Jewish World Review April 22, 2004 / 1 Iyar, 5764

Karen Heller

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Consumer Reports

When your name's not the same as the children's | We left the country armed with a quartet of passports and two last names. My husband, son, and daughter share one. I have another.

This difference, the ticket agents said, presents a problem.

"How does anyone know these children are yours?"

True, my children are twice as beautiful as I ever was, but who else would be standing in line with them at the airport at dawn on a Sunday?

"You might be his girlfriend taking them out of the country," the airline employee said, looking at my husband and then at me.

She was joking and, then again, not.

If I were his girlfriend, I don't think I'd be here with him AND his children. And not this early. Affairs are afternoon activities, a mistress requiring time for her toilette.

I thought this, but knew better than to joke. No one jokes in airports anymore. Actually, no one jokes anymore, anywhere.

"Do you have your marriage license?"

I know where our daughter stashes her trolls. My son's soccer shoes can be found, and the snorkel David purchased last year on vacation that hasn't been used since. Even the gas bills from two years ago, which we held onto as much out of shock as necessity. But I haven't a clue - as I suspect most couples don't - where our marriage license might be.

Besides, we didn't need it to get our children passports.

"How about their birth certificates? That would prove you're their mother."

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Cecilia's arm lovingly encircled my waist, and Nick's sweet hand was in mine, and I thought, "Shouldn't this prove I'm their mother?"

This was getting a bit surreal, but also poignant. We got passports, though not required for Mexico, so we could offer our family experiences that last a lifetime.

"Certainly it's happened before where the mother has kept her name," David said.

The agents exhibited the look slow dogs have in extreme heat.

Maybe this was another example of red states vs. blue, Dunkin' Donuts vs. Starbucks, two Americas where one set of women change their names and the other doesn't. (And a third nation where they hyphenate and routinely run out of room on standardized forms.)

I kept my maiden name out of comfort. Whatever career I have is for work I've done under this name. When my parents died, holding onto it became all the more poignant.

With children, things became harder. We share genes, meals, domicile. Alas, a bathroom. But not names, though my daughter, who regards herself as some Bourbon princess, piles on names - mine included - like strands of pearls. Everyone, she believes, should have a minimum of four initials.

But not until this moment had anyone ever questioned that I was their mother. Certainly not after the midnight feedings, doctor visits and school plays. Or the time when one got seriously sick all over my jacket in the dairy section.

Indeed, solving the problem of how children should address their friends' parents - Is "Mrs.'' too Cleaveresque? Is "Karen'' too informal? - we settled on an easy solution: "I'm Nick's mom. Cecilia's, too." A perfect name, though it isn't on my passport.

Eventually, the ticket agents waved us through. There was no trouble in Mexico.

A coda: After our return, there was a television report about an American boy taken out of the country by his divorced father and the man's girlfriend against the mother's wishes. A tourist snapped the child's picture, and the boy was returned from Belize. There was something strange about the group's behavior, the tourist said. Somehow the threesome didn't seem like a family.

Obviously, the boy didn't have his arm lovingly encircling the girlfriend's waist or his sweet hand grasping hers.

Next time, though, we'll bring their birth certificates. As opposed to the marriage license, I actually know where "they'' are.

Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.