Monday, September 22, 2008

IT’S MILLNER—MRS. CHILES IF YOU’RE NASTY (or my kid’s teacher)


You should know that I really like my maiden name. “Millner” is an original—a cut above the standards “Miller” and “Milner,” with its extra “L” and the surprising “N.” I also happen to think “Millner,” the name my daddy gave me, cuts a really commanding presence next to the unusual but equally well-liked “Denene,” the name my mom picked up, I’m told, from some soap commercial she saw on TV while she was watching her stories. For sure, they look good together, my two names, especially on my books and magazine article by-lines—the “Millner” part serving a fitting tribute to my dad, who convinced me to become a writer in the first place.

Denene Millner. Strong, yet feminine, original, yet accessible. Loves it—so much so that when I got married, I chose to keep my maiden name (a decision that, 11 years later, still has my husband a little vexed).

Still, the maiden name this married mom of three loves so much gets kicked to the curb faster than a virgin at the prom when I walk into a PTA meeting or a teacher’s conference, you better believe it. My kids are Mari, Lila, and Mazi Chiles, and I’m Mrs. Chiles, thank you.

Don’t front—you know how it works: A black mom walking her child into school, onto the soccer fields, into the grocery store and the doctor’s office—hell, anywhere—almost always has to rush through a gauntlet of conjecture before she gets through the door good.

Look at her—she laid up there and had all them babies…

I wonder if those kids all have the same daddy...

You know she’s probably raising all of them on her own…

She can’t care anything about those kids’ education/health/well-being—too stressed trying to make ends meet…

I wonder how much of my hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going toward her grocery bills…


These things are never said to our faces. But the actions—the way black mothers get talked to, or treated, or, worse, ignored—makes it crystal that way too many folks are operating on the assumption that our children were mistakes, and are being parented by tired, broke, stressed-out moms who have no men to speak of in their lives. This is especially true when the last names are lined up and they see that the black mom’s is different from that of her children. I learned this the hard way the first day I became a mother, when a nurse at the hospital at which I gave birth to my baby girl actually verbally articulated extreme surprise when I told her the guy holding my child was my husband. “Your husband?” she asked, her neck and eyebrows forming into impossible contortions to match the astonishment in her voice. “Oh, well then let me tell you about the private rooms…” she said, as if privacy and the right to bond with your baby in peace were some kind of prized possession only married folk were entitled to. And don’t get me started about the time when I put in an application to a private school for my girls, and was immediately met with the “we don’t have any scholarships available” line, no doubt when she checked over the paperwork and saw different surnames for me and my babies.

See, their assumption was that I’m a single mom, probably scratching and just barely surviving. With little money. Barely any time. Distracted. And not worthy of the respect, time, and attention one pays to a team—a couple, a husband and wife. These are some of the worst kind of stereotypes with which any mother—single or not—could be saddled. Indeed, I have an abundance of empathy for my single mom friends, precisely because I see the evidence of different treatment—mistreatment—everyday. And let me tell you: I know we all got enough problems being mothers in America, and black to boot. The last thing we need is more mess heaped onto the pile of crap we have to overcome.

In other words, married African American moms just don’t have the luxury of co-signing the mainstream feminist manifesto that demands you reject your husband’s last name on some ol’ anti-patriarchal “you don’t belong to any man” thing. We have to use our married names to make statements of our own, and there’s nothing like matching surnames and a wedding ring to help shut down the madness at the gate. Bonus if you can actually get your husband to show up to the school functions/doctor’s appointments/social functions with you. Each sends a loud, distinct signal that the person standing in front of you won’t necessarily fit into whatever stereotypes you have of this African American mommy. That we might actually care about our kids’ education—and have the time to focus on it. That there is discipline being meted out in healthy doses at our house. That money may not necessarily be an issue for us (yeah, right). That we made the commitment to one another to raise our family—together.

Am I being insecure? Paranoid, maybe? Nope. Just being very real about the very difficult reality of being a black mom. So the next time you see me at the PTA meeting, do me a favor: Call me Mrs. Chiles.

I won’t be mad.


  1. How very insightful and spot on. I cannot tell you how many times I race back in, just as the car is filled and seatbelts are latched not for my wallet, my keys or to check the stove. But, to step into the steamy bathroom and retrieve my wedding ring from the sill because dropped curls are spit in a bucket compared to the sneers and jeers I fear I'll receive (and have) if anyone (not that it is any of their business) should think I'm a single parent.

    Well written and deeply felt, thanks!

  2. In no way are you being paranoid, which is sad in itself.

    In fact, you are braver than I. I had the same idea to not limit myself to my husbands identity and to hold onto my own, however the fear that my kids would be looked at strange or that I would be thrown to the wolves as a young, irresponsible Jezebel, forced me into taking the name.

    That and my husband's pouty face.

  3. Like you I have chosen my to keep my maiden name. I like it, my monogram looks nice and frankly being called the same thing for 35 years makes it difficult to change. That and of course all of the paperwork that goes along with the process.

