Why My Husband and I Gave Our Daughter My Last Name

pregnant mother holding daughter

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about my daughter’s last name. I was promised we’d be stopped at the border, denied entry to public school and interrogated by neighbors, colleagues and friends. That’s the whole reason she has it.

Yes, I gave my daughter my name to make a point, and I’m not sorry about it.

My parents got hitched in the ’80s. My mom kept her last name (Negroni) and made a point about it every time someone mistakenly called her by the wrong one. When telemarketers would ask for “Mrs. Schembari,” she’d say, “That’s my mother-in-law and she doesn’t live here.” She’d interrupt my friends in the middle of polite requests for snacks to say, “It’s Ms. And it’s Negroni.”

It’s not that I wished my family shared a single name, but I felt awkward every time my mom felt the need to bark it at everyone she met. We get it, you’re a feminist.

But then, in college, I had a terrible boyfriend I loved desperately and was convinced I’d marry. One afternoon in his dorm room, I casually mentioned that I planned to keep my name. “Oh no, you won’t,” he said. “If that’s your plan, then there’s no way in hell we’re getting married.”

It was my first “aha” that some people have big feelings about women keeping their names.

Thankfully, I didn’t marry my dumb college sweetheart and instead married Elliot Speed, a kind, chill guy whose masculinity isn’t threatened by my identity. When we got married, there was no question I would stay a Schembari and he would stay a Speed. We briefly entertained the idea of changing his name, but given that he sounds like a famous racecar driver, neither of us felt particularly motivated.

The bigger question revealed itself when I got pregnant — what would our kid’s last name be? We had a three options:

Hyphenate. Schembari-Speed isn’t too bad, but I worried this solution would work only for a single generation. In my experience, someone’s name eventually gets dropped, and it’s usually the mother’s. (Case in point: I’m technically Marian Schembari Negroni, but you don’t see that mouthful on my byline, do you?)

Come up with a new last name. Speederoni? Schmeed? While this option seemed the most egalitarian, for us it came down to a simple truth: We both loved our names and didn’t want to change them, even for something new and meaningful to us.

Which brings me to option number three…

Pick me. Here is the truth of it. I’m angry. It’s 2022. Why, in heterosexual couples, is giving a child their father’s name still the popular default? I asked a few straight friends why they didn’t pass on their names, and the answers ranged from “It literally never occurred to me” to “No way my husband would agree to that” to “My mother-in-law would kill me.” So many wonderful, balanced relationships that still revolve around the husband in this way.

I wanted us to be different. Our daughter came from my body. I grew her for nine months through back pain and sleepless nights and swollen feet the size of pancakes. Then I labored for 48 hours before receiving a three-inch incision along my abdomen, which I will carry with me forever. For two years, I fed her from myself, leaking through breast pads I kept stashed around the house like secret snacks. If I had to choose which one of us deserved to pass on their name, it would be me.

And why not me? We adore my husband but he not the sun my daughter and I revolve around. (He, for the record, was also thrilled for me to pass on my name.) His history does not matter more than mine. It is precisely that history — centuries of women’s names and identities being sacrificed at the altar of their families — that made me want to do it differently. I see now that my mother’s constant corrections were her own small act of resistance.

So, here I am, thirty-odd years later, having finally completed the transformation into my mother — waiting eagerly for the day I can say to the doctor or the gate agent or the school admin: “No. Her name is mine.”

Marian Schembari is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and daughter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She grew up in an Italian/Puerto Rican family and has lived all over the world. She has also written for Cup of Jo about getting diagnosed with autism as an adult.

P.S. Hyphenating your child’s last name, and would you name your baby after a fictional character or a place?

(Photo by Padillarigau Mumsonfilm/Stocksy.)

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