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Monday's child has my name; Tuesday's has yours

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In an attempt to pass on both last names, parents are alternating surnames for each child. (Illustration by Jeremy Herb and Amy Wang for CNS)

When Lenore Skenazy’s first son was born, she and her husband, Joe, gave him the last name Kolman—her husband’s. When her second son was born, the couple wanted to name him after her deceased father. So they did. Complete with the last name Skenazy, her maiden name.

“Everybody thinks we are a nice blended family,” says Skenazy, explaining that many people assume the children were from previous marriages.

Skenazy and her family are just one of the many couples searching for creative ways to incorporate both surnames into the family tree. In an attempt to pass down each side’s family name, some couples are going the nontraditional route and giving a different last name to each child—ensuring the name stays in the family but also leading to the confusion of having siblings and parents with different names.

“People have a greater awareness of names, and their power,” says Suelain Moy, author of “Names to Grow On.” “They’re wondering, ‘What does our personal history mean? What kind of legacy do I want to give to my children?,’” She added that people are willing to play with naming traditions and standards in a way that would have been unthinkable a few generations back.

“Nontraditional last names are on the rise, “ agrees Kelly Utt-Grubb, founder of Name Counsel (http://familynaming.com), an organization that helps couples choose last names. “A lot of people think it is the most equitable way to represent both parents.”

While some people choose to combine last names—for example Long and Smith can become Longsmith—those who choose to alternate names often have a strong sense of heritage connected to the name and do not want it to be underrepresented, explains Utt-Grubb, who chose to hyphenate her and her husband’s last names when they got married.

“I was game for Kolazy,” said Skenazy, a combination of her name and Kolman, her husband’s. “We could have been the Krazy Kolazys.”

Her husband wasn’t a fan.

With the fluidity of marriage and family, a last name may not be the best representative of whose sitting around the dinner table. “Nobody is particularly surprised now a days that a family has more than one last name,” says Perri Klass (her maiden name), who alternated between her and her husband’s name for her three children. Klass said they did because it seemed logical and not to make a statement.

“The truth is that as your children grow up, by the time they are in fourth or fifth or sixth grade in most situations and communities, families have gotten step-siblings,” says Klass, an author and pediatrician. “I don’t think ours was by any means a particular complicated one.”

Cherie Koller, who added her husband’s name Fox when she got married, made her decision to attach her name to her daughter, not as a feminist but as a mother. “I would not have been part of my own family,” says Koller-Fox, explaining that she would have been the only one to have a different name in the family. Her two sons are named Fox while her daughter has the name Koller-Fox.

While those who wanted egalitarianism in the past may have chosen to hyphenate, Utt-Grub says that anecdotal evidence has shown this to be on the decline. A 2004 study from Harvard University demonstrated that the percentage of women who kept their own names has declined from 23 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000.

“You have to fill out forms and there are only so many squares,” says Skenazy, joking about the inconvenience of hyphenating.

“We didn’t want to have to deal with a very long last name,” agrees Ariela Migdal, whose two young children have different last names and who is planning to continue alternating in the future.

“I initially wanted us all to have the same last name—my last name,” she said. But when her husband didn’t want to give up his name they agreed to switch off for the children giving their eldest daughter her last name.

“I think we were going to flip a coin but with the birth he ceded it to me,” she said.

And while doctors’ offices may never have the right files or Parent-Teacher conferences may get confusing, most say the mix-ups are not a bother.

“Some people don’t put it together right away but once we tell them we are siblings they say ‘of course you’re brother and sister,’” says Leora Koller-Fox, 25.

But for Tamara Johnston, growing up with the last name Lunareo while her younger brother was Clement was frustrating. She recalls being jealous when teachers would recognize others students as having siblings in the school or the kids who would be known as one of the Jones brothers or Smith sisters.

“I felt like we didn’t have that connection,” says Johnston, adding that the different names often felt like an invisible dividing lines.

“It’s really obvious that Clements were the boys and Lunareo were the girls,” she says. “It felt like two different sides.”

Because of this Johnston insisted that her family have one name when she got married and so she took her husband’s name, as have their four children.

And what will this generation of children choose to do?

“Everyone asks me ‘what what will you do when you get married?’” says Leora Koller-Fox, laughing. “I will cross that bridge when I come to it.”

E-mail: sgb2115@columbia.edu