What’s in a Name?


Photo Credit: Ferris Kaplan

By Helen Mitternight

I have always been a Mitternight and I’ve always liked the name’s edge of danger (“Mitternacht” is midnight). There are few of us Mitternights, so I always knew the name could die out unless a whole lot of boy-children came along.

I kept the name through two marriages, despite one Southern uncle (not a Mitternight, it should be noted), who questioned my then-husband’s masculinity for “letting” me keep my own name. Lest you think that my uncle was an outlier, a gender studies scholar at the University of Indiana Bloomington says that, in couples where the woman kept her name, the man was thought to be less dominant.

Fortunately, both times, I married men secure in their masculinity. They took it better than I did when relatives would stubbornly address cards to “Mr. and Mrs. (Husband’s First Name) (Husband’s Last Name).”

My first husband, however, did feel strongly that he wanted our child to have his last name. And after years of ribbing from my relatives, I felt like I had to at least give him this one. So our daughter’s name is a compromise: Her dad’s last name and Mitternight as a middle name. It bothered me a little that my child had a different surname, but with her big brown eyes, there was no denying she was mine. When I married again, still a Mitternight, and was trying to teach my young daughter phone manners, the poor kid had to answer the phone with this mouthful: “Kaplan Mitternight Skidmore residence. Emily speaking.”

I know I’m a sadistic mama, but it still makes me laugh.

My daughter’s whole compromise name – first, middle and last – was her. The combination of those names are the whole of my beautiful daughter.

Emily is getting married this year. And she has informed me that she’s taking his last name.

As one who advocated her whole life for choice, I am stunned by my own reaction to my daughter’s decision. I find myself mourning the impending name change.

Is it because she becomes “his” if she takes his name and no longer “mine”? Is it because their children will have no nominal relationship to me? Or is it because of a general backsliding from the rights my generation fought so hard for?

Emily has pointed out to me that she has already taken a man’s name – her father’s – and that, in fact, even the name I am so smitten with is a man’s name – my own father’s.

Certainly her fiancé is a progressive young man and, if she wanted, would probably consent to some kind of hyphenated creation. But then Emily’s children would have even more of a mouthful to contend with than she did. And the point is moot, because Emily wants to take his name. She sees it as part of her larger commitment to him, and never mind my arguments that he should be equally committed and take her name.

She also points out that her name is the least of her and that she will still essentially be Emily.

Just a little less “my” Emily. And I’m left to figure out whether it’s the marriage – or the name.  

Helen Mitternight is a Charleston freelance writer and podcast producer/host. She also writes Skirt Table and Community columns. Helen has one child, an adult daughter, who complains that Helen is “inappropriately intense” in her dedication to that child.