What is in a name?

I know I was awol for a while from the world of blogging. The reasons for this were threefold: 1) I was sick (see last entry), 2) work is taking a lot out of me, and 3) S was heading back to Chile for a couple months– I wanted to spend all my spare time with him.

Since he has been gone, I have started to have time to blog and I have started to think about other things. Permanency. For the record, as I am writing this he has been gone for 10,206 minutes.

Like many Americans, I carry my father’s last name. It is not a common last name, but it is not unheard of. For the sake of this blog-post (and the small anonymity that I still have on this blog), let’s say that my last name is Sachs. S, like all Chileans, has two last names: his father’s (a very common name, lets say Campos) and his mother’s (a hard to pronounce or remember for English speakers, let’s call it Apellido).

In Chile, when you get married, each person keeps his own last name, the children take the first last name of each of the parents.

In the US, when you get married, people do all kinds of things. They keep their own names. Wives take their husbands’ names. Husbands take their wives’ name. They both take both. They hyphenate. They don’t hyphenate. They make up a completely new last name for the heck of it.

Our kids are clearly getting both of our last names. The question is– what do I want to do? For me, there are really only two options: just keep my name (Sachs) or take his first last name and attach it to my last name (Sachs Campos).

Let’s jump to another moment in time.

In 2008 I was living in Chile. I was living in Chile and I got sick. The first time I went to the doctor I had no problem. I had to call and schedule a follow up appointment; this was when the problems started. As I remember it, the conversation when something like this (only in Spanish):

H: Hello. University of Chile Hospital.
Me: Hello. I need to schedule a follow up appointment.
H: Ok. What doctor?
Me: Dr. Enrique.
H: Oh, he is in a different department. Let me transfer you.
H2: Hello. University of Chile Hospital.
Me: Hello. I need to schedule a follow up appointment.
H2: Ok. What doctor?
Me: Dr. Enrique.
H2: Oh, I don’t schedule people. Let me transfer you.
H3: Hello. University of Chile Hospital.
Me: Hello. I need to schedule a follow up appointment.
H3: Ok. What doctor?
Me: Dr. Enrique.
H3: Ok. What day would you like the appointment?
Me: He said to come next Friday.
H3: Okay, he has appointments at 3:00 and 4:50.
Me: I will take the three o’clock.
H3: What is your name?
Me: Clare
H3: Can you spell that?
Me: C-L-A-R-E
H3: Last name:
Me: Sachs.
H3: Can you spell that?
Me: S-A-C-H-S.
H3: Second last name?
Me: I don’t have one.
H3: What do you mean?
Me: I mean I don’t have one. I am American and I only have one legal last name.
H3: But you must have two!
Me: I don’t.
H3: Are you sure?
Me: Yes.
H3: I am sorry. I cannot schedule the appoint for you.
Me: What do you mean you can’t?
H3: Our computer won’t accept you.
Me: It did before!
H3: It couldn’t have.
Me: But it did. I had an appointment. This is the follow up. I am already in the system.
H3: Well. I can’t look you up. You need a last name.

I will stop here, but I promise, the conversation when on for an infuriatingly long time. I am not even sure how I managed to get an appointment. Of course, I threatened to just show up anyways.

You can understand, I hope, how this situation would make me want to take a second last name. (of course, I realize that we have the opposite problem in the states where people with two last names get lost in the system. They get filed as hyphenated. They get filed as un-hyphenated. They get filed alphabetically by their first last name. They get filed alphabetically by their second last name). Still, I see the logic in having two as I will inevitably continue to be straddling these two worlds.

The down side of changing my name now is that I just got a new passport. I just got a new driver’s license. I don’t live in my state of residence. It is all very complicated. Perhaps, it is also being edged on by the fact that I am lonely with S gone. Perhaps having his name would feel more like a piece of him was here. [Of course, his books are here, so a piece of him is here]. Perhaps it is the fact that I have no wedding ring and haven’t changed my name. Perhaps it is a desire for my future (don’t get your hopes too high for an immediate announcement) children to share my last name. I don’t know. Just something I have been thinking about more often then not in the past 612,360 seconds since S left.

