When it comes to big, complicated, emotional decisions, it can sometimes be hard to trace back exactly why you made your original choices. New rationalizations can cover the old, and the post-decision reactions could modify the reasons you did it. Herodotus famously claimed the Persians had to make each decision twice: once while drunk and then again while sober to ensure it was still the right one the next day. (Sometimes they inverted the two. I have tried both and can report they were onto something.)
For me, the decision to take Clarissa’s name happened almost impulsively. Clarissa was talking one day about how if we got married, she would have to make the decision on whether to keep her name, take mine, or try and meld the two.
Now, I’m not the best feminist. For example, I’m a huge reader but it took me to the age of twenty-five (as in right now) to read any books about feminism, namely the excellent primer Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks*. But I try to pay attention to my internal alarm that something isn’t right, and Clarissa’s statement set it off.
Why did she have to make that decision? That sounds like a pretty tough one to make, and it sets her up to make some sacrifice of her identity. If she keeps her name, then she gets to remain a Nemeth, but we have to explain that we’re married for the rest of our life. And are our kids going to be hyphenated? This solution doesn’t scale to more than one future generation unless you start having three or four last names hyphenated, which is going to be hell on their SAT forms. (Editors note: Long time readers know that planned hyphenation is my personal first choice, so if you want to hear about that, read more here.)
If she takes my name, she loses her last name. On a purely practical level, her last name is pretty awesome: unique, yet easy for English-speakers to spell. But more importantly, changing her name would mean the end of the Nemeths. Nobody on her side of the family has male kids who carry that last name, and she’s an only child. And hyphenating her name (or both of our names) runs into the same practicality concerns as using that solution for the kids.
And then I realized, Hey, changing my name should be an option here, too. And as an option, it makes a lot of sense! If I change my name to Nemeth, it allows us to carry on that name. I’m the oldest of three brothers, so they should carry on the Brown name just fine. When the decision came up, it even looked like Clarissa was going to far outpace me in professional advancement and other stuff, so it made more sense for me to be the one to change my name.
And not to lie, but gregbrown.com? Not available, since that damned folk singer took it while I was in high school. Gregnemeth.com? Oh yes, still open.
Those were all the reasons I laid out to her. After some discussion we agreed, and she was glad to have that off her back. But as I said, new reasons tend to creep in after you’ve made the decision. Since she and I started telling people, we’ve gotten some interesting reactions!
Some people (cough internet posters cough) react by making a crack about masculinity, implying that I am either marrying a dude or have ceded my patriarchal right. Others think it’s the best idea because you can make your new name google-proof and keep people from finding bad stuff you wrote on the internet when you were younger, as if my googleability (not our families, present and future) was forefront in my mind when making the decision.
But there are others who are supportive and even admit that it never even came up as a possibility when they thought about the issue. Women predominantly have this reaction, but some men say that too. Taking my future wife’s last name has been worth it just for those conversations; the deepest inequities are ones we don’t even stop to consider, and we’re not going to understand the dilemma better if we don’t discuss it at all.
Even if most of my enjoyment comes from swapping the usual gender norms, we made this decision because it was the right choice for our situation. It was the process of making a choice that was important to us, not the solution that tumbled out. And by talking about this with friends and others, we want people to know that last names are a choice that both partners in a relationship should make. Whether you go with the traditional route or choose a non-traditional option like us, both guy and gal (or gal and gal, or guy and guy) should be a part of that decision. It shouldn’t be left for one party alone to agonize over.
*Seriously, if you’ve been turned off by one of the strands of feminism in the past or just (like me) want to learn more, this book is the best way in. She defines feminism as “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” which is a pretty incisive, inclusive, and motivating definition! It’s super-short and very plainspoken, basically the opposite of everything bad about typical theory.