Living with a Hyphen: liberation or complication?

 Tamara Heath wonders if liberation equals hyphenation – or is it just more complication?

For want of a better solution, my daughters have a hyphenated surname. And I am the first to admit the ‘double banger’ name can be more than a little annoying.

It takes careful explanation over the phone, and there is never enough space on forms. Appointments take much longer to make as harried receptionists try to find us on their systems – before realising we are filed under different letters. And goodness knows what our girls will do when they enter a lifelong commitment with a partner. Will they adopt a ‘triple banger’ surname or drop one or both of their surnames?

I try not to even think about our grandchildren.

My husband and I did discuss these issues, as part of the process of choosing a name for our eldest daughter before she was born. In the end, the decision was made to go with what made us comfortable and to let the rest take care of itself. But would I make the same decision now I have lived with a hyphen? I’m not so sure.

I chose not to change my name when I married. Having feminist sensibilities, I did not want to ‘take my husband’s name’. Besides, I was 32 and had grown attached to my name over the decades. For better or for worse, it was mine and I did not want to part with it.

My husband, ever the egalitarian, did not press the point, arguing that he did not feel he could ask me to do something that he would not be prepared to do himself. In many ways, it made the transition to ‘wife’ a simple matter of ticking the ‘married’ rather than the ‘single’ box on forms. The stress and expense of changing documentation such as passports and licences was never a concern.

When it came to our children, I was happy enough for them to carry my husband’s surname. But once again his egalitarian ideals came into play. He did not feel it was fair that our children automatically carry his surname rather than mine. So we considered giving them different surnames: sons could have mine and daughters his, or something along those lines. But we retreated from that position after a few choice words from family and friends.

In the end, the hyphen seemed the best compromise. But almost four years and two children on, I can see the benefits of a family sharing a single surname – if only to make everyday tasks such as making appointments and enrolling in swimming classes a little easier. Given the chance to rename my children, I would probably push harder for a combined surname.

The first letters of my surname and the last syllable of my husband’s make a perfectly acceptable and infinitely easier-to-spell surname. However, my husband has yet to embrace the suggestion that we become united as a family under a surname that is uniquely our own. In fact, I was told that I probably needed to find a new hobby if this was the kind of thing I spent my time worrying about!

So, for the moment, I must learn to live with the hyphen and accept that I will need to spend a few extra minutes each day explaining our names. “Their surname is different from mine. It has a hyphen. Let me spell it for you…”

Illustration by Felicity Gardner