I was fifteen when I decided that, come hell or high water, I was keeping my last name when I got married, and that my kids would also have my last name. I was vacationing at our family cottages in Maine, and my uncle was showing my younger brother how to dig for clams. My uncle mentioned that when my brother had kids, the two of them would have to pass down the tradition of clam digging to them. “What about my kids?” I asked. “Oh, well, your kids won’t have the same last name, so they won’t really be a part of the family,” was my uncle’s response. I was devastated. My family meant everything to me, even during my tumultuous teenage years, and I couldn’t stand the thought that I’d bring my kids to the family cottages and they’d be considered different because they didn’t have that super special last name that my brother’s kids would have. I told my mother about my plan and she laughed. “The best laid plans of mice and men,” she said. “I was going to keep my last name too, and look what happened.”
Years passed, and I figured out that I was gay. In some ways, this helped my master plan; in other ways, it hindered it. I was no longer faced with a cultural narrative that demanded I take my husband’s last name because there would be no husband. At the same time, I was faced with a new set of problems. What if I fell in love with a woman who was as headstrong as I was? What if I fell in love with a woman who had built her career on her last name? What if I fell in love with a woman who had strong cultural ties to her last name—a name like Kills the Enemy, a Sioux surname that popped up in the news a few years ago? While I was aware that any rule needed properly thought out exceptions, overall I decided that this issue was so important to me that, should it be brought up at the beginning of a relationship and my partner disagreed with me, I would end the relationship.
I can’t quite place why this particular tradition has so much meaning for me. I’ve always felt very close to my father, and one of the only names I ever realistically considered changing mine to was his mother’s maiden name—the name originally associated with the family cottages in Maine. I don’t want to keep my last name because I’m a feminist—it doesn’t make sense to me to associate feminism with a name that’s been paternally passed down for centuries, although I suppose you have to start somewhere. No, the reason I want to keep my last name is more complex than that. For starters, it’s a beautiful name—in Gaelic, it means “spirit of the sea waves,” and in that way, it’s much more suited to our family’s coastal cottages than my grandmother’s maiden name ever was. It’s my tie to my clan. Our clan motto, “This I’ll Defend (Loch Sloy),” is a phrase I’ve always felt particularly close to because my family—my biological family and my friends, my chosen family—have always meant so much to me and I would do anything to defend and protect them, to care for them. It’s my tie to my family history—a history of Maine and Massachusetts, of pastors and horse thieves, of nine-year-old kings who lost their heads and strong-willed women who took scalps to prove that they had been kidnapped. A history of beaches and poorly built cottages that somehow have stood for seven generations, of lobster bakes and family reunions and swimming in cold water and fishing Oreo cookies from the ocean. It’s my tie to myself. I’ve always had this last name, and it’s a part of me. Of all the things I could pass down to my children, biological links are the least important and this name is by far the most important. I may not be biologically related to any of my children, and that’s fine with me. But they’ll have this name and that means more to me than I can describe.
Luckily for me, my fiancée has decided that she is more than comfortable taking my last name and giving my last name to our children. My spouse taking my last name was never a requirement, but I’m glad that she decided to. When I asked her why—why she felt comfortable giving up her last name, changing a part of her identity, why she was willing to do something I wasn’t—her response was simple: because it was so important to me.