What’s in a name?

I grew up different in a community that wasn’t very open to it. Part of my difference was my name – specifically my last name.
While some friends have commented over the years how much they like it, it has never been a name I liked. It’s very Canadianized, lacking any of the fun of a more Persian pronunciation. It’s repetitive, with a baby or motor-like jerkiness (buh-buh-buh). It doesn’t sound like poetry, the way other weird long last names do. I’d take a Malakovsky or Taherzadeh for sure. But Bahbahani never felt like something I liked.

Add to this: the tedious rituals that anyone who’s grown up with a different name has endured.

  • The long pause as a class list is read
  • Spelling your name constantly, wherever you go
  • Being teased

It gets old.

I had a fascination with families growing up. The magic of a family unit – parents and children – who had their own rituals, culture, jokes and secrets. Part of this mystery was sharing the same last name, so you could refer to a family with a single word: “the Smiths, the Lattas and the Lagunovs.” I knew that if and when I had a family, I wanted us to share the same last name.

Had I married in my early 20s, adopting another last name might have been simple. I hadn’t done much by that point with my last name; and I hadn’t developed any real love for my name.

Swing ahead to my mid-30s, and I’m getting married. The option for a new last name is much more civilized: Milligan. However, I’ve been living and thriving with Bahbahani for a while. My new husband is determined that we will share a last name, for reasons similar to my own. He offers to take Bahbahani. I do not accept. I can’t burden someone else with this name. Would he really take it? And: is that something I want to put my children through?

We consider other possibilities. Joining our names: Bahbahgan or Millihani? No. Hyphenation: the juxtaposition of Bahbahani-Milligan? No. And it won’t fit on forms. And how would a child spell it? Come up with a new name? Theoretically cool, but I’d rather stick with a name that has some family heritage. So I say, I’ll take Milligan.

Except I don’t, at first. Because my name, which I used to dislike quite a bit, has become part of me. It’s part of my accomplishments. Publications. Part of an identity of action on issues of diversity and inclusion. Proof of my diversity, if it is needed. And something different and funky.

And then we have a baby. I still am Bahbahani. We talk about last names, and I feel quite firm: Bahbahani was a burden to grow up with. Given the choice, my child will be Milligan. At least she won’t have to spell it for other people! As long as my cultural heritage is represented elsewhere in her name, that’s fine.

So now we are here with a 3 year old, and I’ve been trying to live with 2 names. Milligan for family life, Bahbahani for work. But it doesn’t work. The paperwork, the endless documents with multiple agencies, the online purchase forms where the name on the ticket has to match the name on the credit card, having the same signature on different documents which need to match the name … it is exhausting, and requires an extra dose of work. I decided to go for it: I’m a Milligan.

And yet again, letting go of Bahbahani is hard. Far harder than I thought, far harder than it would have been 15 years ago. The act of taking my husband’s name officially, in all areas of my life, while I would have done it without thinking when younger, is no longer simple. Though I realize full well that he would have switched, thus meaning that a name change should not be a representation of the power dynamics in our relationship, the choice to change my name,as a woman, reminds me of how power inequities work. If he changes his last name, he is praised as a confident, enlightened man. If I change my name, at the age I am, the choice is invisible (of course women change their names), analyzed (why is she changing it now? Has she considered the professional/ personal/ etc. implications?) or criticized (I’m abdicating the feminist cause – and what does that mean for how I am perceived professionally, given that the work I do involves speaking up on issues of equity and justice?). Changing my last name is a losing proposition.

So is keeping it. If I don’t change, I’m sacrificing aspects of family identity for the sake of individuality and putting career ahead of family, both things women shouldn’t do. And besides, if I keep my name, I am not doing something that matters to both me and my husband.

In other words, I realized that at this point, there is no good solution.

Husband and I have talked. He is still willing to consider switching to Bahbahani. But now, our daughter is part of the equation. If we switch back to Bahbahani, she’ll have a messy trail of names and documents to follow throughout her life (why does your name not match your birth certificate???). Not to mention, both of us will have to spend days, weeks, changing every single document and account. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And as I set up my own business, look at websites and LinkedIn profiles and business cards, here it comes again: what is my last name? Can I make two names fly? Do I go for it? Do I not? How can I live with myself either way?

And fyi, I still get asked how to spell Milligan, nearly every time.

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