On Last Names
When I was in college, and far from marrying, my boyfriend and I had long debates about women and names. His last name was Friedman and he thought women ought to take their husband’s last name upon marriage. My mother did, but she and my father married at 18, right out of high-school, two years before I was born. My mother has been Albena Blagev longer than she has been anything else. My college tennis coach had recently married and had kept her name.
“Why didn’t you change your name?” I asked her, “is it because Smith is too common a name?”
“It wouldn’t have mattered what his name was,” she said, “I have had my name all my life. I knew I couldn’t just wake up one day in my thirties and be someone else.”
My college boyfriend was Jewish, which you might have guessed from his name. When people hear Denitza Blagev, they often ask if my name is Russian, which it’s not, but they’re in the vicinity. If they hear Denitza Friedman, they’d assume I was Jewish, which I’m not. It’s not that being Bulgarian is good or being Jewish is not, it’s that one reflects something about who I am and the other does not. My college Japanese language professor, Prof. Chao, introduced herself on the first day of class. “I’m Japanese,” she said, “my husband is Chinese.”
When I was getting married, it was my parents who thought I ought to change my name while my husband thought that, everything else aside, just the paperwork of getting my medical license renewed when all my diplomas and certificates were in a different name would not be worth it. “If I changed my name,” a research professor once told me, “I’d have to start over. All my articles are under my maiden name.”
My sister is getting married this fall. She lives in England, speaks with an American accent, and her fiance’s name is Stephen Brown. “Vera Brown” I thought for a minute – now’s her chance to escape all those uncomfortable questions and assumptions, to just finally blend in! But it would also be a chance to lose a part of her identity. As Jill Filipovic put it so eloquently,
My last name is “Filipovic.” People can’t spell it or pronounce it, which is a liability when your job includes writing articles under your difficult-to-spell last name, and occasionally doing television or radio hits where the host cannot figure out what to call you. It’s weird, and it’s “ethnic,” and it makes me way too easily Google-able. But Jill Filipovic is my name and my identity. Jill Smith is a different person.
I told my sister that a part of me was jealous that she could just become “Vera Brown.”
“I can see from an American perspective how that sounds very generic and catch-all.. ” she wrote, “however in Britain, “Vera” is a very old-fashioned name – post World War II it was very popular, so the only Vera’s I’ve ever met here or heard about are in their 60s. So actually “Vera Brown” would mean that I’m a 60 year-old British woman for many people here.”
With our children, we struggled to pick their first names, but there was little debate choosing their middle names. In Bulgarian tradition the middle names of children are the father’s first name with a suffix. My middle name is Pavlova, reflecting my father’s first name, Pavel. My husband worked with a trainee once whose last name was Pavlova.
“Like the dog,” she told him.
“No,” he corrected her. “Like the scientist.”
I couldn’t convince my husband that the kids’ last names should be “Blagev.” I remember my grandfather inquiring after my dad’s and mom’s ages during his last visit to see us.
“Why,” my dad asked, “to see if we can still have a boy?”
At the time, I was annoyed at the sexism, but then realized that unless I was able to name my kids “Blagev,” there’s nothing to be annoyed about. My grandfather was right – unless my dad had a son, no child would be named Blagev. And Blagev, unlike Blagoev, is an uncommon name even in Bulgaria. As far as we knew, we were the only Blagev’s in the world. My husband contended that if we named the kids “Blagev,” everyone would assume they were my ex-husband’s. He had a point. His mother, who remarried years after his father passed away, kept her married name – the name she shares with her sons. Blagev Schlegel, we settled on, and even though someone pointed out their initials would be B.S., it wasn’t enough to dissuade us.
For the first few days after their births in the hospital, our twin infants’ bassinets were labeled with identifying information on a card. “Twin A Blagev” and “Twin B Blagev,” the cards said, and I would look at those names while holding the babies thinking that, at least for the first few days of their lives, I had given my children my last name. I held them close as they breastfed, and then suddenly, so little else seemed to matter. I had gotten to carry them for nine months, I was the one who would get to breastfeed them, and somehow, letting them share their dad’s last name seemed like a small kindness on a really big day. They would be mine forever, no matter what they were called.