Name Changing: Don’t Be Quiet About It

It’s been awhile since we discussed name changing on APW. And funny enough, in the time that we haven’t talked about it, it hasn’t gotten any easier, nor have the answers become any more obvious. So here is the first thing I want to point out: if you’re in the middle of making this decision, you have lots and lots of options. Society tends to present a black and white world view: you change your name, or you don’t. But thinking about it that way just disempowers you. As illustration, let’s look at people we know in the APW community:

  • APW staffer Lauren was going to change her name, but then decided that felt wrong to her. She and her husband decided to hyphenate at the last minute. A new name for a new family.
  • Cate changed her name, but was adamant about using Ms., not Mrs., because, “Because you shouldn’t be able to tell a woman’s marital status from her title any more than you can a man’s.”
  • APW staffer Kate has a dream husband (hi Kevin!) who offered to take her name. But after a lot of discussion she decided that she didn’t want to keep her often-mispronounced-as-a-bad-word last name, so she changed her last name, and took her maiden name as her middle name. Well, socially. She hasn’t done the paperwork yet, and it’s been more than a year. She goes by Ms. as well, in case you were wondering.
  • Brenna changed her name, and then it didn’t feel right, so she changed it back.
  • APW Staffer Alyssa changed her name, and then cried about it, mourning the loss (which in no way made it the wrong decision for her).
  • Marie-Ève lives in Montreal, where it’s actually illegal for a woman to change her last name upon marriage. We had a long conversation about this, where I said, “People here think that to be a family, you need the same last name.” And Marie-Ève said, “That’s crazy. To be a family, you just need to be a family.”
  • And then there is me. I didn’t change my name, and I didn’t have any heartache about it. If you ask us what we’ll name our kids, however, you’ll get some flustered arm waving. Don’t think I’m going down without a fight.

So you have options. You have way more options than I’ve listed here, but this is just to get you started. You don’t even need to make a decision right now; you can wait til you feel ready. Or you can make a decision, and then change your mind. But don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t have choices.

But here is where I have an issue: for most of us, this decision isn’t an easy one. Even if we take the most traditional route and change our names and go by Mrs., the process is often emotionally difficult, leaving us in tears, feeling like we’re mourning a loss. And if there is anything I’ve learned from the ongoing APW discussion about name changing, it’s this: the men in our lives, by and large, don’t know how hard it is for us.

Why? Well, I’d argue that we’re being too quiet about it, and we’re wasting far too much time judging each other for making choices different than our own. (Every second you spend judging a woman for making a different choice than you is a second you wasted.) For whatever reason, we’re internalizing a lot of the painful bits. Maybe we’re talking about it with our partner, but we’re not talking about it with the world at large. We feel like, “This is the way it’s always been,” and “I just need to figure out what I want to do,” and “There just are not any great solutions,” instead of saying, “I’m just not willing to put up with this anymore!” or “You need to know that this is painful for me,” or “I want more options, damn it, and better options, too,” and then politely lighting something on fire.

In the middle of a long conversation with a lot of my best ladies about name change, and what we name our kids, and how even when women don’t change their names, they rarely get to pass down their names to their kids, LPC at Privilege, our resident wise woman said, “It seems to me that this issue is causing a lot of women a lot of distress and the situation won’t change until society prioritizes a resolution. Twenty-four years after I first become a mother I still wish I could have shared some part of my kids’ last name without giving up my own.” She pointed out that, society is really good at coming up with solutions when it needs to. For goodness sakes, we’ve sent people to the moon, so we can figure out how to make women feel honored during the name game if we put our heads to it.

But we have to start talking about it. And we have to stop judging each other about the choices we make, and start making it a priority to have better, and more, choices for all of us. We have to make a stir. After the initial public reaction to her book How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran wrote in her column for The Times, “As Steve wrote: ‘People forget that sexism is bad for men, too: it makes the women they know unhappy. Inequality is bad for everyone.’ It was something I hadn’t considered, but now it seemed obvious: the patriarchy has also made men’s lives difficult. Men and women really hang around each other a lot. Our fortunes are intertwined.” So here is the thing: once the men in our lives know that the name game is (more often than not) making us miserable, chances are, they will want things to change, too. Why? They love us. It might not be easy for them. They might have to do a lot of thinking and work past how-they-always-thought-it-was, but they will want change, too. Why? Because they are our partners. They are on our side.

So let’s talk about this, without judging each other for our choices (Seriously! Stop with the judging!). How can we make this less painful for all of us? What choices are we personally making? How can we improve things?

And as you know, my suggestion is this: hyphenation, where the boy kids keep the dad’s name after marriage, adding their partners mothers name, and the girl children keep their mom’s name, adding their partners fathers name (insert variations for gay families here). It’s got a certain symmetry to it that at least proves that more options are possible.

Consider this post my politely lighting something on fire. And feel free to join me. Maybe we can get a small bonfire going.

Photo: Katie Jane Photo

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