What's In A Name?

09/22/2011 07:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011
  • Kristin Tennant Kristin Tennant is a divorced-Christian-liberal-remarried-Midwestern-mommy-freelance-writer. Her blog is at

In my little nuclear family, there are five people and three last names.

I have my parents' last name, my two daughters have their dad's last name, and my husband and his daughter share his last name.

Usually it just is what it is -- we don't even think about it twice. Sometimes we joke about it, and combine all three of our last names into a hyphenated, five-syllable conglomeration (it could easily be worse than five syllables, you know).

And sometimes, I admit, being a family that doesn't share a last name in common can be a logistical pain, or even a social hurdle. One Saturday, for instance, we all were at the farmers' market and decided to participate in a community art project. As we were getting ready to leave, the woman organizing the project said, "Oh, I need you to sign in your family so we have a record of everyone who worked on these pieces."

I wrote each name on the sign-in sheet, wishing I could put our entire family on one line, but finally resorting to five separate entries. As I wrote our names, I felt the urge to add several footnotes detailing our relationships to one another--wife, daughter, step-daughter, and so on. Maybe a diagram would help clarify?

The explaining gets old.

Ultimately it shouldn't matter, of course, but sometimes I feel the need to explain myself to people, like I have to legitimize my very real connection to this man and these girls I don't seem connected to in a legal sense.

I admit, it seems like a very old-fashioned response wrapped in a scenario that isn't the least bit old-fashioned. Even during my first marriage, I had long-questioned my decision to take my husband's name, (which I did because I was young and it seemed symbolically important at the time). After our marriage ended, I decided to reclaim my maiden name, even though I struggled with the idea of having a different last name than my daughters. Would that somehow make me seem less like their mom in the eyes of the world?

Ultimately, that decision symbolized a reclaiming of my individual identity -- the one I started life with, the me that was just me and didn't need to legally change in order to bind my heart and soul to another. It was also a heck of a lot of work to legally revert to my maiden name, so by the time I was making plans to get married again, my first and final thought about the whole name business was pretty much, "No way am I going through another name change."

Make your own decisions & your own meaning.

I'm not advocating any particular model, here. What it comes down to is determining what ultimately matters the most to me (or, in your case, to you). What actually brings meaning and rich symbolism to your life? (Because symbols can be strong and play an important role -- they shouldn't all be ditched just for the sake of so-called feminism or changing times.) Most importantly, are you able to let go of what you think you are supposed to do, releasing what might be nothing more than empty tradition so you can embrace what really matters and makes sense in your life?

When I was younger, I craved labels and names that could serve the purpose of helping me sort things out, and could give others a user-friendly interface for accessing me. I wanted people to glance at the public face of my life, make a guess about who I was, and pretty much be right. Not only was that easier and neater, it made me feel like I had somehow succeeded at something important -- my interior matched up neatly with my exterior.

Now I'm more willing to embrace complexity, or at least to roll with it. I can see, at times, that people are confused about my family, for any number of reasons, and I've reached a point where I think a bit of confusion is a good thing more than a bad thing. It forces people to think about what's "normal," and if there's really any such thing. It makes me more confident about standing behind the decisions I've made about my own life, whether or not they're popular, typical, or trendy.

As a result, of course, it also makes me more open to what others choose for themselves, even if I don't "get it." I don't, after all, need to get it. They need to get it.

Sometimes I still fall back into my old ways of wanting everything to be nice and neat and crystal-clear -- to present a family of five that not only looks like they belong together, but has a common last name to prove it. Worse yet is when I have those old, knee-jerk habits of feeling apologetic because my life simply isn't wrapped up in a tidy package -- in fact, it might even throw you for a loop.

But then I look at the relationships my husband and I and our daughters have built -- I look at the closeness and trust and the shared history we're writing together -- and I see again, without a doubt, how far we've come forging our own path. Whatever name it is given.