Why Are Women Taking On The Emotional Labor Of Name Change?

While men get a free pass

I’ve been talking about women and marriage and name change for the last decade—long before I knew what the term emotional labor was. And let me get my point of view out of the way out front. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted women to keep their names and pass them on to their children in some form or another (as is common in many cultures around the world). But there is something else that has always been an issue for me, and now I have a word for it. It’s emotional labor.

Or, that unseen and unsung work of worry and care that goes into so much of the basic work of life, that is disproportionately shouldered by women.

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The Emotional Labor Of Last Names

If you’re a woman in Western culture, and you’re getting married, you are almost guaranteed to be grappling with the decision of last names. Should you keep yours? Should you take your partner’s name? Should you create a joint name? Should you hyphenate? If you’re going to have kids, what names should your kids get? What will your in-laws think? How will this affect your career? What questions will you be asked over and over by perfect strangers? What fights are you willing to take on? Which fights do you not want to take on?

And then the biggest question: How will it all feel?

Because while it’s easy to boil down the last name decision to a series of simple decisions and practicalities, in real life, there is a whole lot of emotion involved. It may be the emotion of explaining to your partner that things are not going to turn out the way they’d always imagined. It may be the emotion of unexpectedly sobbing over the loss of a last name you’ve had your whole life (even though you thought it wasn’t a big deal). It may be the emotion of constantly dealing with mail addressed to a name you didn’t take or children addressed by a name you didn’t give them.

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Your particular set of circumstances and decisions will determine the emotions that you have to wrestle with as you decide what last name, or last names your family is going to have. But chances are good there are going to be emotions. Likely even big ones. And chances are that if you’re marrying a male partner, he’ll expect to get through the whole process without any serious interaction with the enormous emotional labor that you’re going through.

And that, my friends, is some bullshit.

So Many Women’s Stories

In the ten years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve had countless conversations with women about the big last name decision. And as feminist as many of us are, we’re still women, raised in the patriarchy. And what I’ve heard over and over are things like this:

  • I wanted to keep my name, but it was so important to my husband that I take his, that I felt like I couldn’t fight him over it.
  • I decided to take my husband’s name, and I thought I was fine with it, but turns out it was devastatingly hard, and my partner barely noticed.
  • I’ve had to have countless conversations and fights with my partner to try to get him to see it my way, or to even see what I’m going through.
  • My husband doesn’t understand why the kids can’t just have his name, because me keeping my name was enough.

That’s a short list, but the variations go on and on, and most of us have a personal story. And almost all of those personal stories involve women doing huge amounts of unseen and unsung emotional labor.

And it’s time we talked about it.

What Needs To Change

Most women in America take their partners’ names. Even more women in America pass on only their partners’ names to their children. It’s a deep form of patriarchy that makes me crazy (we’re literally erasing evidence of matrilineal lines). But I also know that we’re not going to change that over night. And we may not change it ever—plenty of women feel that the last name hill is not one they’re willing to die on.

But here is what I propose we work to change right this minute: the unseen emotional labor of the last name decision.

Making Men Be In The Room Where It Happens

Choosing what last name you, or your family is going to have, is a big decision. It’s a hard decision. It’s an emotional decision. And working through that decision is some of the heaviest emotional labor you can do. This isn’t just remembering that you need to send your mother-in-law a thank you note. This is deciding what name you (and/or your children) will be called for the rest of your life.

And it’s time that men were forced to share the burden of that decision. It’s time we stopped crying those tears in private, or letting them have it their way without discussion, because it’s “so important to them.”

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I Don’t Regret Making My Husband Cry

In nearly fifteen years, I’ve seen my husband cry a handful of times. He cried when his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and when he died. He teared up when both our babies were born. And he cried during an epic throw-down fight we had where I told him that he did not get to pass on his last name and only his last name to our children, even if that’s what he’d always expected and thought he deserved.

It was one of the most difficult fights we’ve had in our many years of being together. It was also one of the most worthwhile. Because while my husband is never going to fully understand what it’s like to live as a women in a patriarchal society, in that moment, he understood some of the pain that the patriarchy causes. And the emotional labor, the very real pain that I’d been carrying around, became shared.

And while I still generally am the one who has to remember when we need to send a thank you card, he knows exactly what went into the decision over our last name(s).

For the record, our kids have a hyphenated last name. They have his, very rare, Jewish last name. And then they’ve got the name of the woman who brought them into this world. And my name is last. There were a lot of tears over that decision, but we both shed them, and that is the way it should be.

Now how about you? Are you sharing the emotional labor of deciding about your last name(s) with your partner? If you’re not, could you be? How do men get off this easy in such a huge and emotional decision for so many women?

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