I recently came across this article about reasons why women keep their names when they get married, and I thought it was a good time to revisit the name change debate.
It’s not a bad article (aside from the fact that it cites a FOX News article on the topic as a credible source), and if you want to take a couple of seconds to look at it, I’ll wait here for you.
But the thing that bugs me about the article, and society itself, is that everyone expects that you can put women who keep their maiden names in a little box, tie it with a ribbon, and that’s that. Let’s outline seven reasons why women keep their names? Saying that is just like saying “here are seven reasons why couples don’t have children,” or “here are seven reasons why couples decide to cohabit but not get married.” As if there were only seven reasons or as if these seven reasons are the most important or most common. As if these decisions aren’t deeply personal.
I know women who have struggled immensely with the decision to change their names, and have decided to change it.
I know women who have changed their name to their husband’s and then changed it back.
I know women who changed their name, and had that name longer than they had their maiden names, got divorced, and changed their name back.
I know women who have combined names, hyphenated names, kept their names as middle names.
I know women – I am a woman – who kept their names all together.
And not once, when asked why they made the decision they did (as if it were anyone’s business), did I hear them say, “Because the bureaucratic pressures to change your name aren’t as strong as one might think” or “The act defines our society as patriarchal.”(Well, OK, I’ve heard that second one, but the decision is often more personal than that when you get down to the bottom of it.)
They say, “I always dreamed of being Dr. Myname. I never dreamed of being Dr. Hisname.”
They say, “Have you ever tried teaching high school with the last name Cox? Yea, it’s about as fun as it sounds, so I changed it.”
They say, “I hyphenated our names because I added him to my life; adding his name felt right. Like a combination.”
The decision is personal. Deeply personal. Cannot be pinned into a list, personal. And it both affects your life enormously, and doesn’t affect it at all.
My decision to keep my name has had interesting (and often infuriating) consequences. Reactions ranging from, “What kind of man would let his wife do that?” to “Oh, well that makes sense because you’re a writer,” to “Oh, I guess we all know who wears the pants in that family,” to “Good for you” make conversations on the topic unpredictable, to say the least. And that’s not even including discussions on Mrs. versus Ms. and how I am not Mrs. Timothy Hisname, even though I married Mr. Timothy Hisname. How does that even work?
These conversations have affected my life a lot, because I’ve had to have so many of them. The decision has also had some other interesting consequences that I wouldn’t have even dreamed of. It has made it impossible for Tim to check into hotel rooms if I’ve made the reservation, for example. (They cited estranged or abusive boyfriends trying to check in to find their ex girlfriends’ rooms, but an estranged or abusive husband who still shares the name of his ex wife can find her, no problem, because they still have the same name? Tell me how that makes sense. And this was not one, but TWO hotels, and they held their ground even after Tim showed them that he held the same credit card I made the reservation on.)
But the decision has profoundly not affected my life in many other ways. I’m still married. I still love my husband. We still enjoy the same legal and emotional benefits of marriage that anyone else shares. We share finances and have pre-applied for a mortgage together and share insurance. And, believe it or not, I don’t “wear the pants” any more than I would had I changed my name. Tim doesn’t look at me and think, “I’d better ask permission about this. She’s one of those women who kept her name.”
And, strangely enough, we’re still happy.
See? Happy. We don’t like the same Chicago baseball team, nor do we share a last name. And we’re still happy and married and fighting about housework and dreaming of owning property. Though, now that I think about it, maybe Tim’s ability to respect that I’d rather enjoy an Italian sausage on the South Side than have a beer and watch the grass grow at Wrigley is because we don’t share a name – he has seen first hand that being different in these ways doesn’t make you less married, or less in love.
The decision to change or keep one’s name is intensely personal. Let’s not assume it’s all about careers or politics. Let’s not assume it makes any difference at all. Let’s just respect people’s choices.