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September 2013

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What’s in a name, really?

Written by , Posted in Feminism

Many articles have been written about the decision to change last names after marriage – here’s another one!

I am a feminist. That’s not a surprise to anyone who knows me; I subscribe to the belief that those who identify as men and those who identify as women (along with those who don’t identify as either) of all races deserve equal treatment. I believe in things like equal pay, paid maternity and paid paternity leave, and flexible work schedules. I believe that marriages should be equal partnerships; I am physically sickened by the idea that the man in a heterosexual marriage is the default head of the household.

For the most part, other than when I say that I am choosing not to have children, people don’t really feel the need to weigh in on my personal life choices. However, when it came to the Mister’s and my decision about what to do about our last names once we got married, our personal business became open for debate among some of our relatives. It’s interesting, what some people think they are entitled to weigh in on.

When it came time to decide what to do about our last names when we got married, the Mister and I had a few discussions. If you do a search for ‘feminism’ and ‘change last name’, you’ll likely find some interesting takes on the concept. The vast majority of Americans still follow the patriarchal tradition of a woman taking the husband’s family name. Many awesome women still do that – my sister-in-law, many of my closest female friends, and my mother all made that decision. I DEFINITELY find nothing wrong or anti-feminist about deciding to take the husband’s last name; however, I do personally think that the decision should come not because it’s just what people do, but from a discussion about what’s best for the new family.

As far as we saw it, we had these options (in order of what society assumes is appropriate):

  1. He keeps his last name, I take his last name
  2. He keeps his last name, I hyphenate my last name by adding his last name to mine
  3. We both keep our birth names [I refuse to use the term ‘maiden’ name anymore because a) it doesn’t apply to men and b) let’s be honest – how many of us were still ‘maidens’ when we got married]
  4. We both hyphenate his name before my name / We both hyphenate my name before his name
  5. We both take my last name
  6. We both take a new name, possibly one from one side’s family (say, a grandmother’s birth name)
  7. We both take a new name made up of letters from our birth names.

Clearly option one would have been the easiest route. It’s so engrained in our collective thinking that one of our relatives even asked whether I was allowed to keep my name once we got married. However, as we are not having children, we didn’t see any need to default to this option. If we were the last of the Mister’s Last Names AND were going to have children? Sure. Or if perhaps I really hated my birth name? I could see how this would be an easy option. But none of those applied. In fact, since we aren’t having children, choosing his last name felt like I would be ditching my family. I’m not saying that’s what I’d be doing, or that others who don’t plan to have kids but take the man’s last name are doing that; I’m saying that’s how I felt.

Option two would have been a little more ‘progressive,’ but we wouldn’t share a last name, and one thing we were firm on was if one of us were going to change our last name, then it was going to result in us both having the SAME last name.

Option three was going to be the default if we couldn’t agree on anything. In the end though, we did like the idea of sharing a last name. So many people (wrongly) think that you aren’t “really” a family until you have kids. That’s quite offensive to those who cannot have children as well as those who choose not to reproduce. However, in that light, one way to publically solidify that we are, indeed, a family, is to share a last name.

Option four was not great either – while neither of us have especially long last names, both of us hyphenating would still have been a mouthful and created logistical problems from a government ID perspective. Plus, whose name would come first? Would people just drop the second name and end up defaulting to calling us by the last name that came first?

Option five seemed like just another version of option one, although we know that’s not the case. Men who choose their wife’s family name are pretty rare; in some states they have to pay a significant amount of money to make the change because it’s not ‘traditional.’ Laws like that are so sexist; thankfully our state does not have such laws. For us, this option also didn’t make sense; there was no need for him to jump ship from his family name to take mine.

We never seriously considered option six, although another couple at the courthouse the day we changed our names was doing just that. It seemed like a very cool thing.

While on our honeymoon we agreed that if we were going to change our last name, then we would go with option seven: a shared last name that was a mix of his last name and my last name. Soon after our return, we confirmed the decision. From our perspective, this was the best of all worlds AND met all of our criteria:

–          We would share the same last name

–          Neither of us would have to feel like we were leaving our family or picking our spouse’s family over our own

–          We would be able to fit our new last name on a driver’s license

We wrote down all the letters of our last names and started mixing them up. There were a few options that were funny, but only one really stood out, and it’s the one we chose. It let me keep my initials (which I really like – hence the blog title), and also sounds vaguely Irish, which is a heritage we both share. Score!

We took the steps to legally change our names and then told our parents mostly for logistics reasons. We believe that this does not impact them in any practical way, and while I can see having an emotional reaction to change – much like the reaction to realizing that their children are married –how they chose to communicate their feelings has spoken volumes to me about our relationships.

I’m proud of our decision. I’m sad, however, that doing something as basic as choosing the best route for us as a couple is seen by some as hurtful. Hopefully more and more people will feel comfortable making similar decisions if they fit their new families, until we can get to a point where the default is not ‘well obviously she’ll take his last name,’ but instead ‘are either or both of you planning to change your last name’? That would be awesome.

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