Madeline: Game of Names

The call from a restricted number came through at 9am. I was brushing my teeth and running late for work, so I ignored it at first. Then the phone rang again. I spat, picked up.

“Can I speak with…” A telemarketer warning light was flashing in my head.

“Speaking,” I snapped, grabbing mouthwash.

“This is your immigration officer about your interview last week.” I swallowed a bunch of mouth germs in surprise. “It’s about your name. Why did you not keep your name? Why use Elliott?” I want to capture for the record how surreal that moment was, to be called by a representative of the U.S. government and quizzed about my name, by someone who hadn’t even taken the time to check how “Madeline” is pronounced. In my bathroom. In my pajamas.

Let’s back up. My mother didn’t change her name after marriage and I never thought I’d change mine. The appeal of a new one, which crept up on me during our engagement, took me quite by surprise. I actually liked the idea of being a Mrs. Brandon. I’d keep my own name for work, so it wasn’t a loss, so much as… a bonus. But while that worked for me personally, I wasn’t so thrilled about popping out only Master or Miss Brandons if we ended up having babies.

After some discussions, and several hours of me pouring through every comment ever made on the subject on APW, we came up with a solution I thought was rather elegant. Elliott is my middle name, after my maternal grandmother; my uncle has it too. It hyphenates better than my family name, but it still connects me to my family. So I adopted that instead, and double-barreled up. I wasn’t sure if New York City law would be up for it, as I know some states restrict the changes you can make on your marriage license. In the end, though, no-one raised an eyebrow.

That should be the end of the story, but it’s not, because there’s still the voice in my head that says “You shouldn’t change your name.” Then there are the whispers of doubt: “Are you sure that’s even legal?” or, “Who does that?”  (The whispers have a median age of about 14.) I’d made a choice, a statement even, but I was still half-expecting someone in authority to tell me no, that’s not right.

“That’s not right,” the immigration officer said in my ear, that morning in the bathroom.

“Excuse me?” Bear in mind that I’ve been adjusting to this name thing since December. Hearing the note of hysteria in my voice, Brandon came in from the other room and held my hand.

“This name, Elliott—it was not your name before you married. It is not your husband’s name. It’s not allowed. I call my supervisor then I call you back, OK?” I sat with Brandon on the edge of the bath, feeling bleak. My name was not right—I was a fraud.

“That’s ridiculous,” Brandon said when I told him. “Of course your name is right.” Moments like this are why it’s great to be married. Five minutes later, the officer rang back.

“My supervisor says, did you get married in a court? Then it’s ok.” The call was terminated. “Yes, we got married in a court,” I told the bath mat. “OF COURSE we got married in a court. We sent you three copies of our LICENSE.” I said some other things, less politely, and then I felt better. The next time anyone says to me, “That’s not right,” I thought, I must remember that the answer is, “Of course it’s right.” At least, the next time anyone says it to me in my bathroom.

Photo by: Moodeous Photography

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  • kckp

    I loved your description of getting your husband’s name as a “bonus.” My new last name is MyIrishName HisIndianName (no hyphen, which causes all kinds of confusion because apparently that’s Not Normal). It’s great — it’s a very useful way to mark our family’s hybrid-ethnicity identity. Kind of a mouthful, though, even though both of our family names are short.

    I had intended to keep my pre-married name at work, but my job has some security procedures that required me to use my legal name on everything. I didn’t find out about this until afterward.

    • MDBethann

      I’m in the same boat as you KCKP work-wise, so I’m going to use MyLast HisLast with no hyphen. While our last names are both short German ones, it gives me a 13 letter mouthful since they both end in “er.” Oh well – I keep my professional identity and get to be Mrs. HisLast.

  • Lturtle

    “Of course it’s right.”

    Yes! My state is one of those that limits the name changes you can make when you get married. I didn’t know that before hand. So when we went to get our license, the name change solution we had come up with after careful thought and conversation was “not allowed” according to both the computer and the clerk. So I had to make a spur of the moment decision or delay our elopement. Now I feel stuck with a name that feels not right to me until I go through the process (and expense) of a legal name change through the court.
    I just wanted to shout through the halls of that government building – my name is whatever I say it is, dammit!

  • Alexandra

    I feel like a phone call like that would make me wish it was possible to punch someone through the phone. I suppose it’s hardly the guy’s fault that English isn’t his first language, but a bit of sensitivity on the subject rather than “That’s wrong” would go a long way.

  • The name thing remains so difficult despite the ongoing conversation. No matter what you do it’s not perfect for everyone and sometimes it’s not completely perfect with every niggling voice in your head. I kept BOTH (moms and dads) of my names and David kept his names and while we are both happy with that we have done so far we can’t have a single conversation about last names for future babies with one of us getting very upset (there have been last name tears).
    P.S. My in laws making comments about my last name is hard enough – I can’t IMAGINE having stupid government saying stupid mean things about it! :(

    • It seems so awful to not only have strangers commenting on whether or not you change your name and how you change it but to also have the government getting involved. Ugh.

