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Maverick Matronymics

As a little girl, I heard a lot about the Schottensteins. Now known for their go-figure underwriting of both a Talmud and the Ohio State football stadium, they’d made their fortune with an eponymous department store. My grandmother was a Schottenstein and, growing up, I would shamelessly drop the name in a knowing crowd and enjoy the gasps of recognition and admiration. My grandmother and I were proud to be part of the team—our own little Kennedys—even as our connection with the Schottenstein dynasty was gradually disappearing with each new generation.

As a teen, my attention turned to my own name. My grandmother Schottenstein had married a Newberger and had four grandchildren, only one of them a boy. I did my genealogical math. Unless he was going to have sons, the Newberger name—my name—would disappear. This potential loss nagged at me, but it never occurred to me that I myself could do anything to halt it.

As my political consciousness grew, so did my discomfort with our culture’s default patrilineal naming scheme. Why were feminist mothers who kept their own names after marriage unquestioningly giving their children the father’s last name—or, at least, why wasn’t this at least a conversation the expectant parents were having? No one could defend this, but everyone bought into it. No one I knew was really second-guessing the status quo—and these were women and men who second-guessed everything. I wanted to do things a little differently.

My point was that both parents’ names represent equally legitimate choices. I thought this choice should be made as routinely as women now decide whether to keep their maiden names after marriage. So, as my relationship with my then-boyfriend- now-husband grew more serious, I brought up what I assumed would be a delicate topic. Without missing a beat, he agreed that our child could have my last name. What an enlightened, sympathetic person!

But it turns out that naming is a family affair. In my seventh month of pregnancy, my wonderful in-laws and parents got wind of our plans and launched a full-frontal attack. My husband’s parents understood the socio-political implications of our decision but nevertheless felt rejected by the thought that their grandchild would not carry their last name. There were intimations that my husband did not love his parents if he did not honor them by bestowing their surname on his progeny. His mother suggested that people would think her son “had no balls.” (She was not responsive to the argument that, on the contrary, he would indeed be doing a very ballsy thing.) My husband began to suggest alternative options. One choice was to give our child a hyphenated combination of both of our last names. Never mind that Newberger-Schapiro would sound like a law firm; this fabricated name would actually be neither his nor my name. I felt confused and insulted that a name that belonged to nobody would have more legitimacy than my actual name. A more oddball suggestion was that we give our child my husband’s last name on the birth certificate but then change it in several years if we were unhappy with the decision. I dissented.

My mother, ardent feminist and successful businesswoman, sided with my in-laws. She was concerned with keeping peace in the family, but she also thought this was a silly issue on which to make a grand statement. Confident that they would back me up, I challenged my mother to discuss the naming crisis with her closest friends—all ardent feminists. Shockingly, all of my mother’s friends agreed with her! And, although it was his name which would be preserved, my father also advised against Newberger, even as he advocated for my right to make this decision.

Unexpectedly, my strongest backers came from the least likely quarter—the secretaries in my New Jersey office. High-school graduates, not particularly career-oriented, often still living with their parents and hoping to find a male executive to take them away from it all, they would give me pep talks and encourage me with “You go. Girl” high-fives. Stressed from my self-imposed ordeal, I wept it all out one day in my obstetrician’s office. It turned out that the other female partner in the practice had given her last name to her children, with her husband’s blessing. I wasn’t a freak!

In the end, my husband and I reached a compromise. Our daughter would have my last name, but her middle name would be my husband’s last name, with future children’s names open for negotiation. (This is where I have to second-guess my own old fashioned ways. Shouldn’t siblings have the same last names?).

Galia’s birth announcement was a 4-generation family tree, complete with maiden names of her great-great grandparents. I hope she is a proud descendent of all 16.

Tamar Newberger is a sales and marketing director at a software company.