I (Eventually) Wanted To Take My Wife’s Name And She (Eventually) Told Me Yes

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In response to Al Watts’ piece on insisting his wife keep her own last name, Mark Kemp discusses how he finally convinced his own wife to let him take her last name.

I read Al Watts’ wonderful piece on what he publicly admits is a mistake he made in his marriage: opposing his wife’s suggestion that she take his last name when they got married. And I understand exactly why he admits it was a mistake—since their children all bear Al’s last name, as he explains, “People don’t know how to address invitations to us. Our kids’ friends don’t know what to call my wife since they know our kids’ last name is ‘Watts’ but don’t understand how or why their mom is not ‘Mrs. Watts.’ Every call to customer service about a bill in her name is a hassle. I had thought this would prove to others that we were equals in our marriage, but instead it has just left them confused.”

Yep. America, even in 2012, still has a difficult time processing the family in which dad and kids are named “Smith” and mom is named “Jones.” And I can tell you that it has an even harder time processing the family in which mom and kids are named “Jones” and dad is named “Smith.” For that was our family, and I was the “Smith,” until I changed to “Jones.”

Like Al and his wife, my wife and I each kept our last names when we got married. Unlike them, we didn’t talk much about it. My wife told me that she preferred not to change her name, I had no problem with that, and we didn’t even think about whether I would change my name. Nor did we talk about what we’d name our kids, first, last, or middle, for that matter. So, when we get married, it was as Mark D. Layten and Teresa L. Kemp.

The big event (in this and many other areas) was when our first child came along, after we’d been married for more than five years. For a variety of reasons, we decided we’d give him Terri’s last name—Kemp—and possibly do the reverse if we had a second child. We also agreed that I’d be the primary parent, at home, while my wife continued in her career. Well, as Al’s wife foresaw for herself, this became a bit messy. Until that time, my wife had often been incorrectly identified as Ms. or Mrs. Layten, while I was far less frequently mislabeled as Mr Kemp. And when I was, either my wife or I would quickly correct the mislabeler. Now, however, I was a dad toting around a child by the last name of “Kemp.” I was also entering a whole new world—of visits to doctors, for example. I remember the first time I went to the doctor with our son, introduced myself to the receptionist, and she said, “Will you please fill out these forms, Mr Kemp?” I corrected her, of course, but how was she to know better? Also, did it matter what she called me? Probably not. But I corrected her anyway.

And I corrected everybody. For years. We had our second child, and I saw no good reason to give him a different last name than his brother, so now I was lugging around two “Kemps,” and dealing with lots more than doctors’ offices—there were now preschools, pee-wee sports leagues, the Y, and on and on. The first time I’d meet a person, I was almost always Mr. Kemp, and usually was the second or third time, until they probably best recalled me as the-guy-who-has-a-different-last-name-than-his-kids. And, as Al’s wife experienced, there was mass confusion in the neighborhood as to what to call me.

Finally, one day, I just gave up. I think our oldest was 5 or 6. I’d brought him over to a pee-wee basketball training camp, signed a waiver for just about anything bad that could befall him, turned it in, and was told to wait until I was called to answer a few questions. I waited, and few minutes later “Kemp” was called out. Hmmmm, I thought, could be referring to my son. I walked over to the young lady holding the clipboard. “Hello, Mr. Kemp,” she said, “I just needed to go over a few things with you…” I don’t know whether it was the sincerity in her voice or the fact that I was running late for other chores, but I didn’t correct her. And everything went fine, of course. A week or two later, a trip to the doctor for the boys. A new receptionist. I didn’t bother to correct her. Nothing bad happened. After that, I seldom corrected anyone. If they called me Layten, great; if they called me Kemp, no problem. I told this to my wife, and she found it amusing, but when we went out socially, we still corrected anyone who called me “Kemp,” which was becoming an increasing frequent occurrence.

It was almost 10 years ago that two more big-time things occurred. First, my wife was offered a big promotion contingent on moving to a new state. Second, she became pregnant with our third child. The relocation decision was easy—we’d do it. But I made another decision: Having largely become Mr. Kemp and sometimes Mr. Layten by day, and remaining as Mr. Layten and definitely not Mr. Kemp by night, I decided that I would bring order to the Kemp/Layten universe and take Kemp as my last name. A new start in a new state as a family under one name. What could be better? 

Unfortunately, my wife was confused. Not dead set against  it, like Al was to his wife’s idea prior to their marriage, but confused and ambivalent. I guess I’d thrown her for a loop, but her response threw me for one too. There were lots of other things going on, and it wasn’t on the front burner, but one day I coaxed her to focus on it and she eventually said it was OK with her if it really was OK with me, and she wanted me consider it again. I agreed to do that. About two weeks later, I got in a minor traffic accident, and the two boys were in the back of the car. The police officer dealt with the accident situation in a few minutes and then asked me about the kids. I told him that they were mine, but he didn’t accept it—I was a man driving around in the middle of the day with two little boys who had different last names than me. It took about 30 minutes (which included calls to their school and preschool and multiple calls to my wife) before he followed me home and verified that the boys and I lived there. That night, when my wife got home, I said, “That’s it. Cased closed. I’m taking your last name.” She agreed. I actually fudged a little; I took Terri’s last name of Kemp but didn’t entirely dispose of Layten and instead made it my new middle name. Two months later I was officially Mark Layten Kemp, with the rest of the world (the most important of which were social security, DMV, US passport, and credit card companies) taking another three or four months to fall in line, after a barrage of paper from me. And though the “Layten” is still there, take no notice: I’m now commonly known as “Mark Kemp,” and as ”Mark L. Kemp” on credit cards, checks, and the like.  

The name-change mission was successfully completed by the birth of our third child and in time for the big move. It’s been more than nine years, and I would do it again. Some people were floored and not very supportive of the decision, but people always seem to have something to say about the business of others. For me, it eliminated all of the weirdness that Al’s wife anticipated. Plus, as the years have gone by, I’ve seen it also as a sign of my commitment to my wife and our family. When we made the move, one of the first items I bought was a sign on our front door that reads, “THE KEMPS.” At our former house, that sign would have required an asterisk.

Mark Kemp, former babymaker and current househusband, lives with his lucky wife and family in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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