging out with Michelle last week (who now lives in Oregon..yay!) and she told me about your blog. It is so good to read about all the exciting things in your life! I hope you're doing well and good luck in the coming weeks.


Rebekah said...

And bottom line - is it really anyone else's business what you name YOUR child? By the time this little person is an adult gets married, if s/he chooses to do so, s/he will make the decison about what last name to use with his/her spouse so the "concern" about a hyphenated last name consisting of four names seems kind of silly to me.

I myself couldn't wait to get rid of my clunky, hard-to-say, harder-to spell maiden name. I didn't enjoy the name growing up and would not want to pass that on to my child, especially since part of it contained the letters "uck" and we all know how clever kids are when it comes to rhymes. I love my husband's last name (though people screw that up too) and after nine years of marriage, I very much feel like it is MY name.

aaron said...

Rock on Pablo! I always loved the scene in The Fifth Element when Gary Oldman is saying his whole name: "Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg" as the camera zooms into his office.

I've told Mary several times that when we have a kid I want its middle name to be Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel (or possibly his 1st name).

SO! what's yer'lls (yer alls) take on middle names? That is actually a pretty confusing conversation for me.

Jims said...

I'm with rebekah on this. Why worry about what your child might change his/her name to many, many years in the future if he/she marries and possibly has children? By then the child will be a grown-ass person and can make this decision. I doubt you would want it to be your decision anyway or that your possible future grandchild's last name is really at the top of your worry list. I will have it known that I always advocated the last name Bifflemeier, just because I love saying and spelling it.

Christine McKaskle said...

About the belief that if you replace tradition the new one had better be sustainable, I have two thoughts. The first is that when we make changes, especially changes that address injustice, we may go through several before we find something that "sticks" over the long haul. Baby Pieffle will either create a whole other tradition for his/her generation, or s/he will be a little reactionary Alex Keaton and go with Biffle.

The other thought is that creating a family tradition in which each generation is welcome to do what works for it is an eminently sustainable tradition.

I find myself upset that the inclusion of mom's last name is interpreted by grandparents as a rejection of dad's last name - another couple might have attempted to address inequity simply by going with mom's name in this generation.

You may want to edit this, but I find myself wondering how much grandparents' hurt might have to do with feeling insecure about their family connection to your baby - biologically, socially, educationally, ideologically, and the list goes on. I also find myself hopeful that as you provide opportunity for the generation above and below you to connect, their anxiety about that might lessen considerably.

The Mom said...

Christie, I've said this before, but maybe not directly to you...I really like the way you think and express yourself. I'm always really struck by whatever you've written here in comments. You are a very wise young woman (young in comparison to me!)and I think Alison (and I)is blessed to know you. I think that about all her friends I've met - she has been very fortunate in the friend department.

The Dad said...

Yea Alison

I agree with you. The last name for your child is your tradition and choice. Is doesn't matter what "Jimlee's" last name is...(If it's a girl, it could be Gemleigh")

The Dad

Curtis said...

Gosh, I love the name discussion, and apparently so do many of your other readers! Isn't it amazing that one of the things so many of us cling to as an integral part of Ourselves is something we were given as infants? Anyway, I just want to suggest that it is your families' business what you name your baby. It's not their decision, not at all, but it is their business. As long as we choose to involve our families in our lives, they take a special place. They're not just friends. They have a huge interest in the baby's future and happiness; they're already in love with the kid. I'm not suggesting at all that you need to take their reactions into account, but to suggest that it's not their business just doesn't seem quite correct. For better or for worse, it is the correct place for our parents to try to guide our decisions no matter how old we are. They're required to respect the choices we make (at least that's the way it's supposed to work). Grandparents may be extended family, but they're still family.

Totally0Random said...

For the record, I think "Bifflemeier" is pretty awesome.

Christine McKaskle said...

Wow, Kelly, thanks for that compliment! I'm so glad I checked back to see the rest of the comments on this one. :)

And I dearly love Curtis's distinction between something being our decision and our business as families and loved ones.

Uncle John said...

First of all, Biffle is an excellent first name. And if you choose the first name Biffle, that would automatically rule out Biffle as a last name since it would be cruel and inhuman to give someone the name "Biffle Biffle". As for last names, I think hyphenated last names are not only cumbersome, but don't really solve the problem. They may make the parents happy, but I'm sure they really help the kid know who he or she is.
But back to first names. I have two excellent suggestions that are sure to be controversial: the first is "Fire". It's good strong name and nobody will mess with a kid named Fire. The other is "Help". Not as powerful, but still pretty good.
I hope all is well with Mom, Dad, and little Fire Biffle Piepmeier!

Raymond Owens said...

I think you have the right legally to name your kid anything you want. As far as parents are concerned, no matter what you do, you WILL offend them at times. You would THINK your parents would be proud that you are not using formula and disposable diapers. Medically, ALL evidence says breast milk is best (I think it is written RIGHT ON THE FORMULA container.) I went through that issue with my wife, especially since she had issues and had to pump 100% of her milk for our first daughter. There were times that were pretty stressful with our parents. Another issue... the car seats. We only use OUR car seats, and the kids have to be in seats designed for their age. That is an issue that we had problems with as well. As far as the name of your child, that is a minor issue, and one I would imagine your parents will get over when they see their new grandchild.

Crittle said...

I really need to stop reading and do a million other things, but I keep finding more and more posts that catch my attention.

This discussion, for example, is one I find fascinating. This was never my issue being that I married someone with the same plain, boring last name (I actually did want a new one. Some people think I changed mine, some people I didn't. It depends on when they met me. The truth never seems to cross people's minds unless we tell them.

I did threaten to hyphenate M's name though.