For any woman raised during the seventies, the choice to take or not take one’s husband’s name is fraught with sub-text. Are you handing over your personal identity to your husband? Are you furthering the patriarchy your feminist foremothers fought to overthrow, or do you truly believe you are your husband’s property? Of course that’s ridiculous, but a small, screaming women’s libber inside me says that taking your husband’s name means yes, of course to all that.
I struggled with this decision possibly more than most women because I spent the first two decades of my life playing musical last names. Between the ages of two and about seven, I used my birth name, mother’s maiden name, and briefly, my step-father’s name. After that, I used my mother’s maiden name exclusively, until I was old enough and had it legally changed myself. My mother and I had asked my father to let me have it legally changed when I was quite young, but he had, understandably, refused. At the time, I was upset, but looking back, I’m glad he did. If he’d readily conceded the name, I would have easily perceived it as a rejection in those tortured teenage years that love to recast everything as a Dickensian soap opera. I’m glad he said no.
Each school year began with an appeal to the teachers to please call me by my mother’s maiden name, not my actual legal name, as it was listed on the school records and my birth certificate. What’s amazing to me now is that the teachers all really seemed to try. Inevitably, however, report cards would be handed out and the teacher, almost without fail, would forget and call out my true last name. This would invariably lead to merciless teasing, ever fresh as we moved so often, and made all the harsher as the name easily lent itself to juvenile humor. Unfortunately, I was not returning home to a houseful of people who shared the name, who could engender in me some sense of familial pride. Instead, it was more in the spirit of Just survive this, and you can change your name when you turn 18. And I did.
I have many friends who got married and struggled with the whole name change thing. The most creative solution was what our friends in Manhattan did: they combined the sounds of their two last names into something about mid-way between the two. It doesn’t sound ludicrous, either, and it perfectly reflects what marriage should be - a uniting of your two identities to include the other. Not the subjugation of one identity completely to the other. Most women choose one of four options: they keep their maiden name, hyphenate the two, tack the spouse’s name on (which is actually what I did), or just stick with tradition and switch entirely to the man’s name. I say “the man’s name” rather than “the partner’s” because, as far as I can recall, none of my lesbian friends have ever taken their partner’s name. Typically, they’ve kept their own name, or hyphenated the two together. Maybe it has something to do with having fought for your own identity enough, or a joyous rejection of the whole patriarchal system; I’m not sure.
In any case, when my husband and I got married, I chose to keep my “maiden” name, which wasn’t even legally mine until I was an adult. I felt, at the time, like I’d only just gotten this name, why would I give it up now? At last I legally was the name I’d been using most of my life. For two years I was comfortable with this decision. My feelings and priorities started to change when my first son was born, and I started facing the daily issue of separate last names within the family. I was fine with my son having my husband’s last name, although I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if I had a daughter - would I want her to have her mother’s last name? I have enough of an interest in genealogy to shake my head in dismay at the headache such name games will cause future family researchers. Frankly, even the keeping of maiden names, much less other more creative name solutions, gives me pause when I think how difficult it would make genealogy if enacted large scale. When I was pregnant with my second son, I decided I really wanted a family with all one name. I didn’t want to explain on every form, every doctor visit, every course registration, ad infinitum, that my son(s) and I had different last names, that yes, my husband and I were married, yes, they were my children, and so on. For many of my friends, this seems like a small price to pay to enjoy such a grand outward display of being a free-thinking, liberated, modern woman. Most of them have no idea of how much I’ve already lived that life; I not only kept my maiden name, I kept my mother’s maiden name even when it wasn’t legally mine to keep.
I have never regretted taking my husband’s name. Actually that’s not quite true. When I was pregnant with my first son, I remember showing off the ultrasound to my mother-in-law. She, of course, was admiring this early shot of her first grandson, but her second comment after cooing at the image was to point to the mother’s name, printed in the corner with my then unchanged maiden name, and say, “I thought I went to a wedding.” I seem to remember saying, “Yes, I kept my maiden name.” She didn’t actually do this, but I swear she all but stuck her fingers in her ears and said, “Lalalalala - I can’t hear you.” So, yes, I have had one wee regret in changing my name - only that I may appear to have given in to outdated thinking.
Since then, however, I’ve had nothing but contentment from living in a house with six people all sharing the same last name. I do wish one of these children could carry forth both the names of my mother and my father, and my stepmother and stepfather as well. There were just about enough sons, as it turned out, for each to continue one of those last names - none of which otherwise appear to have a name descendent in the offing. But I didn’t do that. We can’t know when we name our children, how many or of what gender they will be - not without some high-level creepy family planning. And of course, even if I had planned out all those last names just so, who’s to say they’d have kept the names they were given.