      Good for you for standing up for your change though!

    • I’ve wondered if this is odd for a while now: I sort of relish the confused/slightly mean responses my in-laws throw my way when I mention that I’m not changing my name. It makes me own that decision all over again when I look them in the eyes and say “of course I’m not changing my name”, which is sort of a nice personal affirmation. Especially when they (for the billionth time) ask “why!??” right afterwards.
      So maybe it’s helpful to think of the butting-in of strangers and less-than-strangers on our decisions as a chance to affirm rather than a challenge. Obviously, this doesn’t count with the government, but it could help with regular citizens.
      Also, it’s definitely no fun at all when you are still struggling with your decision. When I was still thinking things over and hadn’t really discussed with the fiance, these questions made me want to faint.

      • Madeline

        “a chance to affirm rather than a challenge”–this is brilliant!

        • Anne

          I’m also not changing my name, and while no one I’ve told has overtly questioned why, for some reason I always feel like I have to offer an explanation; ie my professional name or my degrees, when really the reason is: because I don’t want to, and that is just as valid as someone wanting to change their name. I’m thinking I should resolve not to offer unprompted explanation from here on out.

          • Michelle

            This is my response too. I don’t want to. Not because my fiance’s name is ugly or I’m trying to make some huge statement or I don’t want to be associated with his family or any other nonsense thing people have accused me of.

            I just. Don’t. Want to.

  • This reminds me of when a very sure-of-herself supervisor with a law degree told me that I had changed my name “wrong” and that I didn’t have the name I thought I had because the paperwork was wrong.

    There are so many things you are trying to get right in wedding planning land. It was so emotional to hear that – that she told me I did it wrong, I did my name wrong, I am a wrong person, I am not who I think I am. She seemed to take pleasure in telling me I’d screwed up. Turns out, she was wrong and my name was just fine. I got a new job two months later.

    • Madeline

      This reminds me a lot of Meg’s recent post–you got the supervisor out of your life (luckily I get to do the same with the immigration folks, fingers crossed!). Then we can move on knowing that we DIDN’T screw up.

      “So, once you figure out who it is in your life that’s always trying to cut you down to size (“Oh, yes honey, I know you’re playing around with that blogging/wedding photography/painting little project of yours, but I was wondering when…”) should be identified and then excluded from your immediate circle of creative confidence.”

      Read more:

  • melissa

    We sent you three copies. Bureaucratic idiots.


  • “Of course it’s right” is always the answer. Of course, I reserve the right to add, especially when speaking to my bathmat, “Damn straight it’s right.”

  • Richelle

    Lucky for you that you happen to be in a heterosexual marriage or else (1) in most states and parts of the world you wouldn’t have been able to get married in court and thus make it right by this persons standards and (2) your marriage would not have been enough under federal law to grant you immigration status in the US. How awful for our friends who don’t happen to have that opportunity

  • Madeline, I want to give you a virtual fistbump of solidarity for having a family middle name.

    My middle name is my grandmother’s maiden name. It’s also my father’s middle name. My father had two girls, but when the topic (brought up by my already married sister) of the ‘death of the family name’ (so to speak) came up, he shrugged it off.

    Turns out, while I knew my grandfather was not around, I didn’t know he’d run off very early in my grandmother and father’s lives. She (whose typical answer to “Why did you __?” was always, “because I felt like it, what does it matter?”) never changed her name back because she simply liked the sound of her new last name better.

    When I told my dad I’d rather keep my middle and drop my last name in favor of Bryan’s, he looked almost relieved. My dad actually cared more about whether I would change my middle name, but didn’t really know how to voice that (and that he was okay with anything we chose) without feeling like he was going to step on toes.

    • Madeline

      virtual fistbump back! What a fascinating story…

    • Hannah

      I rock the mom’s-maiden-name-as-middle-name as well, and proudly use both on all my professional materials. I am not changing my name, not because I am averse to my fiance’s name (if I changed it, we both would, because he doesn’t want to “own me” which I think is adorable and hilarious) but because I don’t want to drop EITHER of my family names, and having three actively used would be a mouthful.

  • Contessa

    Isn’t that all we want to hear, “Of course it’s right”?

  • Wait, wait. Specifically it was okay if you got married in a court but not okay if you’d been married in, say, a church or on a beach? If that’s the case…wtf?

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Educated guess: Immigration is the feds. Name change is mostly the State. The federal supervisor, who likely knows almost nothing about New York name-change law, was comfortable completing the federal paperwork if he was certain a New York government employee had signed off on the name change. If Madeline had been married in a church, the feds would have been more nervous.

