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"Should My Daughter Change Her Name?"

QUESTION: My fiancÚ and I have been been living together, with our three children, for more than three years. We are talking about getting married. During a recent discussion my daughter asked if we would all have the same last name. We explained that her last name would remain the same. My daughter doesn't want to be different from the rest of the family. I intend to speak with my ex and see if I he will allow my daughter's last name to be changed, but I expect the answer will be a rather firm "no." Should my daughter change her name?

ANSWER: Your daughter's family roots are represented by her surname, which also holds special meaning for her. Her desire to lose her father's name is precipitated by your remarriage, a natural marker in the development of your stepfamily. Changing her name is symbolic of the struggle to be included, but it may not be her best answer in the long run. Take a deeper approach.

You are probably right about your anticipation of a negative response from your daughter's father on this one. Though your daughter would like to change her name at this time, she might regret it later, as symbolically it represents her father's side of her bi-nuclear family. Would it not follow at some point, that giving up his name to be included in this group implies not being included in his family group? Or could she experience feelings of disloyalty towards her father, at a later date? Naturally, since the two of you have been living in this family for the past three years, there is little real likelihood that her fear of being left out will have any merit based on her name. Still, it is important to take her concerns seriously and explore her associations to this normal stepfamily process.

First, be sure to explain to her that regardless of her name, she is a full-fledged member of this family with all rights and privileges. Ask her if there are any ways she already feels left out. It is possible that the name change is simply bringing to the fore a dynamic that exists in the family. Openly explore this possibility with her and address her concerns directly. This could be an opportunity for productive family discussion and bonding. After all, she is the only step-sibling in the group. There will be ways she is different from her other two children.

Let your daughter know that coming to terms with differences as well as likenesses is ongoing among most siblings, even identical twins! Support her pride in her differences without denying her desire to be similar. You can also facilitate discussion of inclusion in the family by playing family games such as creating different "groupings" that exist in the stepfamily. For example, there is a group of males and a group of females in the family. There is a group of kids and a group of adults. There is one boy and two girls. By playing these games as a family she will experience herself as sometimes being in a group while someone else is odd man out.

Once she is satisfied that her place in the family is secure, she may more easily adapt to your name change. But do not ignore the possibility of retaining your maiden (or other name) as a compromise. In other words, though it would be highly awkward to keep your first husband's name upon remarriage, it may possible for you to do so. Or you could consider a return to your maiden name. That way, she and you would have similar situations, though different names.

Other creative alternatives might be to consider adopting a hyphenated version of her last name followed by your newly married name. Perhaps your fiancÚ and his children would also consider this option. If all of these people said "yes" perhaps your ex-spouse would understand your daughter's feelings about belonging to both groups and agree to a hyphenation of her name. She would be adding a name instead of changing one. Even if your ex agreed to only his name being on the latter half of the hyphenation, it is possible for your fiancÚ and his children to adopt that new surname combination as well.

None of these solutions may be feasible, but it is the creation of a family process that will make your daughter feel included! Call a family meeting or while sitting down to dinner bring this matter up for discussion. By doing so, it is probable that no matter what the outcome, your daughter's needs to be included will be answered by the family process. This reminds me of the story of a young boy who wanted to have strong muscular definition in his arms. He went to a local wiseman for help with this problem. This old man told him that this was "going to take some thinking" and that he needed the boy to chop and saw some wood to help him think, which the boy did. Two days later the boy came back only to be sent out again, and then again for more chopping and sawing, until at sundown on the seventh day the boy came again for the old man's reply. The old man had only to ask that he flex his arm and there appeared his answer.

Do not shy away from dealing with the fact that she is uniquely bonded to both this family and her father (and his clan). But she IS a family member with a concern. She deserves the family's consideration of her problem.

Creating family processes to share our individual life experiences is what family is about . Regardless of whether or not your daughter (or others) change names, an opportunity can be created for your daughter to feel a deep sense of belonging to this stepfamily, without displacing her connection to her father.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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