So, what should I do? And when?


  1. This was something I had to think about quite a bit too. Obviously in our culture, the most common thing is for the woman to take the man’s last name. I know there are ton of other combinations that are becoming more popular, as you mentioned, but I think woman-taking-man’s-last-name is still the most traditional. However in Chile, most people view it as losing your identity. And when you really think about it, it kind of is. I’ve actually heard stories about women that feel like they lost part of themselves when they changed their last name. But since you have not defined that as an option for you, we’ll move on to the options you have chosen.

    I think perhaps you should think about where you plan on living long-term. In Chile? In the US? In another country nada que ver with those two? If you have had problems in Chile with not having a 2nd last name, and you & S. plan on living here and raising kids here, perhaps it would be best to find a solution for you not having a second last name. A gringa friend of mine once considered legally adding her mother’s maiden name as her 2nd last name in the US so that when she moved to Chile, she’d have two names. I don’t think she actually went through with it, but it is an option.

    As for hyphenating your name with his, I think this complicates how your children’s last names will come out. I mean, they will be Joe Campos Saches-Campos. Now if you simply add his last name as your 2nd last name in the US, then your kids would have typical Chilean last names sans problems. And if you plan to live in Chile long term, this may be your best option.

    But if you are planning on living in the US long term, adding a 2nd last name creates a whole new world of problems & confusion. I would say almost more than being in Chile without a second last name (in my 2 years here, I haven’t had any problems not having a 2nd last name. In fact, on my credit card, they put an X as my second last name. When I asked my husband why my name included an X, he said that is how they do it when you don’t actually have a 2nd last name.)

    In the end, I have decided to keep my last name and will not be adding his last name (at least this is the decision we have taken up till now). We have also agreed to hyphenate our kids 2 last names in the States (to try to avoid confusion, and just make it like one long last name), and hopefully when they are in Chile the names can be considered as separate. I kind of worry about a 5 year old having to learn how to spell a last name that is 16 letters long (my last name has 7, my husband’s has 9), but my husband pointed out that kids in Chile do it all the time when they learn both last names. So that is one less thing to worry about.

    Anyway, I can’t say definitely what you should do, but hopefully my experience and analysis can help you decide on something!

    Also, with respect that you are feeling lonely–I totally know how it feels. When we had our civil ceremony, I had to go back to the US within a week to the US to finish my senior year of school and we were apart for 2 months. I also was not hot on the idea of a civil ceremony at the time b/c to me, it was more like a tramite than a wedding. But with time, it began to feel like a marriage, even with the distance between us and the lonely feeling goes away. So I hope that happens sooner than later for you!

  2. Can you use one of the last names as your middle name in the US and as a 2d last name overseas? My IDs read First, Second, Third name. So, technically, I think I could argue that the last two are both last names (which, in fact, they are, because I use my maiden name as my middle name).

  3. I also echo Erin, and put my maiden name as my 2nd middle name. That way I’m only “adding on” to my name, not taking away and I can use it professionally “Ms. ROO.” Taking Jason’s last name reduces the filing confusing as well while in the US.

    In Chile, does it matter whether the father’s last name is first or is it the mother’s, for children? I know Filipino culture is similar as well.

  4. Haha, at the clinica I go to here I was “Emily Middlename Lastname Notengo” for a while – I signed up online and couldn’t put a slash or leave it blank and didn’t want them to think my maternal apellido was “Na” (as opposed to N/A), so I just wrote Notengo and had to fix it later.

    And yes, we don’t know what to do for future children either…it’s so complicated! I think it will in large part depend on where we’re living at the time, and we’ll probably just do whatever’s more traditional there and deal with our kids being “weird” in the other country. I also now don’t know if I would legally change my name. I always thought I would, but since I’m now marrying a Chilean it may just create too much confusion. I think in the US I would still go by Rodolfo’s last name, just not legally change it.

  5. I know this post is a year old, but I saw the link you left on Eileen’s blog. I have to say this absolutely cracked me up. I had an immigration official insist I was mistaken in my assumption that I had only one last name. See, apparently all this time I had a second last name and I never knew it! Nice!

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