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, for years, had 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 and LilaChiles, 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, a statistic of “birthing while black.” Within a few hours of my giving birth to my baby girl, a nurse 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. (Not that we couldn’t use a little financial help to foot the tab; it’s just that it was infuriating that this was the assumption, rather than something I could discreetly apply for.)

See, their assumption was that I’m a black 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.

And I promise myself to try to do a little better.

[“IT’S MILLNER MRS. CHILES IF YOURE NASTY (or my kids teacher)” appeared originally on MyBrownBaby in September 2008.]

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. I lost my comment, so I have decided to change it, a woman’s perogative, Ms. Millner. I have known many women in my life who have kept their maiden names, my oldest son went to school with Natalie Cole’s son, there were 12 kids in the class, but she was just called Natalie by everyone, although she did have a different married name. It was so acceptable because she was famous! Her son’s last name is the same as his dad’s (passed away). My youngest son went to school, from nursery school on, with the woman who became my best friend. She too kept her maiden name, dressed very Bohemian, rarely remembered her shoes, and was always pigeon holed by the school, the stores we went into, etc. This made me laugh because it turned out she was married to a doctor who did quite well, they lived in a lovely home, were the most generous of couples and could afford to do most anything. BUT many times sales clerks gave us the evil eye in the stores! Who said, “What is in a name”? My friend Jerri was white, so I think many women are subjected to this treatment, but it sounds as though African American women get “extra special” treatment. I will continue to call you Denene Millner and I won’t even ask you to pronounce my maiden name.

  2. I absolutely relation to this. I, too, kept my maiden name. (My kids have their father’s name and so do I) My kids are not in school yet but I already wonder about how the different names will be perceived. And you already know there father (God willing) will be at every meeting, conference, recital, etc.!.

  3. I’m in a relationship with a white man ( I’m not black, I’m Puerto Rican, but I love your blog). I kept my name and my husband has been asked to show proof that he is indeed, the father of his children at the doctor’s office and pharmacy. They don’t think his darker skinned children belong to him. I was a single mom so my oldest son has my last name and my youngest son has my husband’s name. The boys look like brothers through and through, and everyone says they BOTH look like my husband, when I’m not there. When I am, people saying they BOTH look like me. I’m confused. My husband has dark eyes and hair because he’s Italian, but his skin isn’t dark enough and his last name is different. I’ve had words with folks and remind them that first off, it’s not really their business. I don’t need to explain my life and name to you. Second, I’m educated, witty, gainfully employed, and not raising my kids alone. I get the assumptions that I’m here illegally and I pop babies out like gumballs. Wake up society!

    • Christine, 27 years ago my cousin and her husband adopted a baby boy whose mother was barely 13. Andrew looks Pacific Islander, although his heritage is a mix. I remember my white, Jewish cousin taking him out with her first son, natural birth and blonde, and people would come up to her and say, wow, the baby looks just like you. My cousin, who takes things in her stride, would just say, thank you. I sometimes wonder if people think at all, before they open their mouth. Enjoy your children every day, they grow up way too fast. Barbara

  4. I am a divorced mother of 3, all by my ex-husband who went back to her maiden name. Although I knew I would be stereotyped, I didn’t care. I had a very unhappy, unfilled marriage and was so happy and relieved to let go of it, that anything that was individually me, I wanted it, all on my own. I sat down with my girls and asked them how they would feel if mommy had a different last name and they were fine with it. In fact, they laugh when people call me by their last name because they no it just chaps my hide. But they also fully understand that no matter if they have their Dad’s last name they are still MY babies that I am SO proud to be gifted with them. Also, my Dad made me the woman I am and its just my little way of carrying on his legacy.

  5. Blackurican Mommy

    If this will make you laugh, I kept my last name for professional reasons and also because I like it. It’s mine. Everywhere we go, people call my husband Mr. Greene, which is my maiden name. He takes it in good spirit and says he is married to the president and he is just the first man. :). Side note: my daughter has both of our last names, which confuses everyone to my glee.

  6. Are you in my head or what? I had this exact conversation just the other day. I, too, kept my maiden name when I got married. I always knew that I would. I love my name and I can’t imagine being anyone but Elita Kalma. But at school? Mrs. Condè all day!

  7. Thank you so much Denene for this post and all of you ladies for sharing. I will certainly share this with PTA groups and Leaders here in Rochester New York. They all seem to have opinions of City parents and create, desgin and bet on stats about them to receive funding for public education or to explain poor graduation rates. Rochester has one of the worst graduation rates in this district. When I read the book Maggie’s American Dream by James P. Comer and saw that he and all his siblings have Ph.D’s I knew the stats were a bunch of bull. We also have married and professional parents living in our city however they are stereotyped to death! So thanks again for the leverage to have a new conversation because the old one is tired.

  8. Isn’t that something, I had a similar experience after giving birth. My last name is different too and the nurse asked if my husband and I were married and how we met. He’s a different race and people get curious because we’re not a common couple.

    I think I’ll laugh right in the face of people who make inane comments as the baby gets school-aged.

  9. I’m so glad someone else feels this way! My two sons are from my ex-husband. But I look younger than my age, and I always feel like like I am being judged when people see me with my children. I always get those looks (or at least it feels like it) like, “Oh, there’s another one.Young, single, uneducated mom living off the system” However, I was married when I had my children, I graduated from college, and I am a teacher. I pay my own bills an don’t qualify for any government assistant, but I still have people ask me for my last name and then the last names of my children as if they’re supposed to be different. I am getting remarried in March and am bothered by the fact that I will now have a different last name than my children because of what others will assume. I know I shouldn’t care what others think, but it annoys me that I work so hard only to be judged by what people can visibly see and assume. #annoyed

  10. I write these words not to degrade my son’s father or vent about the kind of boyfriend he was. I fully endorse marriage and parents who raise their children in a two-parent household. I know how God designed it to be, and I fully plan on letting my son know this as well. But I have to be honest. Heck, the situation with the other parent could speak for itself. And if it could talk, it’ll tell you this much: it was not good. And now, I’m embracing my single momma status fully, with open arms.

  11. I only use my married name at our child’s school, what’s stated above is a fact. All forms that are filled out all names match. If I call and leave a message it’s Mrs… Calling, I send a note its signed Mrs… We know our reality. Not fair but people draw conclusions and have prejudices and treat single mothers differently.

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