Calgary·First Person

I wish my kids had my name

Women have made strides in many arenas and now it’s time for this automatic assumption of husband’s and father’s names to be rethought, says Calgary writer Leslie Gavel.

If this seems like hubris or arrogance on my part, you might want to ask why we don’t say the same of men

Leslie Gavel with her daughters Tess (left) and Lucy. Gavel says, now that they are grown up, she regrets agreeing to give her daughters her husband's last name. (Courtesy Leslie Gavel)

This First Person article is the experience of Leslie Gavel, a Calgary writer and parent. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

My kids are no longer kids, but women, aged 33 and 29.

Lately I find myself regretting they don't have my family name — how I hate the term "maiden name," having never thought of myself as a maiden. The one I kept when I got married 36 years ago. The one that is always pronounced as Gavel rather than Gayvel, even by my closest friends, because it reads just like the small mallet a judge uses. 

I think my dad, a loving, involved parent, dying two years ago provoked this longing. That, and knowing that this lineage of my name will end with me.

I have two sisters. One of them remains Gavel, but her daughters like mine have their dad's name. It's the same with every other kid I have ever known whose mom kept her name (with the exception of one young couple whose one son has his mom's last name).

I know, it's still my dad's name, but at least it reflects 50 per cent of my ethnic inheritance, compared to the zero percent reflected by my husband's name. And I've had it my entire life — I'm used to saying, "No, it's not Gable. It's G-A-V as in Victor-E-L."

Changing my name felt like I would be erasing my identity and at no point did I consider doing it. 

A transfer of property

The tradition of a woman changing her name to match her husband's has its origins in the time when a wedding was, in effect, a transfer of property. A bride ceased being her family's property and became the property of her husband. She became one of his possessions.

When viewed in this light it's hard to understand why a woman would change her name except in the most exceptional circumstances (maybe an abusive or absent father that a woman wanted to distance herself from). 

The Maclean's 2017 Canada Project survey found that more than half of Canadian millennials and gen-Xers believe a married couple should share the same name (99 per cent thought it should be the man's), while only 44 per cent of boomers did. Both of these numbers seem higher than you would expect.

It's a limited sample, I realize, but all of my kids' married friends have changed their last names. This is an interesting return to tradition or, depending on how you look at it, lack of progress. 

These numbers track attitudes, but actual recent naming practices are hard to pin down.

A 2017 Huffington Post article references a 2009 study that found that, within two years of marriage, 82 per cent of women in Canada had changed their names. Although it should be pointed out that this study was conducted by an online service that helps brides with their name changes.

A strong cultural norm

It's safe to say that name changing upon marriage is still a strong cultural norm in most of the western world, although the province of Quebec is an exception. Since 1981 women in Quebec have not had the option of changing their name.

A woman naming her children after herself is a whole other story. But of course, this practice too has been formed by entrenched beliefs. 

I clearly recall the conversation with my husband in 1987, when I was pregnant with our oldest.

I floated the idea that if we had a girl, she would be Gavel, if we had a boy, he would take my husband's last name. Hyphenating seemed too cumbersome.

How perfectly simple, I thought to myself, and was rather pleased with the logic of my solution. Even allowing him to have his sons assume his name and likely pass it on. 

He responded by telling me that his parents had struggled to understand why I had kept my family name — more than one birthday card arrived in the mail addressed to someone with my first name and my husband's last name — and this would be just too hard for them to wrap their minds around. He offered me free rein over first and second names.

I thought to myself that he never asked for much and I could do this for him. But an infant having his last name is very different from a grown woman, and my feelings have changed. 

I now see what a big ask it was to give our kids his name. 

Tradition still reigns

I was lamenting to a friend the other day — her kids also carry her husband's last name — and she told me that in 1988 I didn't have the option; that babies were automatically, by law, given their father's last name.

This made me feel better, but was it true? Hours of research later, getting help from the university law library, I could find nothing to substantiate this. My friend got it wrong and now I have nothing to assuage my yearning.   

Tradition seems to reign about 96 per cent of the time in Canada, but married parents in Alberta are legally able to give their baby either the mother's or father's family name, or hyphenate both names, or give them any other name that the parents agree to. 

What was my end game?

If my girls had my name, and if they got married, and if they kept it, and if they had children, and if they married a progressive guy, they could perpetuate it. That's a hell of a lot of "ifs."

But that ship has sailed — it would be unfair to ask for a name change at this point in their lives. One of my kids has Gavel as a middle name, my second one has her maternal grandparents' family name. It's small consolation. And if this seems like hubris or arrogance on my part, you might want to ask why we don't say the same of men. 

This patriarchal practice infuriates me. Women have made strides in many arenas and now it's time for this automatic assumption of husband's and father's names to be rethought. It's one of the last socially acceptable, casual acts of sexism.


Leslie Gavel is the author of 'Dropout: How School Is Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It'. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, Canadian Living, Today's Parent, Avenue, and several Canadian and American newspapers.


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