Once upon a time, five, 10 years ago, a generation of women knew just what was in a name, and society knew what it would cost to indulge them.
Now, though, the Lucy Stoners have junior Stoners -- or Stoner- Rickelmyers or Something Else Altogethers -- and the reckoning is at hand. Not for the kids. So what if they have three and four surnames to a household -- they're not confused.
For parents and institutions, it's another story. Who bends when a tradition-bound school or business tries to sort out who goes with whom in today's reconstituted families?
One side, the other, or both.
"Nobody uses my name. They just refuse to use it," says an exasperated Bonnie Lawless, a Kensington attorney and mother of three who reverted to her maiden name after a second marriage. "Doctors, school people . . . I give them my name and explain my children's name is Dale. Right after that they'll refer to me as Mrs. Dale."
Even stalwarts find themselves giving ground. Arlington attorney Susan McCluskey, mother of Charlie Gray, 5, says, "When I go to the parent-teacher conference, I introduce myself as Susan McCluskey. I sign authorizations for Charlie that way. It's never come back to me, though the teacher may think he's not my natural child . . . But when mothers call 'Mrs. Gray' and ask me to bake cupcakes, I find myself reluctant to correct them, whereas I would have been likely to do that a couple of years ago. I'm starting to feel subtle pressure, at least with regard to school, to use Gray."
But the classic institutional reaction to change -- ignore it and it will go away -- is not for the Lowell School in the District. With fully half its 110 students bearing surnames distinct from their moms' and dads', it now prints a cross-list of parents' names to supplement its regular student directory.
Explains director Gail Shandler: "Let's say a parent is doing a project and I'd say, 'Why don't you call Diane C----? She's had some experience in that area.' And they'd say, 'Is she in the directory?' and I'd say, 'Yes.' And then they'd spend an hour looking for it." Why? Without a cross-list, you need to know her daughter is Susan H----, or you're in for a long hunt.
The staff, expected to master such intricacies early in the year, labors in uncharted terrain, where, says Shandler, "there are no guidelines. Here we have Pincus-Roth, where Pincus is the father's name and Roth is the mother's name and the children have the full hyphenated name. Then there's Hastings-Black where Hastings is the mother's original name, followed by the father's name. Where this becomes interesting is, what do you call the husband? Professionally the father is Sam Black, but in our directory, he's listed as Sam Hastings-Black by his preference, because he wants his name to be the same as his child's name."
Wrinkle-wise, that's nothing.
In Florida, 3-year-old Sydney Skybetter has his own phone listing, the better to avoid preschool confusion. Parents Chris Ledbetter and Dean Skylar, who sued for the right to choose their son's composite last name, paid for the listing, says his mom, "so if his teachers don't know our names, they can still get in touch with us."
And in New York, Working Woman life style editor Freddie Greenberg tells of a good friend who recently remarried. "Her new husband took on the old husband's name hyphenated with his own so her child from the first marriage and their child they had together could end up having the same name together." Admits Greenberg, "It took a little while to explain to the kids."
Even the most common form of name variation -- where only the mother has a different name, her birth name -- can make a business nostalgic for the good old days.
An overbooked airline recently bumped two children, 3 and 7, onto a separate flight from their mother until someone spotted the error. The two last names were different and the airline did not know they went together.
"We always say now, 'May we have the child's last name, please?' " says Irwin Ramer, owner of Ramer's Shoes near Chevy Chase Circle. "We found we had duplicate records and duplicate costs of mailing." Frequently, he says, parents forget under which name they have their children filed.
All the dancing is not between individuals and institutions. The various factions -- hyphens, birth names, composites and traditionalists -- have their own rivalry.
The hyphens say they have it over the birth names -- despite the inconvenience. In England, where Deb Hastings-Black grew up, "double-barreled names were part of the fabric and people knew how to deal with them," she says. Here, Diner's Club rejected her application, saying its computer would not handle hyphens. Simple transactions, she says, "always take twice as long, because they never know how to alphabetize, whether it's filed under H or under B."
Still, or maybe as a result, there's the sense of superiority. "In some ways, it's slightly less confusing than having a completely different last name because people can remember we go with [the children]," says Ellen Roth, mother of two Pincus-Roths. "If the mother has her own name and the kids use the father's name, sometimes you forget who goes with whom."
The birth names are critical of the traditionalists. "I've had some parents of other kids tell me I make life difficult because they don't know what to call me," says Lawless. "It's always from women. I feel it's a reaction to the fact they gave up their names."
The traditionalists stand firm. "When we go on trips," says Bobbi Fishback of Silver Spring, "we go in the car as a family and call ourselves the four Fishbacks. We have mommy Fishback, daddy Fishback and the two little Fishbacks. To me, it unites the family more."
Having different names, she says, "just adds confusion in their world."
Psychologists don't necessarily agree. "Usually when an issue is hard for us as adults, the common thing that happens is we focus on the kids, and say it's hard for them," says Harriet Goldhor Lerner, staff psychologist at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kan., who applies her argument particularly to the use of hyphenated names.
Indeed, many parents anticipating difficulties with their children say they've been pleasantly surprised.
"The children don't have any problem with it," maintains Deb Hastings-Black. "The only problem is when they're learning to write their name, it takes twice as long as it does for other kids, so I always feel sorry for them . . . People chuckle, 'What's going to happen when they get married?' That's their problem. They can do what they choose. They'll be making bigger choices than that."
"Kids sort of take it as a given," agrees Robyn Levine, a Bethesda mother of two. "They're very accepting, especially when they go to school because there are so many divorced kids and others kids in the same situation."
For older kids, it's mostly a matter of longer introductions. "The kids will say, 'Well, this is my stepfather and this is my mother and they are married even though they have different names,' " says Nicky Roth of LaPlata, mother and stepmother of Debbie and David Silverberg and Erik Neumann.
And institutions are wising up to the fact that there's no going back. Solutions are often elegantly simple. "I think the schools are getting smart," says Nicky Roth. "Now they send report cards 'To the Parents of Debbie Silverberg.' "
The correct form of adult address is also changing for children. "We use first names a lot," says Lowell School's Shandler, "so the children do not get so involved as adults in working this through . . . If they're having a visit, we just say, 'This is Peter's mom, Ellen.' "
For staff, though, the best aids are still a good memory and a sense of humor.
Says Shandler: "In past years, if you learned the child's name, you could feel pretty safe greeting the parents as Mr. or Mrs. That's no longer the case. There's no easy way any more."