  4. Sadly, you are not at all paranoid. And what's really sad is that so many of those assumptions come from other black women, who you would expect to understand, at least partially. For this reason, I love when both my husband and I go to pick up our daughter from preschool — where she happens to be the one and only black child.

    And if the looks are bad when it's just the three of us, it gets a whole lot worse when my two stepsons are staying with us. I thank God every day for the small favor that both my stepsons and my daughter look very much like my husband and that all three are very close to my lighter complexion, which keeps the questions and stares to a minimum.

  5. I toyed with hyphenation, but I was well into my 30s when I married and it never felt right to leave my established identity in the wake of a wedding. But once the little one came along, keeping my name means "making up for it" in other ways. Daddy and I go to pediatrics appointments together. We sometimes go TOGETHER to pick her up from preschool though it would be more practical for one of us to do it. It's a show, but one we find important. (Actually, my own parents, who share a last name, did the same thing when I was a child. They knew that even sharing a name did absolve you from the stereotypes.

  6. I am completely on the same page. I just recently started using my husbands last name. When we had my son, we had only been married for a year and so I was still unsure of what I was going to do about my "last name" change. Being an independent kinda of girl, my insurance was still under my maiden name leaving my first born son listed as baby Teal instead of Kotati.. this did not bode well. Needless to say I have adopted a blend of both :)

  7. Although I am not married, I feel everything you said. A lot of unnecessary struggle comes with being black in this country in general and being a black mother is no exception. Always something to prove, a show to put on as Jeffriesty above pointed out.

    I have had to work hard to prove my place as an intelligent single mother, because somehow being a young, black, single mother doesn't equal intelligent. In a way, I'm not even earning my degree for "me", but because I feel pressure to prove that I am nobody's statistic. Now that's sad.

    Thanks so much for being REAL and as other's have said there is NOTHING paraniod about what you've said or how you feel.

  8. Denene:

    You're an even better writer now than I remember. Great site. Great insights.

    I, for one, love both your names. My wife not only kept her name, but our two boys have hyphenated last names. It'll be a challenge for them to resolve later in life. But . . . how I've missed hearing your voice.

    Great to read you.

  9. Very interesting and insightful. I did take my husband's name so I haven't been on the receiving end of that. But I hardly think you're being paranoid.

  10. This is very well written! And, I know it to be true... I am white (or a caucasion mutt) and I have seen how easy it is to sterotype.

    Tomorrow, I am helping an African American friend of mine with a Foster/Adoptive parenting orientation. Sadly, most of the kids come from the Los Angeles area where there are so many troubled situations. And, I have also helped with baby showers for young African American moms who are raising their children on their own.

    On the flip side, I know many, many African American women in healthy relationships. And, they fight stereotypes all the time.

    Especially in ministry, when we see the single mom situation all the time, it's easy—if we're not guarded—to make presumptions based on names. Serving in ministry and being a part of a multi-ethnic church has taught me so much about shaping my understanding of people solely on getting to know them.

    By the way, I am a Miller. My maiden name was Matheny, a name I liked very much. Miller is the 7th most common name in the US and I didn't want to be common. Of course, my hubby was not going to take my name. And, Matheny-Miller just became exhausting after awhile.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  11. Great post and I love the name. Personally I was happy to give up my maiden but mostly because it was "brown". So when I got married I was happy for people to say my last name, Elie wrong. LOL. I remember for my daughters Holloween party I took one of my work friends to watch, he's asian all the parents were like, "who's that, is that the dad" I was LMAO. Life is hard being a mom. Life is harder being a black mom. Life seems even harder being a working black mom. Life is just harder being black.

  12. Mrs. Chiles, I hear you. I took my husband's name, but there are other tension-filled divides I witness during the morning drop-off, like the working moms versus the stay-at-home moms. I've been on both sides of that fence and I decided to act like Switzerland and just be neutral.I'd be interested to read your feelings about it.

  13. Great post and great blog! You write the truth from your heart and I really enjoy reading what you have to say. Thank you.

  14. Yes, during the school year, I morph from "Ms. Oyama" to "Mrs. Lee." Here in the Bay Area, it's not unusual for women to keep their surnames, so we have many moms at our school with different last names from their children -- and the presumption, if one is Asian or White, is not that one is a divorcee or somebody's baby mama. Thanks for sharing your story about how having a different last name than your kids/husband is filtered through different cultural contexts. I have stereotypes to deal with, but not any that assume I am a single-mom who had an unplanned pregnancy!
    My husband didn't blink when I kept my name -- I didn't like the sound of "Oyama-Lee" (anomaly?) or the idea of my name becoming too much like an adverb. (I can't believe your husband is still hung up on you keeping your name. What's up with that?) When it came to our kids, though, his family made it clear: no hyphenated last names. I was sad that my children's surname would not reflect that they are part Japanese, but settled for giving them Japanese middle names. Personally, I still think "Lee-Oyama" sounds pretty good!


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