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I Took My Wife’s Last Name and Am Happy I Did

"A lot of men want to stay with the tradition, but you know, you have to give and take."

In the 1970s, it became common practice for couples to hyphenate the last names of their children. This was as much a personal decision as it was a political one: At the time, many states had laws requiring married women to use their husband’s name to vote, take out credit, or open a bank account. By hyphenating the names of children, parents pushed back against such outdated norms to create new ones. In so doing, they also created a generation of children with unwieldy names. The hyphenate approach, while an effective quick fix, wasn’t built to last. Over the years, hyphenated kids met other hyphenated kids. Love blossomed. A generation of triple hyphenated kids waited in the wings. Parents went searching for other solutions.

The majority of wives still take their husband’s name and share it with their kids. But it’s less of a given that it once was — 20 percent of married women stick with maiden names. Though 10 percent of parents still hyphenate their children’s names, there is now a trend toward handing down maiden names. This can be an affront to traditional families looking to further the line, but with naming conventions up for grabs and many families splintered, it can provide a graceful solution to any number of familial problems or simply a strong statement. Still, it’s an unusual practice and people who make the choice often face scrutiny. Mark McVanel-Viney is getting used to it. A Canadian father, Mark uses a hyphenated name for legal purposes but goes by his wife Sarah’s maiden name, which he shares with his kids.

Here, Mark talks about why the decision to keep the McVanel name going was easy, and why tradition is about give and take.

My wife and I changed my name when we got married in 1998. My legal name is McVanel-Viney. I was brought up as Mark Viney. When Sarah and I got married, we definitely wanted to hyphenate. Traditionally, a man’s name is first and a woman’s name is second. That didn’t make sense to us. We toyed with it. We even talked about making a whole new name: McViney. Then we decided that just sounds stupid. So we went with McVanel-Viney. Where I work, I just go by Mr. McVanel. That’s my name as far as the teachers know. That’s also what students call me.

We also didn’t want to curse our kids with the hyphenated name. I have a number of students who have hyphenated names and you can just tell that they don’t feel 100 percent comfortable talking about or saying their last names. So we just said, “Let’s make them McVanel on the birth certificate.” When we went to the registry to change our name, it was more work for me than for Sarah. I had to fill out extra forms. I had to pay money. Whereas if a woman were to change her name, it’s just normal. At the time, it was just unusual.

I’m not a feminist by any means, but I teach business and equality. When I show commercials to my students, I show that most commercials today are still stereotypical. The woman does the cleaning, the men work on cars. When toy commercials come up, the boys are rough and tumble, and the girls are playing with dolls. At the time, part of me felt like it was making a bit of a change in helping women “get more.” Especially for Sarah, with all that she had been through with publishing. Then I thought, well, I don’t have a problem with it. And my father wasn’t really involved in my life. I didn’t have a strong connection to my last name.

My grandfather, my dad, and my brother didn’t come to the wedding. I didn’t feel at all obligated to continue with the name considering there wasn’t really a lot of support. So their reaction was really kind of “none.” My mom never had a brother or sister. My dad never had a brother or sister. So I never had any uncles or any aunts. So even my brother, he’s 47, and he’s not married, no kids. So our family is very tiny. If we had a big, strong, thick bloodline, of which many people had the last name, then I probably would have insisted on keeping the hyphenated name for our kids. But because there’s very little connection with the name, we just decided to change it.

I find my in-laws to be more of a family than my other parents were, especially now. These days, I’m a lot closer to them. They’ve done so much for us. I am indebted to them. By taking their last name, the whole family felt very proud. Especially when I carry the name so well. If I carried the name and had a bad reputation, I don’t think they’d be too happy about it.

My coworkers know that I have a hyphenated name, but it’s not uncommon for people to have hyphenated names. So people that I work with don’t really say “Which one was your wife’s name?” But if they ask me, yeah, I tell them I go by my wife’s name.

My kids are only 12 and 14. They grew up with the name McVanel. They haven’t quite logged into it. But we don’t make a big deal of it and neither do they. In fact, because they don’t have the Viney attached to their last name, it’s not a big deal.

A lot of men want to stay with the tradition, but you know, you have to give and take. A lot of it has to start with your values at home. It’s always been the woman stays home, and takes care of the kids. I’ve always felt that that’s ridiculous. Sarah and I are unusual. The things that we do are just not traditional. That’s what makes us a strong couple. We’re far from ordinary. We do things that are not the status quo. We do our own thing. That’s what makes us interesting.

As Told To Lizzy Francis