Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hyphenated name

April, 2014

Our son Liam, 15, has a jersey he wears over his jacket to play pond hockey in the winter. On the back is spelled out “Scobacheck,” a nod to his hyphenated last name of Scobey-Polacheck. More than 20 years ago, before Liam was even a twinkle in our eyes, his dad and I got engaged and decided that when we married, we would both hyphenate our names and so would any children who might come our way. Our decision, made by a couple of 23-year-old idealists, was made with both intention and reflection, but without detailed thought to practical issues, such as the fact that a hyphenated name would be too long to fit on the back of a sports jersey.
            At the time of our marriage, I could not imagine changing my name to Polacheck. I loved the name Scobey. Something about the two syllables, the “b” in the middle and “y” at the end made it feel bouncy. Bubbly. Boppy. Happy. “Scobey” was fun, while “Polacheck” was more serious. Eastern Europe is not known for its zippy, easy-going last names.
            Unlike some couples who each retained their own names, Bill and I, both English majors with an affinity for the meaning inherent in word choice, thought a hyphenated name best represented what we wanted our marriage to be about—the joining of two lives.
            One of the most immediate gifts that hyphenation offered was experiencing the grace with which Bill’s parents accepted a decision that they didn’t agree with. The day after we announced that we would hyphenate, Bill’s mother called to tell him that she and his father thought this was not a good idea. Bill thanked her for the call, explained some of our reasons and said we were going to go forward anyway. His parents never brought it up again. In the 20 years that would follow, every letter, card and thank-you note they sent was addressed to us using our hyphenated name. Bill’s parents could have written “Mr. and Mrs. Bill Polacheck” to make a point, but they chose instead to honor our decision, and in doing so, they gave us confidence that they trusted us to do what was best for our relationship and our family, even if it would be a different choice than they would make for themselves.
            Bill and I believed that if were going to be successful at having a long and unwieldy last name, we’d need to retain both flexibility and a sense of humor. It didn’t help that I have a double first name. “Your name is Annemarie Scobey-Polacheck?” I remember a dad of one of my children’s friends saying, upon our introduction. “Are you sure that’s just one person?”  Bill pointed out that my name had the same number of syllables as John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.
            When we named our sons, we purposefully chose short, easy first names and skipped a middle name, knowing they could add a middle name at Confirmation if they chose. Our biggest complication came upon the adoption of nine-year-old Teenasia. Teenasia was a difficult first name (her name pronounced ten-asia, rather than teen-asia, as it is spelled). Bill and I stayed up late in the weeks leading to her adoption, wondering if we should take the moment of her adoption to legally change everyone’s name to Polacheck. Finally, we had our friends, Cliff and Machellé Brown, over for dinner and asked them what they thought. We thought the Browns, an African American family who had chosen uncomplicated first names for their own four children, would be able to advise us on whether it would be unfair to give Teenasia such a unusual last name on top of her difficult first name. They were incredulous.
            “What?” Cliff said, putting down his fork. “You are the Scobey-Polachecks. That’s who you are. That’s who Teenasia will be. She’ll handle it. It will be fine.”
            Teenasia herself declared her commitment to the name by proudly writing it in bubble letters on her school folders once she was adopted. She has since stated, amid Jacob’s discussion of dropping a name, that she plans to be hyphenated forever.
            Twenty years after our decision to hyphenate, I still have mixed feelings about it. Sometimes, when I tell a new person my last name, I apologetically add, “It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were very young when we got married.”  But overall, I have felt that our name suits us so well — it’s complicated, yet balanced — our very own brand. Hyphenation is our imperfect solution to a difficult question of identity, custom and why the male’s family name trumps. Each of our children will need to take their name into adulthood and make their own choices going forward. And like Bill’s parents before us, Bill and I will trust our children to follow their hearts as they make their decisions. And that’s a family tradition we’re proud to carry on.

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