On a crisp, early morning on the last day of January, I struggled to hide my nervous excitement as I waited in the Burbank courthouse. I had flown from Stanford to LA the day before to attend this court hearing. At 8 a.m., they let us into the courtroom. The bright white lights and the smell of donuts that the judge lovingly brought made the last bits of sleepiness dissipate. He started to call out names.
After a few minutes, it was my turn. The judge signed my court order, looked at me, and shook my hand.
“Congratulations, Mr. Enik.”
I was smiling like an idiot. It was the first time someone addressed me this way, using my new legal name. Seconds after, the list of entities I needed to inform of this change exploded: social security, DMV, college, employers, banks, insurance, student loan providers, social media. It was and still is hard to fit into the schedule of a full-time college student with three part-time jobs. So why did I do it?
Like the vast majority of children, I was given my father’s last name. In addition, I also got a patronymic — dad’s first name with a -vich suffix, which is a required addition to every newborn’s name in Russia. And nothing from my mom.
Growing up in Moscow, I didn’t pay too much attention to this injustice. Everyone around me was also stamped with a patronymic and their father’s last name. The prevailing patriarchy, evident through many other instances besides naming conventions, seemed normal.
And then we moved to the melting pot of cultures that is the United States. Here, I encountered so many diverse naming conventions. I met people with multiple first and last names; I met people with hyphenated last names because their parents were of the same sex; I met people who had different last names from their siblings, split equally between mom’s and dad’s.
As I became more intimate with the American lifestyle, I grew more distanced from my dad. Perhaps it was as simple as growing up: I began noticing the ignorant things in his behavior influenced by a variety of factors that I’m not ready to discuss.
In the end, I lost contact with him. Yet I was still living with the stamp of him in the heart of my identity — my name. I’ve always been so proud of who I am. My old patronymic and last name, however, were a constant reminder of the person with whom I’d been trying so hard to disassociate. It was there during the most celebratory events of my life, like the graduation and the naturalization ceremonies; it was also present habitually — when I showed someone my ID or spelled my full name for the hundredth time over the phone. The stamp was haunting me.
Then there was my mom’s last name, so short and dear, only four letters long: Enik. This last name originates from the autonomous republic of Abkhazia, located in the South Caucasus. Since I’m a quarter Abkhaz, this last name seemed like a chance for me to reconnect with my roots. And this last name would constantly remind me of the person who raised me, loves me, and would never betray me. I have so many things to thank my mom for: fearlessly fighting for my twin brother and me during a divorce in a country with a corrupt judicial system, dedicating her life to raising us and being our true support system, leaving her home behind and moving across the globe so we could pursue a better education. Adopting her last name seemed to be the least I could do to acknowledge her strength.
So a few weeks after becoming a U.S. citizen, I filed my court papers.
This change has meant so much to me, and it has also brought broader societal issues to my attention. The patronymic, although not super common, clearly favors one parent over another, with gender being the only criterion. Patrilineal surnames seem to rely on that same social identifier. I understand that there are cultural conventions coming from the past, but the past was also pretty misogynistic. How can we pretend to fight the patriarchy when the very first inheritance most kids enter the world with is de facto male?
Perhaps my particular case is a little extreme. I didn’t want my name to remind me of a broken relationship anymore. Surely, I know there are many great fathers out there. One day, I’m hoping to be one, too. I just don’t see why the patrilineal naming conventions should remain the default. I hope that it becomes more universal to give children surnames of both parents, a very common practice in Spain and many Latin American countries.
Finally, to whoever has dreamt of changing their name for reasons similar to or different from mine: One day, you will file those court papers and will get closer to your true self. And you will feel so liberated.
Like I do.
Contact German Enik at german.enik ‘at’ stanford.edu.