Children of the Hyphens, the Next Generation

A version of this article was originally published November 23, 2011 in The New York Times

When my parents married in 1977, women’s liberation was in full swing and my mother was a consciousness-raiser. She was about as likely to take my father’s name as she was to sport a veil at the wedding. She would remain Ms. Tuhus. Nine months later, the surname for their new baby (me) was self-evident. My parents yoked their names into a new one: Tuhus-Dubrow.

“I knew that was the best I could do,” my father told me. “As opposed to just Tuhus.”

Other parents, albeit a small minority, had the same idea. By the mid-1970s more women were keeping their maiden names, so hyphenating the names of the children seemed like the next logical raspberry to blow at the patriarchy, a stand against the family’s historical swallowing up of women’s identity.

Hyphenation has other pluses. The invented names are distinctive; I’ve never come across a Tuhus-Dubrow outside my immediate family. The inconveniences — blank stares, egregious misspellings — are outweighed by the blessing of never having to worry about a Google doppelgänger.

The problem, of course, is that this naming practice is unsustainable. (Growing up, I constantly fielded the question, “What will you do if you marry someone else with two last names? Will your kids have four names?”) Like many of the baby boomers’ utopian impulses, it eventually had to run up against practical constraints.

I don’t have children yet, but plenty of others in my cohort — the first in which nontrivial numbers were born hyphenated — do. And reproducing while hyphenated brings inevitable quandaries. I was curious to see how my peers have handled them. So I asked around. What I found was a whole gamut of solutions. The name-blending pioneers now have grandchildren whose names embody an intriguing mix of the traditional and the maverick.

I encountered several women who kept their own hyphenated names when they married, but gave their children the father’s surname. This scenario seems to deviate the least from the mainstream: after all, many other women with single surnames do the same.

Zoe Segal-Reichlin, 33, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood in New York, was typical in her approach to naming her son, now 10 months old. She said she flirted with alternatives: hyphenating three names, picking either Segal or Reichlin to link with her husband’s name. But ultimately, none felt quite right, and going with the father’s name won out as the most practical choice.

“It was the best of bad options,” she told me.

Same-sex couples face their own quandaries, since there is no tradition to follow. Cora Jeyadame (née Stubbs-Dame), 37, a first-grade teacher in Newton, Mass., was determined to share a name with her child, and to think ahead more than her own parents had.

“It’s a one-generation solution,” she said of hyphenation. She and her wife, whose surname was Jeyapalan, spliced their names together into an entirely new, hyphenless amalgam.

How did they decide on the name? “I actually put it out on Facebook,” she said: “ ‘I challenge you to come up with good combinations.’ ” The winning entry, Jeyadame, is the legal surname of Cora and her 4-month-old; her wife uses it socially.

Naming decisions raise novel questions for hyphenated men. There is little precedent of husbands changing their names at marriage or giving up the prerogative to pass their names on. Traditional practices grew out of a male-dominated culture and a need for simple rules. But there is another, less obvious motive: to hold men accountable for their offspring.

“How do you attach men to children?” said Laurie K. Scheuble, a senior lecturer at Pennsylvania State University who has done several studies on naming practices. Names are “a very functional and practical way” to do so.

But perhaps, in an age when men wear BabyBjorns, it is no longer always necessary. When Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, 32, an English professor who lives in Portland, Ore., married Laura Rosenbaum, he toyed with the idea of a creative synthesis.

But “Rosenpollackpelznerbaum sounded like a weapon of mass destruction,” he said. When they had a son, giving him Daniel’s last name seemed too complicated, so they gave the baby Laura’s.

Mr. Pollack-Pelzner initially worried that having a different name would arouse suspicions, leading to airport frisks and other indignities. But since his son was born, “I’ve hardly thought about it at all.” No one has ever challenged whether he is the toddler’s father: “The poor guy is cursed to look just like me.”

Nathan Lamarre-Vincent and his wife, Sarah Miller, went the opposite direction, giving their children Nathan’s hyphenated name. Mr. Lamarre-Vincent, a 34-year-old Harvard postdoctoral fellow in molecular biology, said it was a default decision: “We were both kind of go-with-the-flow,” he said, and simply hewed to tradition.

The irony is that the name is the product of his own parents’ defiance of that tradition. It is a little like following every step of an old-school Thanksgiving recipe, but starting out with a Tofurky.

In a 2002 paper, Ms. Scheuble and her husband, David R. Johnson, a Penn State professor, predicted that the importance of a family name could begin to decline. Thanks to more divorce, remarriage, same-sex unions and retention of maiden names, it is far from unusual for members of the same nuclear family to bear different surnames.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of families stick with custom. According to a 2009 study analyzing data from 2004, only 6 percent of native-born American married women had unconventional surnames (meaning they kept their birth names, hyphenated with their husbands’ names, or pulled a Hillary Rodham Clinton).

I know lots of women, including myself, who kept their birth names at marriage. But according to my anecdotal observations, which others seconded, rates of hyphenation seem to have fallen since my brother and I were born.

As Ms. Segal-Reichlin said, “At the time I think they thought they were going to be the wave of the future,” but it has not panned out that way. Still, hyphenated names are not entirely a relic of the ’70s, like sideburns and lava lamps: witness the Jolie-Pitts.

Based on my conversations, the verdict on hyphenation was mixed.

“When I was young I hated it,” said Sarah Schindler-Williams, a 32-year-old lawyer in Philadelphia. “It was long, it never fit in anything. I was always Sarah Schindler-Willi.”

But most, including Ms. Schindler-Williams, eventually grew to appreciate their cumbersome monikers. Names frequently convey information about their bearers: Weinberg or O’Malley gives you a hint about the person attached to it. But conjoined names, several people mentioned, also say something extra about your parents’ egalitarian values. (Unless you are British; then it means you’re posh.)

What did our parents expect us to do when we reached this stage of our lives? They trusted it would all work out somehow. As Ms. Segal-Reichlin’s parents told her, “We figured that was your problem.”

Source: The New York Times

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