When the Ms. Magazine blog featured a post on a feminist parenting topic that is recycled more often than plastic deli containers at my mom’s house, I dug in. Again. The post was a forthcoming dissection of the confusion and regret author Careen Shannon feels years after choosing to hyphenate her daughter’s last name.
Hyphenation. It’s a big issue. An annoyingly incessant discussion that parents who choose to hyphenate a child’s name must have over and over. And over again.
I appreciate Shannon’s honest discussion of the downsides of what felt like a logical, equitable feminist decision to name the young Shannon-Solomon, including how often her daughter is called by one of her last names, the order of the names is flipped and the two names are smooshed together. She also says it is tricky and tiresome for her daughter to fill out any forms, from standardized tests to health insurance information, because her name won’t fit in the allotted space.
These things, the little daily dramas of carrying two names can indeed become burdensome. I should know. I gave my own son two last names. When he was in a daycare co-op, he was the only kid with all those names, but by the time he got to kindergarten in a more diverse school full of liberal and multicultural parents, there were always a few other hyphenaters in this class.
I told him that, LUCKY HIM!, he got a bonus name. I underlined both last names, turned the dash into a tiny star, told him he was special for carrying forward my last name and his dad’s. He bought it all.
Several years later, in third-grade impatient handwriting, he scribbles out his first name followed by the initials of each last name, separated hastily with a hyphen. He doesn’t have the time or patience or concern to write out both last names fully anymore. And because there is another boy in the class with the same first name, he’s bound to writing the rest whether he likes it or not. The funny thing is, the other kids in the class and the teacher shrink down his last initial to just one. Where he might be called James R-K, he would simply be James R (not his name). He didn’t ask for that, didn’t insist on something rushed, but also doesn’t seem to care or even notice the last-last name initial is missing.
In fact, he’s never questioned why he has two names, why other kids only have one.
“Oh,” he’s said sweetly a few times over the school years, “Grandma uses two last names! She’s special, too!” or “He’s hyphenated? Huh.”
But that’s where it ends. It is the other people who’ve been buzzing about my kid’s doubled-up byline since long before he was born. Some of my friends felt free to ask and argue about why in the world I would give my baby such clumsy full name. And when other new mothers and pregnant women I knew were defending that they’d opted to call their babies August and Ruby and Oskar and Emmeline and a new slew of old-timey first names, I was warding off the opinions and questions and heartfelt looks of genuine worry about the 7 lb, 3 oz. boy with oversized surnames.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN HE GETS MARRIED? WILL IT EVER ALL FIT ON LINED NOTEBOOK PAPER? WHAT IF HE DROPS ONE OF THE NAMES? WILL YOU BE MAD IF HE SHORTENS YOUR NAME OUT OF IT? WHAT IF? WHEN? HOW IN THE –?
I heard all of the questions, mostly in all-caps, sometimes in stage whispers like I was passing on cancer or unpasteurized milk.
My answer was always the same. First a smile. Then, “He’s smart. He will figure it out.”
And he is and he has. So far. There’s more to come. Perhaps he will take a stage name or get married or parent with another person with an equally long-lettered last name. Maybe the kid will get really pissed off at me one day and become a Smith or VanHeglund or Wojcik. One day, far in the future, we might laugh over a beer about how my last name was mistake for my first name ten times a week and he will bitch about his own surnames experiences. So be it.
My child might have to squeeze his name into too-few boxes on a form or the last three letters may get dropped over and over again on printouts and passports and credit cards. He will definitely have to spell and repeat and sound out and explain. And I know his calls into the doctor’s office to make an appointment will echo the sentences I’ve said all his life, “Rufus Rodriguez-HYPHEN-McCuddahy” (also not his name). So be that.
He’s smart. He will figure it out.
So to Careen Shannon and her hyphenated offspring, I get it. To all my friends and family and strangers and school mates and after-school activities instructors, I hear you. But the only person I am going to listen to on this subject is my last-name dashed child. And he’s not interested in saying that much about it.
Until then, rest assured that the same answer still holds. He’s smart. He will figure out.
And so can your kid. So can you.
This post originally appeared on Babble.com.