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A Wife By Any Other Name

February 9, 2012

A few months ago, friend of mine complained that people had been telling her what her name “really” is. A scientist by trade, she declined to change her name after marriage because she already had a well developed professional portfolio prior to meeting her spouse, and didn’t want to lose the connection that name provided. To her, a name change equated giving up how people identified her, both professionally and personally. If she changed her name, everything she did up to that point would become disconnected from her new name. All of her hard work, all of her struggle, would be cut off in that moment when she took on the identity of her spouse. Still, people still insist on telling her what her name “really” is, replacing her last name with that of her spouse, and refusing to respect her clear wishes otherwise.

There are a lot of complex politics involved in a name change. Not the least of which is that societal pressure for women to take on their husband’s name, even in this day and age. The question of which name to keep (middle or “maiden”), whether to hyphenate, what to call the kids, what will your families say… All of these questions are just the beginning. What sort of message does it send about your gender politics? How will it effect your career? Will this person that you are about to make a lifetime commitment to support your choice?

When I was in college, I decided that my chosen career path of “teacher” was probably not going to work out for me. My natural tendency to fight any bureaucracy I see as unnecessarily complex would have me constantly at odds with administrators. I know that some of my peers complained about the need to take on student teaching positions, but it did me a lot of good. It made me realize that I would be a great teacher, but would hate teaching in a public school setting. So I shifted my focus. I was getting a degree in English, was already three years in, and the only two things I had going for me were the computer skills I was learning at my job, and my ability to crank out a four page paper in an hour. Thus, I turned to journalism.

I can’t remember now how I came to apply for the job, but I got a position writing for the Lifestyle section of our student newspaper. It was both thrilling and educational. I got to listen to music before it hit the shelves, read press releases for movies I wanted to see anyways, and write about things that interested me, like local festivals and where to get good food. Best of all, one dazzling Tuesday in November of 2001, I got to see a sneak preview of the very first Harry Potter movie. I loved writing, I loved seeing my name in the paper, and I loved all of the wonderful things that came with writing for an actual publication. All of the things I didn’t love… well, that’s a story for another time.

At the time, I was dating a young man who I was fairly certain was The Guy. Our conversations even occasionally ventured into discussions of marriage. One night over a fast food dinner, I mentioned that I had decided to keep writing under my former name, and use my married name for everything else. This really upset my boyfriend, whose argument against this choice boiled down to the fact that people reading my articles wouldn’t immediately know I was his wife.

It upset me. After all, it was my name. Just because I don’t always feel like it actually refers to me doesn’t make it any less mine. I was concerned about losing the connection to my previous work if I changed my name, and I felt my solution was rather elegant. To have my then boyfriend say, in essence, that he wanted to make sure that any fame I generated was automatically extended to him? It was insulting. It wasn’t as if I was the only woman who wanted to keep her name for professional reasons, and I still planned on using his last name everywhere else. Why should it matter so much that I wanted to use my maiden name as a sort of nom de plume?

Years later, I decided prior to my marriage that I would try something different. All things associated with my creative output would be under my previous name, since that’s what all the paperwork was filed under. Everything else would be under my new name. In theory, this would provide a divide between my personal life, and my professional. In reality, since I changed my name at work, and much of my graphic output these days is associated with that name, the divide is more blurry. Since I decided to take on all four names (First, Middle, Paternal, Marital), I have a hard time deciding which combination of names and initials is the right one to use and when. And oddly enough, working in the environment I do, my choice to change my last name has actually impacted me negatively on several occasions. Most of the professional women I work with made the same choice as my friend (and for similar reasons), and many of my colleagues assumed that I would keep my name. So despite the cobbled together version of my name that I sign my e-mails with, some were very confused to be receiving e-mails from a “different” person.

There is no simple solution to the problem of a post-marriage name. Many a wedding site has explored the complexities of the problem, and in the end all have come to the same conclusion: Your name needs to be the one that you want. For me, no matter how the name thing sorts itself out, it will be the ones that I choose. Not one that other people insisted I had to use, simply because it belonged to my husband. As for Moose? He doesn’t care what name I use. So long as he gets to call me wife.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 9, 2012 10:00 am

    I actually have a cousin, when he got married, he took his wife’s last name. His parents weren’t super thrilled about it, but it’s been years now, and it’s become normal for everyone. šŸ™‚

  2. Danielle permalink
    February 9, 2012 12:52 pm

    I had long ago decided to use your approach to the same problem. Now I’m wondering if I should just completely changing my name if I get married. You know, become a completely different person. I have some professional things under my current name, and I will probably continue using it for those things no matter what I change my name to. But then if people are going to act confused about e-mails and such being from a “different” person, they can have a real reason to be confused. šŸ™‚

  3. Paulina permalink
    February 9, 2012 1:05 pm

    My sister got married last year and decided not to change her name (she’s an RN, and all her licenses, etc. are under her “maiden” name — plus her husband is Italian and in Italy the women don’t take their husband’s name, so he could have cared less). My mother, however, insists on calling my sister by her husband’s last name, and writes her name that way every chance she gets. It’s driving my sister batty. I keep telling her she needs to put her foot down with my mom, but I don’t think she’s bothered to, yet. That’s a different issue…I just can’t believe how stubborn/blind my mom is being about it.

    I changed my name when I got married because I got tired of people assuming they knew how to spell my last name and almost invariably getting it wrong. My husband’s last name is easy to spell. And that’s seriously the only reason I did it.

  4. February 9, 2012 4:53 pm

    True story: when your husband discovered I’d absent-mindedly put him into my phone contact list as , he was a little put out. I was like, “Whaaaaat? I knew exactly who you are that way, and your relationship to me is directly through your wife, and I didn’t think of her married name at the time, and it just all made sense when I did it!”

    And then he made me change it to his surname, which is fine. My brain just decided the two were entirely interchangeable.

    • February 9, 2012 4:57 pm

      Okay. That should read “Iā€™d absent-mindedly put him into my phone contact list as (his first name) (your maiden name)” and it didn’t like the brackets I put around it the first time and it won’t let me edit it.

      (And I edited it in my phone because his name isn’t Moose Noire, or whatever, although for my purposes, that was enough identifying information.)

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