Ok. I’m going to do this. After a huge number of increasingly frantic emails, I’m (we’re) going to take on the topic of name changing. As long time readers know, this is a topic that has… not gone so well in the past. So, before we start, some ground rules: I’m really encouraging people to share their experiences and opinions on this, kindly. Please remember that just because I, or some other reader made different choices than you did, we’re not telling you that you should do it our way. We’re just saying, for better or for worse, that was our path. Also, no personal attacks. In one memorable comment last time we discussed this, someone accused me of hating my grandmother, since I didn’t change my name, and she (rather obviously) did. So, let’s steer clear of that, shall we? Thanks.
The specific question that I get asked over and over is this: how do you decide what choice to make when it comes to changing your name? An increasingly common corollary is this: my husband really really wants me to change my name, and it makes me cry when I think about changing it, and what should I do?
And for these questions, my response is simple and two fold: A) Talk about it with your partner. I mean really, really, really talk about it (especially if it’s painful). And B) Don’t. (I know! I just told you not to change your name! What the mother f*cking f*ck?) But this is what I really mean – you don’t need to change your name now if you are not ready.
Within wedding circles, name changing is talked about as a very binary game: you either change your name or you don’t, whether you change your name or not says something very specific about what kind of a woman you are, and you either change your name now or forever hold your peace.
This is all total nonsense.
To talk about this, I’m going to tell a small piece of my story. In one sense my story is a simple one, because I was never, not even for a milla-second, going to take David’s name. It just wasn’t on the table. But in another way, the story is very very complex.
First of all, I’m not sure David has strong feelings about my taking his name at all… but… I really wanted David to take my name. Really. And that was also not on the table, which was good for us in a way, because it was very even. He knew exactly why I wasn’t going to take his name, because he was in the same situation as I was.
Second complicated facet: David and I both want a family name, and we want to share a name with our kids, and what do we do about that? Well, the bottom line is, we decided to wait. We’d discussed a million different ideas over our five years together (at one point David wanted us both to take the others name as a middle/pre-last name, and I pointed out then we’d be Meg His Hers and David Hers His, and then everyone would be like, “oh, are the His-Hers-Hers-His’s coming tonight?” And “this is my friend Meg Hers His or is it Meg His Hers, and I can never remember, but anyway she’s lovely.” So we kind of ruled that one out early.*) But what has come closest to seeming do-able to us is hyphenation. Since I felt fairly strongly that the person in labor got to give the kid her name, and David felt pretty strongly that his kids were going to have his damn name… hyphenation has long seemed the default choice. So, we were considering hyphenating our names when we got married.
And then the wedding month came along. And we were really busy, and we were really stressed, and we had a million things to think about and we just couldn’t devote the emotional time to the subject that we felt it required, so we finally just looked at each other and shrugged. And then we told everyone that neither of us was changing our names… yet. Since for us the name changing hinged so much on kids, we decided we were just going to wait till we were having kids, and then see how we actually felt in the moment, instead of how we hypothetically felt in the future.
And then, there is that other painful complicated thing I have to mention. The anger. I have been near blindsided by how angry I still feel over this choice. When mail comes addressed to me as Mrs. Meg His, I ask David to take the label off before I get home, so I don’t have to see it. When someone addresses me as Mrs.** I literally get shaky with rage. And I didn’t expect that response! What is that response? I mean, my mother is a first wave feminist, for gods sake, and she uses Mrs.! Why am I so so angry about it?
And then this weekend I figured it out on a real tangible level. We were having a long conversation with a lesbian couple who are good friends of ours, and the name change discussion came up. After we’d cycled through talking about all the different choices (combining names, hyphenating names, picking a new name, picking one persons name… etc, etc) they started talking about how they didn’t really have any idea about what they were going to do about their kids names (or their names after they had kids, even) and they’d figure it out somehow. And then I fully, fully emotionally realized why I was getting shaky angry, I realized why readers were writing me, literally in tears and rage at the same time (readers who want to take there husbands name write me like this, the same way people who don’t want to take their husbands name write me like this). It’s because we’re used to a level playing field, and on this we don’t have one. It’s not anyone’s fault really, but thems the breaks.
When I tell people that I wanted David to take my name, they always, without fail, laugh like I’m making a hilarious joke. And I always just stare at them. Because I’m not joking. Not even a little bit. When David and I have conversations about how he wants his name to be last when we hyphenate, I feel like I don’t have a even playing field. Not even a little bit. When I get mail addressed to Meg His and he never gets mail addressed to David Hers, it drives home the fact that the playing field is not level.
And so. And so. None of this means that you should keep your name. Or hyphenate your name. Not at all. But what it does mean is this:
If you are trying to figure out what to do, talk to your partner. I mean really really talk to him (in this example I’m using a male pronoun…). Try to figure out what you’re feeling and try to articulate it in all its complexity. If he’s not quite understanding it, ask him to put himself in your shoes, and see how that feels. And then talk some more. And cry if you want to.
Don’t listen to outside voices. In most situations I say, listen to your family… and then decide. But on this one I think the voices that matter in this conversation are yours and your partners. It’s your new family, and this is an emotionally core decision you are making about that baby family, and more than that about your NAME. In my opinion (and I may be wrong, but it is my rather firm personal opinion) your mother-in-law does not get a vote on this one.
Consider waiting if you need to. If you really can’t figure out how you feel, wait. Seriously. Weddings are complicated times, you don’t need a deadline on this decision on top of everything else. There is no reason to talk about your family name at the wedding, either way, so you can take the time that you need to think.
It’s ok if your emotions are… whatever they are. Maybe you’re angry, maybe you’re excited, maybe you’re zen, maybe you’re something else. Maybe you’re zen and then angry by turns (me), or excited and then sad (maybe Alyssa). NORMAL. I suspect that name changing has always been emotional for women, but we’re one of the first generations that has so many legitimate options that becomes easy to talk about the confusion. So. Embrace that.
You have options. Lots and lots of options. They are varied, and they belong to you. You can pick amongst them. You can even change your mind amongst them. Remember that, on the bad days.
And breathe. Because you will figure it out one day… or you won’t… and that will be fine too.
And now, Team Practical’s words of wisdom. Go!
Update: read Part II here
*Though I think people who do this are ballsy and awesome
**When you don’t take your husband’s last name, you technically stay a Ms.