What’s in a Surname?

My not quite seven year old daughter refers to my husband by his first name for the most part. To her friends and teachers he is “daddy”, however, and though I went through a phase of referring to him as “daddy” for her benefit – as well as my own – I don’t anymore at the request of my husband. He felt that the relationship he has with Kat should progress as it progresses without undue influence from me.

The other day as I lay on my flu/death bed, Kat came into the bedroom to inform me I had spelled her last name incorrectly. She had just collected her “mail” and was holding up the little note I had written to welcome her home from school. Kat loves mail. She has attached a small box to her bedroom door and instructed Rob and I to leave all mail for her there. All mail that we are expected to write her on a regular basis that is. I have to admit, Rob is far more diligent a correspondent than I am.
“I spelled it the way I always have,” I said as she held the paper out for me to see.
“But that’s not right,” she told me.
It took me a moment, but then the light went off. She expected to see Rob’s last name.

Early on in our relationship Rob and I discussed him adopting Kat though we have yet to begin the paperwork. Kat was consulted then too and assented without any fuss except for one thing – she wanted her last name to stay the same. That was fine with Rob. He believes she shouldn’t have to change her name and that she is too young to make the choice even if she expressed an interest in taking his name. 

Until the other day, Kat hasn’t had any interest in Rob’s last name.

The experts say that it takes three to five years to successfully “blend” families in second marriages. My husband thinks that families don’t blend as much as they simply get used to and grow accustomed to each other. Or not. I think that the idea of blending applies to all families regardless of their formation.

As far as family goes, our three girls – his two adult daughters and my wee one – have folded into our new unit with far less trauma than I have observed in other situations. Rob attributes it to our presenting ourselves as a united front that comes first but more so to the fact that our girls have been raised properly. I think we deserve a little credit too. We have tried to listen and accommodate and give the kids the space they needed to adjust and acknowledge that there is still adjusting to do. In any event, they have grown used to our situation much more gracefully than than some of their elders in the extended family have.

It has not always been as easy as it might appear to anyone simply peering in. All five of us came to this new family as a result of the death of a loved one and that grieving is ongoing and, with the kids especially, it will manifest over and over as they encounter the normal milestones in their lives. But we are no different from any other family in that we are five individuals with needs and wants that will not always match up perfectly.

Kat’s declaration caught me a bit off guard. I never really expected her to want to try out Rob’s last name at such a young age. As a middle school teacher, I encountered many children who used their step-father’s last name even though all their official paperwork had the name they were born with on it. Teens, and pre-teens even, are prone to identifying closely – or completely shunning – a step-parent in my experience. I didn’t think the name issue would come up before Kat was in junior high.

I know there is a sizable majority who would counsel against allowing Kat to change her last name. They would cite her age, but most would insist that her late father’s last name is something she owes him. Fortunately, this is not a decision for today. It’s not one we have to have for a long time to come. And ultimately it isn’t a “we” decision. It’s Kat’s decision. And I will honor that decision, no matter what it is.

She and I talked about it a bit and then I let the matter drop. She hasn’t brought it up again. Rob raised an eyebrow when I told him but hasn’t said anything one way or another. I don’t have to wonder what Kat’s late father would have thought. He would have hated the idea. And I wonder just how much I have to take this into account because, frankly, he’s dead. This isn’t his life; it’s his daughter’s. At this point, Rob has been her father in the active sense longer than my late husband was. Rob is the one she consciously imitates and seeks to impress. It’s his world view she will absorb before utterly rejecting it as a teenager and then re-embracing the parts of it that mesh with her own as a young adult. Being a parent is more than DNA and being someone’s daughter is more than sharing a last name, or not.



This is an original 50 Something Moms post.

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Surname?

  1. It is so interesting to hear about some of the issues you have to deal with on the blended family front. Its something I often wonder about. How would my kids take to having a father figure enter the scene: would they want to take his name? What if he had kids of his own? Would they all get along? Thanks for sharing.

  2. I agree with you, and I think these kinds of things tend to gradually unfold so that the end decision feels natural. In our case, my two remaining kids at home were older than Kat, so they have chosen to keep their last names the same. My legal name is theirs plus Arthur’s last name (no hyphen.) That makes me the blending point of the kids to Arthur, and it works for us.

    When Art’s brother talks about him to the kids he says “Your Arthur,” rather than “Your dad.” It makes us laugh! 🙂

    Kat will make the right decision for her situation, I’m sure.

  3. Cool post. I wouldn’t have thought she would bring it up so young, either. And I think you have the right approach. Let her change her name if she wants to at eighteen.

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