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Anne Peterson

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On Taking His Last Name

Posted: 10/23/11 06:36 PM ET

When my boyfriend proposed I had a rogue thought that I never imagined could infiltrate my brain: I want to take his last name.

Ack! ACK! Who am I? Who am I, if not a feminist? Who am I, if not a Peterson? I wanted to jump in the shower and clean the dirty, dirty patriarchal thought off my person.

Before we got engaged, I was certain I'd keep my last name. After all, the Peterson name dies with me. My sisters -- epic traitors that they are -- changed their last name years ago. They also insisted on having a bunch of worthless girl children, which left the responsibility of keeping the Peterson lineage up to my nonexistent male heir. I took this duty seriously. After all, at the core of my family was the fact that we were Peterson People. We had a Field Guide to Birds, a legendary jazz pianist and a smattering of city streets in honor of our namesake.

But then I fell in love with a Sobel. SO-BEL. Saying it is like eating a handful of sand. It gets caught in your throat like a partially chewed piece of flank steak. It lacks the distinguished tradition of a name like Peterson: a moniker for mustachioed Vikings and meatball connoisseurs with blonde braids. Peterson: that which gracefully swishes around the mouth like an expensive Beaujolais.

So there I was, in love with a man whose surname could not be more offensive to my tongue, and it was abundantly clear that the only option was keeping my last name. No hyphenate, just two separate names representing the two separate individuals we were. Once I birthed the male heir I would steal off into the night and raise him a Peterson. (Full disclosure: I would force my fiancé to take my last name, but he is also the last Sobel in his family. Therefore, kidnapping his first-born son is the only reasonable solution.)

But the proposal changed things. The question itself was no surprise -- hello five and a half years of dating! -- and I knew my boyfriend (the Sobel) had an heirloom diamond he wanted to pass on. But on that fateful afternoon, he opened the box and spoke of giving me a diamond that had been in his family for 100 years, a gem that his great-great-aunt and then his mother wore, and how he planned to honor commitments the way ancestors did: steadfast and true. At that moment, my last name seemed trivial by comparison to the union we were forming.

I realized that part of why I love being a Peterson is that it was my family name, a name all my people shared that symbolized the unions of those who came before us. There were no hyphenates or separate surnames, for that might diminish the power of the Peterson. Furthermore, what if we do have a child and they became a Peterson-Sobel and then married a Hemlock-Sterling. Will their offspring be Peterson-Sobel-Hemlock-Sterling? Where does it end?!

Still, I am not fully confident in these newly formed values. I feel shame and guilt telling my female friends who chose to keep their last names or hyphenate. Now I feel like a traitor, a saboteur to hundreds of years of progress. Et tu, Brute? And while I relish the joy of starting a new family name, I remorse in abandoning the name I've known for 30 years. While I plan to keep Peterson as a middle name (an occurrence that is quickly replacing the hyphenate), it is simply not the same. A piece of my identity is gone.

There are no winners here. Women who keep their last name lose the joy of a collective family name. Women who take their husband's name lose a part of themselves. Women who hyphenate take a really long time to fill out forms. Perhaps one day a better solution will be on the horizon. Most likely the solution of everyone being named Peterson. Well, everyone but me, I guess.