This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on May 8, 2010.
Every mom, whether she is good, bad or indifferent, leaves two permanent reminders of herself to her children. First, the navel. We all bear the little scar that looks like the tied end of a balloon, smack dab in the middle of our tummy, always reminding us that we emerged from our mother’s womb, at the end of nine long months of gestation.
The second reminder is our mother’s maiden name. We use it to identify ourselves when conducting important matters, usually related to money. I wonder who decided to select everyone’s mother’s maiden name to be a unique identifier. It must have been back when we called unmarried women “maidens.”
I was helping my daughter buy her first stock on an Internet site for first- time investors. She had a small amount of money to invest, but it was a start. She wanted to buy two shares of Starbuck's stock.
I scrolled down and read the fine print to make sure she wasn’t getting scammed. The site seemed legit so I began to enter the pertinent information. Then came the security question: mother’s maiden name. When I started to type in my mother’s maiden name, my daughter stopped me.
“Mom,” she said with a funny look on her face, “my mother’s maiden name is Vallee.”
“But I’m still using that name,” I told her, somewhat defensively. My own mother’s maiden name was rather exotic to me – a name I never spoke, or thought about, except when I called the bank for a credit card balance or when I made out my will. Mom stopped using her maiden name when she married, as did most women of her generation.
Like many women, I didn’t think of my name as one that I used as a maiden and then abandoned when I took my husband’s name. I took my name along with me into my marriage. It didn’t seem exotic or even secret because I was using it every day.
I never knew my grandmother because she died at age thirty-six, when my mother was just seven-years-old. My mother’s maiden name was attached to a ghost, long dead and living only in my mother’s memory. I never attached it to a living human being, a loving grandmother that linked me to the generation before.
In spite of my own personal reasons for reacting to the mother’s-maiden-name request, its use as a unique identifier seems quaint these days. Use of the word “maiden,” recalls the days when women surrendered a large part of their identity when they married. These days, women marry later in life, and many are well beyond maidenhood when they tie the knot.
I never realized how important it was to me that my mother’s surname served an important purpose, even after she married my dad and became Mrs. Vallee. She pretty much gave up all her previous identity to become a wife and mother, for better or worse.
My generation has struggled with that dilemma. We originated “Ms.” and went through a to-hyphen-or-not-to-hyphen phase, yet we all consider our mother’s name, whether she quit using it or not, to be a special link to our maternal side of the family.
We are never asked for our father’s “young knave” name because he never surrendered it. Had I been a father helping his son buy stock on the Internet, the request for “mother’s maiden name” would not have given either of us pause. I certainly paused to consider my reaction, as I deleted my mother’s maiden name and replaced it with “Vallee.”
Deep in the affairs of life, at times when we reveal a secret code word to access our bank account or open a safety deposit box, our moms are there – giving their girlhood name to indicate our lineage, ever reminding us that she existed long before we did. She had a girlhood and a life all her own, her maidenhood. Then we came along, and she gave us life, our bellybutton and her maiden name.
Kathleen Vallee Stein