what’s in a name?

I came across this article, « Le nom composé en voie de disparition au Québec, » in La Presse a few days back, as we were just coming down the high of having named our second child. The article essentially says that the practice of giving children both their mother’s and father’s last names, in hyphenated form, is a dying practice in Québec (which, to my knowledge, is the only province where it’s been a relatively common and accepted one). Whereas 22% of children born in 1992 were given a hyphenated last name, this number has fallen to a mere 10% today.

(In the interest of not writing a rant, I will ignore that some of the respondents say that giving children both their parents’ names signals that they’re not committed to one another, or that it’s really quite pompous to do so.)

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. (from Nikki McClure’s ‘The first 1000 days. a baby journal.’)

As a sidenote, I had meant to write about CBC radio’s C’est la vie episode of May 24th, A maid in name again, where the host Bernard St-Laurent talks to a number of QuébécoisES new and old about the Québec law that says that women must retain their maiden names when they marry. This is contentious to some but it struck me that the equality benefits of this law, lauded by both the older interviewed women and the researchers, are incomplete if both names aren’t also automatically passed on to their children. Sociologically interesting stuff, for sure.

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I totally appreciate that this naming thing isn’t everyone’s feminist battle, that there are a number of factors that influence decision making around which names children are given, and that there are many ways for children to be rooted in both their matrilineal and patrilineal family lines. I don’t at all mean for this to be a judgement of other families’ choices and practices.

For me though, last names matter a lot.

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I started using (a slightly modified version of) my middle name, which is my grandmother’s given name, as my (non-legal) last name about a decade ago. I felt quite a bond with my maternal grandmother and I yearned to wear my matrilineage, to declare myself (first and foremost) of my mother’s line. The only downside to this was that this name — Madéia — sounds quite Portuguese, which I’m not. This, of course, isn’t a problem per se, but I had a real cultural aha! moment when I presented a membership card with my old legal patronym, — which sounds as French-Canadian as my accent (no doubt) — at our independent video store about 4 years ago. The man who was serving me read my name on the card and spoke to me en français right away, which really never happens in Ottawa — a city that might feel like a very bilingual place to some, but you certainly can’t (easily) get by with just French, nor do people assume francophonie/bilingualism in their exchanges with strangers.

I appreciated the culturo-linguistic recognition that the name afforded me and when I got pregnant, the quest for a French-Canadian legal name I liked, and would pass down, began.

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I met with a genealogist at the public library to trace back the mothers and grandmothers, women-way, of my line. It struck me how challenging this was, even for a professional. At the end of an afternoon, with a missing birth and marriage notice, we could only dig four generations back and the furthest family name we found was « Malo » — a name I hadn’t heard before and that didn’t mean anything to me or mine.

I had hoped to come out on the other side of this search with a name that felt very powerful, very rooted and rooting. I ended up with a sad feeling that the herstory of my family was lost because of patriarchal traditions and that even though it was important to both my partner and I, I could not pass this lineage down in name to our children.

I opted to legally change my family name by adding my mother’s maiden name to the mix, hyphenating the two. It was a peace offering to my family, because this name search of mine had lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. This way, there was some ‘mother line’ to my name, and I could pass on a French-Canadian matronym, however imperfect, to my offspring.

When I read articles like this one in La Presse, I am struck by how little regard the lines of women are given. These children of mine are certainly « of me » as I’ve grown them, shared my body with them, birthed them, nursed them to plumpness and loved them to bits. But why would that preclude my passing on a name? Why would this impossibly rich tie of the body negate the importance of a tying of our names? Why would the weight of my biological role as their mother need to be offset by the absence of my name in theirs? And their father, my life partner, why would he need for his name to be the only one passed on to feel confirmed in his role as a father, as a parent? If it can be deemed unimportant for a matronym to be passed on, why would fatherhood require full last naming rights? Regardless of how clunky the resulting name might be. Regardless of how important my family name is to me.

It pains me that this is still the norm.

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I am quite pleased that my children, both male, carry my name and that their two very distinct cultural backgrounds are spelled out in them. They may not be the smoothest sounding out there, but they are unique and, I hope, they will be a source of rootedness for them. And for me.

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