There are grey areas in nearly everything.
A friend was recently confused by my stance on last names. Yes, I did swear the Renunciates’ Oath, which means I’m not taking any man’s name and would in fact like to get out from under it. I could maybe become known as the daughter of my mother using an Old Norse byname. It wouldn’t be too clunky if I used her nickname. On the other hand, there are expectations of a woman in this society that mean I’d be answering endless questions — so I suspect I’ll compromise and just pluck a byname out of thin air.
And yes, I’d pay for the name change of any natural child of mine, if there were a greater-than-zero probability of one being born.
And no, I don’t think people should have to track a child’s identity through their parents’ last names. Am I less a parent if I adopt a child who has, for years, formed their identity around a last name not mine — and do not force that child to change? No. I’m treating that child as a person. What about foster situations? That child will certainly not have my name, yet I’ll be as responsible as if they did. So if I ever take on a child, yes, I will get the whose-mother-are-you? face from a lot of people.
Family identity in general is thorny for me, though.
On one side it’s all tremendously clear-cut: my mother had two parents who were married to each other, who could say the same of theirs, and so on back. If we’re a little perplexed about culture, at least we know the city where our family is rooted, no pun intended as many of us were gardeners and some are now greengrocers. (Yes! We have preserved our arable greenspaces in Bamberg!)
On the other…
My father had a birth father. Ray. My birth father had about seven other children, only a few of whom were entitled to his name by virtue of legitimacy. My father was not one of them. We knew only that his birth mother had borne the name Lehr at the time of her confinement — maiden or married, we couldn’t say. We gathered clues over the years, but we couldn’t have said until finally my father got his proper birth certificate.
Then we had a name for her, and a lineage. Then we had her story.
Turns out she was married twice. At the end of her first marriage, perhaps in the early days of her second or during her engagement, she met and liaised with Ray. My father was conceived in July 1950 or thereabouts; maybe he was early, as he seems to have taken my grandmother by surprise. He was her dozenth child, and since there’s no crossover between my father’s sibling groups, he is therefore one of about twenty.
We’ll never know why she gave him up. I’m guessing her fiancé or new husband put his foot down, but she could as easily have drawn a line in the sand. She would birth her last. Like hell she’d raise him, not after so many others. She died in the seventies. Of her remaining children, none will say what they witnessed that year.
The name to which my father is most entitled is my grandmother’s maiden name. At sixty-five he’s not bothered. He already has the scars from his childhood under the name we share. I feel differently. I am not obliged to keep what to me is a symbol of mismanaged foster care and adoption, and the abuses rife within the system at the time. Even without the Oath, to embrace any of that family but my adoptive grandfather — the only decent one of the lot — would be a slap in the face to my entire ethic.
His family identity is at best fractured. I am grateful to have my mother’s side, which is less hair-raising despite the one relative who joined the Nazis chiefly for wine, women, and song and the other who wasn’t technically a Nazi but sure loved their style. The rest of my mother’s people only kept their heads down and tried to live through it. One was killed, a little conscript. My grandfather’s only brother. My grandfather survived, just.
So don’t talk to me about last names meaning anything about family identity. The family who meant anything to the three of us — my mother, my father, and me — patrilineal practice throws them right out. The people who loved us should by that tradition mean nothing, since my mother left and cleaved. Cleft? Thank God she didn’t take that one too literally.
I choose my family now.
I choose who counts and who doesn’t. I choose by love, not last names. I have no husband. I will take no husband who demands I violate my oath. (I cannot see a wife demanding that.) I will bear no child; I don’t have to make a nuclear family. If we are ever more than two, we can decide who gets the legal ties based on who needs them most. For example, if two of us have great health insurance and the third is out of luck, one of us can choose to marry the person who needs the health insurance. If two people have children together, we do what must be done for those children. I don’t find it difficult to put the neediest first.
Would I prefer just one other person? Yes. Realistically, I have too many needs and not enough flexibility. A third or a pair of thirds would have to be absolutely perfect. Since perfect is rare, the answer is “let’s not and say we tried.” Why complicate a life I already know will be messy? I am also insecure enough to look at myself and know that I couldn’t compete with a healthier woman; eventually I’d become a burden to be left by the wayside.
I may someday choose a fellowship of lay sisters, if I reach a certain age with no prospect of marriage but a lingering need to serve my community. Or not. I might have found family in the SCA by then who’ll understand about poor health and nowhere else to go. I might even have blown my savings on a one-time medical flight home, where I can modernize the house and take in student boarders to pay off those bills. Imagine spending my old age with my cousin Julia after all! We were children together and we could be biddies together too.
If it were marriage and children or nothing, I would be setting myself up for a sore disappointment indeed. But it’s more than that. It’s more than romance, too. It’s plain and simple love, and that’s where I’m called by every faith I find. To love others as I love myself.