We Gave Our Son His Own Last Name

This article was posted today on Role/Reboot, a fantastic site that looks at how gender is performed and how it can be shaken up.

We Gave Our Son His Own Last Name

By Courtney Sieloff

June 07, 2012

To instill a sense of independence in their son and to prove to him how much his parents valued their autonomy, Courtney Sieloff and her husband combined their last names and created a brand new surname for their son.

Picking a first name for a new child can be a fun, silly, serious, and important task for new parents. Picking a last name can be just as challenging, particularly when the parents do not share the same last name. My husband Luke and I had our first child in March, a huge, healthy son weighing in at 9lbs 13oz. Since I was convinced I was having a daughter, this post-birth discovery was a genuine surprise. Luckily, we had already determined names we liked for either a boy or a girl baby, tucked safely in our protected shared spreadsheet.

“Let’s just list all of the names we like, and then we can rank them and then re-rank them according to this point system I developed.” This is what I get for marrying a data nerd.

I’m sure many parents had the exact conversations we had—what does each name mean, what does it rhyme with, and of course, “I knew a kid with that name, and I couldn’t stand that kid.” After much wrangling and negotiation, we determined our favorite first and middle names.

What we easily agreed upon was our future kid’s last name. Before our wedding, our friends jokingly combined our last names—Sieloff and Peterson—into just Peterloff, in the style of many celebrity couples. This combination of our surnames worked so well as a functional word that we decided we would use that amalgamation as our son’s legal last name.

Following Baby Teddy’s birth, we filled out all of the forms that registered him as our son, including a birth certificate application; we named him “Peterloff” and hoped for the best. Whether this was actually allowed was beyond me; after all, I had heard that Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigrosa had combined his and his (now-ex-) wife’s name to form a new family name, so I assumed I could do something similar.

A week later, the hospital called, asking us to “fix” the forms. We had to make two trips to The D.C. Department of Vital Records to confirm our married status and our purposeful decision to give our son a combined surname. After a few trips bouncing between the hospital’s records office and various local government offices, we received his updated birth certificate listing Peterloff as his legal last name. Shortly after, his social security card and health insurance card arrived bearing the same last name, putting him on the grid and making our choice official.

When we decided to expand our family, combining our last names to create a new family name for our children just felt right for us. It was both a logical and emotional solution to a naming convention that tends to favor a patriarchal system that I have already partially rejected by keeping my own last name (yes it is my father’s last name, but these things have to start somewhere). Neither my husband nor I wanted to give away our names, as we both felt too connected to our own names and our own family histories. We also wanted to recognize that our child belonged to and would be loved by us both. Like his little feet, which already show signs of my silly width and his dad’s weird toes (poor kid), we wanted his last name to demonstrate his relationship to both me and his father. This new name would reflect where we both came from and our joint hopes for his future.

We could have considered hyphenating our names, but as a data expert, my husband knew this causes issues in many databases, and we both thought that our combined name would just be unwieldy for a child and unsustainable. This also does not address what our child may want to do should he find a partner and want to have children some day. Plus, Luke’s bigger concern was that he saw it as a matter of fairness—he was concerned that he may feel a lack of connection had our son not shared his last name, but he also realized I may feel the same.

Independence is a powerful thing, and has been a great source of energy in my 10-year relationship with my husband. This shared respect for each other’s autonomy is an important piece of what makes us work, and we hope our son will grow to be independent and brave in his life choices. We hope this gift of a new family name serves as a reminder to our son of the value we place in independence. This is also why we decided that, unlike Mayor Villariagrosa, we did not want to change our own names to the same last name.

The reaction to this decision has been mixed—some family members ignore this, just like they often address me by my husband’s last name, despite that I have never used that name. Many of our friends thought I was kidding about combining our last names, but I worked to have the paperwork to prove that Peterloff is my son’s legal last name. Several friends were concerned this might create an issue at schools or for travel but like many divorced couples, remarried couples, and gay couples, we will just navigate this as we go. My mother uses her birth name following a divorce from my father, so she and I have different last names and this has had no impact on my relationship with either parent. Thus far, the institutions in Teddy’s life—daycare and the pediatrician—seem not to be impacted, and they are well aware that we are Teddy’s parents.

My son has my nose and is tending towards Luke’s height, and we both hope he will develop our shared passions for reading, music, and travel. We also know that he will cultivate interests that neither of us have, which is fine with us. Identity is a powerful thing, and we want Teddy to identify with us both as his family, but also to recognize that he has to make his own way in the world as well. Perhaps this action will help to add credibility to the notion that a family does not have to look or be a specific way to still be a family, and a name cannot be the only indicator that there are ties among a couple or a group who select to live together with the familial bonds.

New mom Courtney Sieloff is Sr. Vice President at digital strategy consulting firm Revolution Messaging and has a master’s degree in women’s studies. A knitter and food nerd, she now spends her time learning the nursery rhymes she never learned as a child and convincing her dog that she’s also number one. She lives in Washington D.C. with her husband Luke Peterson and son Teddy Peterloff. Follow her on Twitter @cksieloff.