      • MDBethann

        I don’t see why it would matter though – the license is issued by the county/State officials in the US no matter who performs the actual service. And in PA where we got married, my maiden name went on the license, not my married one, so what’s on the license is irrelevant really, in terms of my married name.

  • Jenny

    When my fiance and I are legally married (which will be a while since we’re gay and currently living in Texas and want to focus on having a wedding celebration with family and friends first, then do the legalities later) I want to change my last name to my mom’s maiden name, which she will also take.

    My mom and I used to have the same initials – JLJ. She finally went back to her maiden name a few years after my parents divorced. It’s silly, but I felt that sharing initials was something really neat! I actually mourned it a little when she went back to her maiden name. But since I don’t have a relationship (or much of one) with my dad, I’ll be taking her maiden name as our married name. My fiance is adopted and doesn’t like her adopted family name, hence her wanting to take my mom’s maiden name as well.

    As an added bonus, I’ll get to get rid of the stigma of sharing a name with a 90’s talk TV show host and any “keeping up with the Joneses” comments, too!

  • Sarah

    Stupid inner whispers getting stuck in the worst part of adolescence. I stick my tongue out at them :P

    I liked your description of them though. And am glad that the government recognized your choice in the end.

  • Our immigration lawyer suggested that me not changing my last name “might be a problem.” As if keeping my name is somehow a signal that I’m not fully committed to our marriage. SUCK IT, ICE. (I’m still pretty mad about it.)

    • I’ve been a teeny bit worried about that, myself (but then changing my name, here in the new country, in the middle of immigration stuff, seems unwise).

  • Class of 1980

    I don’t think this is what it appears to be on the surface.

    The federal government is now scrutinizing people who change their names for any reason other than marriage. That you changed your name to something that was not your husband’s surname, and was not your maiden name, sent up a red flag.

    There were recent news stories about the issue. It’s all supposed to be in the name of catching terrorists … but somehow the citizens lost their freedom instead.

  • EM

    One- in addition to the aforementioned virtual fist bump, can I also send out a virtual dope slap to the totally chauvanistic and awkward response of a civil servant.

    (I myself work in public service, so this makes me especially twitchy. Don’t worry. You only ever need to send me ONE copy.)

    For me, my last name is so much of my identity, I really don’t want to change it. My amazing fiancé’s response to that was “If I thought you would just say “okay, I’m going to be Mrs. X’, I probably don’t know you and shouldn’t be marrying you.”

    For me, giving up my last name entirely isn’t an option. Although I am not close with my father, my mom and sister share it and it is a very distinct last name, so much so that it’s been a nickname for as long as I can remember.

    The combination of our last names sounds really lovely and I have realized that there are several logistic considerations related to having small humans that make it convenient to have some name connection. Currently, I have agreed to hyphenate my name legally, using my maiden name professionally and realizing that I will probably always be called by my last name by friends.

    I do though retain the right to change it back at any point if it somehow disturbs my happiness.

  • Taylor

    Thank you so much for this post. I am dealing right now with the kind of name judgement I never expected. I am taking my fiances last name (and changing my middle name to my maiden name) and my future mother in law is really disappointed in me for it.

    She kept her maiden name and she thinks I should to. Sometimes I fixate on her disappointment too much and wonder…should I keep my name? does it make me less independent or less of a feminist for wanting to take his name?

    I just have to remember why I am choosing to take his name and move my birth name to the middle in the first place…that is what felt right to me. And if my mother in law’s criticisms make me question myself again, I hope I can just say no…of course its right.

  • ElisabethJoanne

    I first read the name-change pamphlets for California by accident. I was researching a totally different issue for work. I thought they were kind of funny. Who doesn’t think about name-change issues before they apply for their marriage license?

    I re-read them a couple of months ago, seriously this time, to discuss the issue with my future husband. I still think the law is kind of silly in its breadth. I think I could become Elisabeth Joanne Joanne, and he could stay John Peter Smith, or become John Peter Peter. Or we can combine Jones and Smith to become the Siths. We had some laughs figuring out funny ways we could blend the names.

    And while it’d be funny for me to become Elisabeth Peter Siths, reading this, I’m glad I have the option, well-publicized with all information about applying for a marriage license.

  • Madeline – I am going to assume someone has already told you that you write like a dream. Yes? You do. Thank you.

    • Madeline

      This means a lot to me, thank you.

  • Amy March

    Ah yes, the familiar experience of being treated like a criminal by an immigration agent who doesn’t even speak proper English. It always drives me ’round the bend, but I try and remind myself that lack of an official language is part of what makes America fabulous! You can be American even if you speak only enough English to pass the (very basic) test. Or no English at all, if you were born here in a foreign language community.

    • Madeline