Of all the conversations we have on APW, one of my favorites (and one of the hardest) is the conversation about changing your name. I find it important because there are so few places in the world where the assumption isn’t that you’ll probably change your name (thus othering those of us who never even considered it). And beyond that, there are so few places that seem to talk about the often emotional reality of choosing to change your name. But today, we’re discussing a whole other angle of this discussion. What if you’ll never be a Mrs. because you’re going to be a Dr.? What if that wasn’t what you planned? MK is here with her story.
When I was a little girl, I (like many other little girls) loved to write “Mrs. [Insert last name of current crush here]” over and over again in pretty, loopy handwriting. After all, this relationship was going to be a permanent arrangement and if you didn’t start practicing early you’d have to suffer through several months of hen-scratch signatures on everything you signed.
When my high school sweetheart proposed two weeks after our graduation, I told him I’d have to think about it, went home, and scrawled “Dr. and Mrs. [Sweetheart]” all over a notebook page. He was going to go to medical school, so I felt that I should start working on the loopy “D” as soon as possible. But it didn’t look right, not to mention eighteen seemed like an incredibly young age for me to make that kind of decision, so I turned him down. We broke up two weeks later.
In college, whenever I shared details of my dream wedding with roommates and girlfriends over a bowl of ice cream I would always say, “When I’m Mrs. Smith…” (I thought it best to keep it relatively generic, so I didn’t pin myself down to anyone too soon). Except then I finished college a year early (which just kind of snuck up on me) and while I didn’t have a plan, I did have a boyfriend who had a year left to go. I considered just taking an extra year of worthless coursework and twiddling my thumbs while I waited for my “ring by spring” to arrive. But then one of my professors somehow found out about my conundrum and suggested I apply for graduate school—he needed a Teaching Assistant, and I needed something to do while I tread the waters of my relationship waiting to be “Mrs. College Boyfriend”.
I applied for an M.A. program out of the same department, crossed my fingers, and was completely caught by surprise when I received an acceptance letter for a funded three-year Ph.D. program. Any sane person (or probably any guy, sane or not) would not have had the panic attack I did at this unforeseen event. A Ph.D. meant becoming Dr. Somebody and I had lived my whole life planning to be Mrs. [Insert name of whoever I was with when finished the game of relationship musical chairs that is college]. This was not the plan.
I accepted the offer and reminded myself that it would be three whole years from now, by then I would be happily married to College Boyfriend and I would change my name before graduating and be Dr./Mrs. College Boyfriend. Good compromise.
Then two months into my program, College Boyfriend and I split when I realized that his whole “I’m failing coursework because I’d rather be with you than go to class” thing wasn’t actually that charming as far as futures go. Again, I told myself that with two years and ten months to go, I could find a new husband or at least fiancé by then and that would make everything fine.
See, in my mind, being a woman and having the title Dr. came with a lot of baggage, especially for women who start their degree (or finish it) before getting married. Do you hyphenate, keep two different names, use dual identities (Dr. Somebody/Mrs. Smith)? I now recognize that lots of women face this problem, but it is especially sticky in academia, where your name is tied with your accomplishments—conference presentations, publications, professional contacts, and so on. If you publish under Dr. Maiden Name and change your name before tenure reviews, you’ll have to have the paperwork proving that you were in fact Dr. Maiden Name when you published those first few articles. Not only that, but it would mean that I would never (legally) be a “Mrs.,” which is something I couldn’t reconcile with my ten-year-old self’s life goals.
As I was reaching the finish line of my three-year program, my boyfriend of two years still hadn’t proposed. We were going to get married, that much was clear. But he wasn’t ready yet, having just started a Ph.D. program himself. Clearly he did not understand the plan. So the day after I defended my dissertation, I loudly announced, “This is your last chance to ask me to change my name!” He laughed because, at least sometimes, he’s smarter than me.
And so, flying in the face of all of my childhood hopes and dreams, I became Dr. Somebody with no backup plan on the name situation.
You know what? The world actually didn’t end. I became okay with being Dr. Somebody, then I got really good at being Dr. Somebody. But Mr. UsuallyRight was dragging his feet on a relationship that I was ready to shift into another gear. In a moment of frustration I asked him what exactly he was waiting for. And his reasoning was something I didn’t even consider.
“I don’t want to be Mr. and Dr. Somebody when we’re married,” he said. As women, I think we sometimes forget that men have their own issues to deal with (I know I definitely do). My early life had revolved around being “Mrs.” but I hadn’t really considered that maybe his early life plans hadn’t included grad school and a 24-year-old girlfriend with a Ph.D. He was proud that I would be Dr. Somebody (or Dr. Right, or Dr. Somebody-Right, or Dr. Somebody/Mrs. Right, or really whatever I wanted to do), and I owed it to him to wait until he could achieve what he wanted, too. And so I will.
I’m not going to lie, I get incredibly disheartened when I look through those cheesy bulk-wedding-decor magazines and there are glittery, rustic, adorable “Mr. and Mrs.” decorations. Sometimes I think that maybe I should stop caring so much about one tiny detail and go with the traditional titles. But if this is the first time that you are introduced as a married, united couple, shouldn’t what you’re called mean something to you?
To us the titles are less about some false sense of status and more about the things we’ve accomplished together, a way for us to celebrate our years of supporting each other through long hours, low bank accounts, theses and dissertations and mental breakdowns. They aren’t titles we are given when we sign a certificate; they’re titles we earned as independent and supportive partners. Everyone should get the opportunity to incorporate some part of who they are as a couple in their introduction, because “Mr. and Mrs.” isn’t really who you two as partners are, is it? Maybe you’re “Marathon Enthusiasts John and Jane Smith” or “Lawyer Bill and Elementary School Teacher Betty Jones” or a million other possibilities.
As far as my future identity, do I know what I’m going to finally decide? Not a clue, but fortunately I still have two whole years (at least) to figure that one out. I will probably never (legally) be Mrs. anything, so years and years of practicing my loopy M’s were probably all a waste. Our plans don’t always work out the way we think they will when we’re children, but I don’t think I will be more excited about that than when we’re introduced as “Dr. and Dr. [Insert whatever decision we both make here].”
Photo from MK’s Personal Collection