Choosing a last name ended up meaning more to me than I thought it would. Wrapped up in this question were a host of social issues I was used to examining from afar, through hypothetical theories and distant studies. Suddenly they were all here, in my face, and very personal. In some ways, choosing a name felt like a challenge to “walk the walk” and own up to some of the philosophies I said I believed in a real, tangible way.
I grew up in a rural Midwest town with very little diversity. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, and many of my childhood friends chose very traditional paths: marriage and kids right out of high school, wife as primary caregiver. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad worked at a factory. When they divorced, my mom scrambled to find work and keep our house financially together; she wasn’t always successful. That past is part of me, and the ties I have with the people in that world are important.
But these things are also true: I am an educated woman who has completed a Master’s degree and is pursuing a PhD. I live in an urban area full of diversity and am a white woman married to a black man who is also highly educated (law degree). In my household, we both value our careers and our skills are not delineated by gender roles. I have friends and neighbors who run the gamut of different types of family arrangements.
This world is also a part of who I am.
While considering options about my name, each one took on a meaning about what these two worlds meant to me. (Please note, I’m not saying that these interpretations are universal (or even right). This is just what these options felt like I would be saying about myself.)
- Take my husband’s last name: I accept the cultural norms of my upbringing and admit that—no matter what I’ve said I believe—I ultimately see myself stepping into a role primarily defined as “wife.”
- Keep my last name: Marriage does not define me. I am independent of this relationship and my sense of self is determined without it.
- Make my last name a second middle name: I have kept a part of my independent self, though I don’t say it when I introduce myself to new people or sign it in my signature. I did it to remind myself I have a sense of self outside of marriage, but it’s not necessary to communicate to other people.
- Hyphenate: I am both the self I formed prior to this marriage and the person I will become through it. My marriage is an important part of my identity but not the only one.
I chose to hyphenate. Taking my husband’s name wasn’t really an option. I have an identity outside of my role as wife and (for me) I didn’t feel like I could give up the most obvious label of that self. At the same time, I did want to take my husband’s name in some way. My marriage is incredibly important to me, and (while I completely respect and value other people’s alternatives) saying “I do” changed me. I was tying my life to this man forever, and my identity changed because of it.
I talked to my husband about this decision, but he always said the choice was mine and he would support whatever I did. Our daughter has my maiden name as a second middle name.
The decision hasn’t been without complications. My name is long (ten letters-5 letters) and people constantly comment on that. Doctor’s offices can’t seem to handle hyphens, and I am constantly under the wrong name. I get mail addressed to all kinds of combinations.
Ultimately, though, I am happy with my choice (even when a childhood friend called it “stupid”). My name feels like me. It signifies the new life I’ve started, a life I love, but it also points to the life I already had and continue to build independent of my identity as wife, and I love that life, too.
Balancing Jane is a wife, mother, and feminist blogger. This post is part of The Last Name Project, a joint series by from two to one and The Feminist Mystique profiling a diverse set of individuals who are single, engaged, and married about how and why they decided on their last names. The goal of the project is to explore the patriarchal tradition of taking your husband’s last name and the tremendous amount of symbolism and meaning choices about last names still have for women, their partners, and society. If you are interested in participating in the series, email Danielle at danielle [at] fromtwotoone [dot] com or Shannon at hill [dot] shannonp [at] gmail [dot] com.