By Andrea Jarrell
When my husband and I married in 1992, during ‘The Year of the Woman’, our decision to hyphenate the last names of our future children was one of many carefully considered details. This choice, which symbolized our intention to wed as equals, was as deliberately devised as our separate, simultaneous entrance down one side of a sweeping double staircase, meeting in the middle to give our individual vows.
And yet it’s never been easy for our kids.
Over 25 years later, our decision still puts us in the minority—with only 20 percent of married women keeping their maiden names, and half that hyphenating their kids’ names. Our 20-year-old son Daniel recently lamented, not for the first time, his 26-letter full name, as long as “the whole alphabet.”
“Why did you have to hyphenate our names?” he asked during our weekly family dinner and catch-up. Sundays are when our empty nest refills and Daniel and his sister Carson come back to the little brick house where they grew up. The week before, waving goodbye to them, I had glimpsed our next phase of parenting. A future in which they might drive up with their own families in tow, grandchildren running to the door. It was this wisp of what’s ahead that had led me to say, “When the time comes—granted, I hope years from now—I want no part of the word ‘grandma.’” My announcement that I wanted to be called something young, cute, and hip like “Mimi” is what prompted Daniel’s comment about his name.
At first, I didn’t see the connection between my preferred grandmother name and his hyphenated surname, but I soon understood that he, too, was focused on the future. He and Carson had put up with “Jarrell-Rourke” not fitting on forms, and with the sound of those soft consonants pronounced like a mouthful of marbles even when the speaker gets it right. But his plaintive why wasn’t about him anymore. He was thinking of his future partner and the children they will have.
It didn’t surprise me that Daniel had these concerns even though he’s still so young. This kid has made it clear since he was in high school that being a “family man” is one of his goals. He often asks parenting questions, seeming to mull over what he appreciates about the way we’ve done it and what he will do differently. (For the record, he will not let his kids quit Little League.) He’s in no rush to have children but, unlike our daughter, he’s never been ambivalent about his plans to eventually marry and raise a family.
What did surprise me was my husband Brad’s response this time to our son’s name complaint: “Yeah, I guess we saddled you with a raw deal. If we’d given it more thought, we might have done it differently.”
I caught Brad’s eye from my side of the table. “We did think about it,” I said. “We thought about it a lot.” I understood that he wanted to ease our kids’ burden—but I wanted him to remember our resolve and those heady conversations early in our courtship, when parenting was just theoretical.
“Don’t you remember that we considered hyphenating our last names, too?”
Before he could answer Daniel interrupted: “I can’t imagine that. I love that you are your own people. Together we’re the Jarrell-Rourkes.”
Our son might bemoan the hassle of his hyphenated name, but he knows why we did it. In some ways, the hassle has been the point. The hyphen compels saying “no” to teachers who want you to “just pick one name” to make their clerical life easier. Saying “no” to the assumption that a father’s heritage is more valuable than a mother’s. Saying “no” to banishment to a maternal island, as the only one in the family with a different name. Pushing against norms is the only way to get people to begin to see things differently, to question convention, to buck the status quo. Even if the only people helping me to create new norms are my own children, it’s been worth it.
Daniel may end up parenting his kids differently than we parented him, but equality between spouses is something he already knows he wants. If his hyphenated surname has helped instill that value, my work is done. But the very sense of equality our names embody is what was stymying Daniel when he brought it up. He sees a choice down the road he doesn’t know how to make: how can he choose just one of his names to join with his wife’s?
The following Sunday, after a meal of grilled steaks and chili-lime corn on the cob, Daniel and I sat talking in the living room. When I told him our conversation had inspired an idea for an essay, he said, “I think the answer may be to choose a whole new name.”
I could tell he thought I’d balk at this suggestion, but I didn’t. “It really doesn’t matter to me,” I said. “Yeah, right,” he laughed, and eyed me suspiciously.
“I’m serious.” I saw him relax. “In a way that’s what we did.”
Being “the Jarrell-Rourkes” has always felt so satisfying to me, like the delicious combination of butter and jam spread on the thick toast Brad used to make for the kids back when they were little. Back when we could all fit on our big bed like a raft in the ocean sailing under our collective banner. But even then, I knew our childrens’ double names were tailored for our family alone, too unwieldy to pass along.
That night, as Brad and I watched Daniel and Carson climb into their cars, I tried to imagine calling our son by a different last name than ours. I wondered if wistfulness for our family of four and pride in who he has become would mingle in me the way they do when his little boy features suddenly reveal themselves in his grown-up face. At such times, I feel that flash of being “Mama” rather than “Mom.” But I really did see the beauty in his choosing a new name. I’ve learned I’m at my best when I shapeshift to match our children’s stages. When I don’t try to claim as mine these creatures we brought into the world.
Our kids’ cars circled the roundabout in front of our house and I could picture our son marrying someone who would relish the shared decision of choosing a name and making a statement about the kind of future they planned to create. As Brad and I stood arm-in-arm waving, we heard our children call out “Good night! I love you!” just as their taillights slipped from view. Oh, how I’ve loved being the Jarrell-Rourkes. No matter what we call each other.
Andrea Jarrell is the author of the award-winning memoir I’m the One Who Got Away. She hopes “the year of the woman” isn’t a passing fancy every 25 years or so.