There was never any question I would keep my name if I married. I grew up in the 70’s, an ardent feminist from girlhood, clutching Ms. Magazine and affronted at the very idea of “taking” someone else’s name. The person I loved would never expect me to relinquish a crucial aspect of my identity. And he didn’t, of course.
It’s not that I love Klotz as a mellifluous name. As a child, I tired of the inevitable “blood clots” teasing and having people call me “Klutz,” but this is part of childhood, part of people looking for our vulnerabilities and torturing us. But even in the midst of middle school shenanigans, I understood that I’m a John Proctor kind of girl--at the very end of The Crucible, he cannot, even to save his own life, sign his name to a lie. He exclaims:
“Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”
Proctor’s passionate declaration of integrity, his heroism in choosing what is right over what is easy is bound up in his identity. He dies, of course, but he dies because he will not pretend or live a lie. His name represents his self.
My father was the only son of an only son. Our brother was my father’s only son. Some months after my brother died in 1975, I found my father weeping. It was a strange moment. I didn’t want to comfort my dad; I was too too numb with grief myself, but in the conversation, my dad shared how sad he was that his name, his line, would die with him. I said, “You have me, Daddy. I’m a Klotz, too, and I always will be.”
He smiled, but I knew, even at fifteen, what I offered was insufficient; I was a girl; the name would not continue.
And it didn’t. Once married, my husband, Seth, and I flirted briefly with hyphenation, we feared combining Klotz, my surname, with my husband’s surname, Orbach, would result in our children having a name that sounded like Clorox.
Though I remain committed to my own name, both personally and professionally, when we had children, I wanted them to have my husband’s last name. I can trace my lineage on both sides back many generations. In Seth’s family, pogroms and the Holocaust annihilated too many relatives. It seemed right to me that our kids carry his name forward—so many bearing his name, his mother’s family name, had been lost.
Here are the times I’ve regretted or questioned my choice. In the hospital, when our first daughter was born, the nurse would not allow Seth to bring her to me because her wristband said Baby Klotz, not Baby Orbach. We had to wait for a patient nurse to retrieve her as I woke, groggy, from anesthesia. Even half out of it, I was angry—I understood the need for safety and security, but we had filled out millions of forms—couldn’t someone have figured out that Seth really was her father? I felt indignant that my wristband was an obstacle right at the start of our parenting adventures.
When we fly as a family, still in 2017, there are snarls because I have a different name. Even recently, I was questioned at the United counter—of course it was United. The clerk was not so sure I could check in my son since our names were different. I was wild—tense anyway about missing the flight and furious that my motherhood was insufficient to vouch for my twelve year old son, who does not need his own ID to fly with me. To my son’s horror, I lost it, offering a feminist diatribe to the clerk who claimed only to be doing his job. “And that is what I am doing, too,” I fumed, “doing my job, raising my son, keeping my own name, educating you that I have every right to take this child with me wherever I want to go…I want to see your supervisor right now!” The thing, as we say, may not have been the thing. In fact, I was spoiling for a fight. I was anxious about not missing the plane and I’ve waited too long for the world to get in line. Fortunately, the supervisor, alerted by my raised voice, smiled calmly and informed the clerk, “The lady’s right—their names don’t need to match. Have a nice flight, ma’am.”
As we walked towards the TSA line, I knew I had embarrassed my son; I had made a scene—and it was uncalled for, too dramatic. What exactly unhinged me? Having my rights as a mother questioned? Or having to defend my choice, once again, to keep my own name? Or the forces of the patriarchy? Or a tense afternoon at work followed by air travel? I did not behave well with the clerk, and I felt ashamed that I wasn’t patient, courteous, calm. Later, Atticus, my boy, told his father, “Mom was crazy at the United counter, Dad. She really doesn't like when people mess with her about her name being different from ours.” Busted. It’s not just my own name; it’s that my name is different from the name that the rest of them carry. Sometimes, a small angry part of me feels they are wearing matching t-shirts and mine is different. The Sesame Street lyric: “One of these things is not like the other.” No, she isn’t and she doesn’t want to be—most of the time.
Long ago in an English classroom in a girls’ school in NYC, one of my tenth graders asked my why my husband and I had different names.
“Why should we?” I asked, buying time.
“Well, he must not love you very much if he didn’t make you change your name. My mother has been married three times, and each of her husbands made her change her name.”
“Well—I—um…you know,” I faltered, aware of sixteen sets of eyes fixed on me. “What’s great is that we can make choices. I chose to keep my name and my husband never would have considered asking me to change it. That’s how we love each other. But some people want to have the whole family have the same name, so the mom—most often it’s the mom, but not always—changes her name. Some women don’t want to carry their fathers’ names, so they choose a new name all together—like Judy Chicago. She’s an amazing artist. Some women prefer the sound of their husbands’ names, so they are happy to change their name—there are lots of possibilities, so be careful not to make assumptions.”
Sermon concluded, we went back to class. I suspect most of the girls have forgotten my rant, my fierce desire to inspire in them the courage to do what they wanted to do.
I rail at being called Mrs. Orbach. Our culture insists that women of a certain age accompanied by children be called Mrs. I have never been a Mrs., but once we had children with Orbach as their surname, people assumed I must be Mrs. Orbach. Correcting people sounds pedantic, even righteous, and wearies me. Sometimes, I go with the flow in order not to embarrass my own children and the person choosing convention over my preference, but when I am silent, I feel like an imposter, as if I am passing as something I reject. I do not want to be Mrs. Orbach. I want to be who I am with the title I have chosen: Ms. Klotz.
Last week, a former student of mine, newly married and thinking about babies, reached out to me on Facebook:
Hey AVK, I'm having some serious internal battles with changing my name. My mom never did and she regretted not naming us with her last name. My husband doesn't mind if I change my name- he knows I'm struggling. The newest conversation is around when we have babies, whose name will they take? Mine or his-- assuming I don't change mine?
And suddenly, it all swam up again—that moment in the classroom with the tenth grade girl, the encounter with the airline clerk, my dad crying about his son, my identity as a feminist, my frustration that we have not come very far as a culture.
Long ago, my mother explained that the polite thing to do is to ask someone what he or she wants to be called. If an older person says, “Please call me by my first name,” you do it, even if it makes you uncomfortable. If someone is a doctor, you use his or her title—hard work went into acquiring that degree. A person, in my mother’s worldview, gets to choose his or her article, his or her last name, and you, out of respect and courtesy, ask and then uphold that person’s choice. When we follow Mom’s protocol, dignity, power and choice remain with person being named. When we assume, we can make mistakes.
I wrote back to my student and said I needed a little time to think about her questions. I have no wisdom, but I understand more about my dad’s sorrow. It is lonesome to be the only one, infuriating not to have people respect my choice. Culture shifts much more slowly than we hope.
Names matter. “Call me Ishmael.” Call me Ms. Klotz. Call me Ann. Let me decide.