Taking a name

Speaking of getting married, there’s that thing about names. You know, that thing where you’re a woman, and you get married, and then you have to decide whether you want to keep the name you grew up with or take this completely new name that you hadn’t given any thought to (or maybe even heard) until you met a particular guy.

There’s something strange about giving up a name. Suddenly, it sounds like you’re not a part of your own family. You’re a part of this other family, except that you don’t know their stories yet, and you don’t have memories of them yet.  So you’re kind of a name ghost. You’re floating between families. You haven’t grown solid and real yet. That happens when you become normal at their gatherings and dinner tables, and when you can say your own name and think of yourself. It happens when you become automatic to them, and they are automatic to you, and you all have memories of each other. It might take years . Maybe a lot of them.

And what if you do something remarkable and public? The little girl you were wouldn’t know how to recognize herself in your name when she read about you. People who read about you won’t immediately connect you back to the other members of the family you grew up with. And when they know those family members or read about them in the paper, they won’t connect them back to you. You’ll have to say, “You know, he’s actually my brother.” And if you have a sister, and you both get married, and you both have new names, it’s even more confusing.

(My Hebrew name is on my wedding contract. That’s another name entirely.)

So you can hyphenate. That’s what my mother did. That’s how I ended up with two terrible, clunky, last names, instead of one. Neither one of them looks like they should be pronounced the way they are. They don’t have a single fluid, attractive syllable between them.

I’ve never liked my name. Not even my first name, honestly. It doesn’t go with my last names. It doesn’t reflect my ethnicity. It’s always sounded to me like a girl with a spunky turned up nose, a wide, smiling face, and a tall, boyish body. I can’t see myself in it.

We all gave up half of the hyphenated last name after a while. It was way too complicated. My brothers, mother, and I never legally changed anything, we just stopped using our full names. But it still pops up. On diplomas and health insurance and my driver’s license. On my email account that Bear set up for me so early in our relationship that he didn’t know the way I referred to myself and was basing his knowledge on how my name appeared on the internet (probably on a document from college, where my legal name ruled).

I took his name. I like his name too much not to take it. I like how we’re obviously married. I like squeezing myself into the memories of his family. I like that it takes time, because it should. It’s an evolution, an integration, and a formation of something completely new. I like that we have time. That’s the whole idea.

But I don’t really use his name. I don’t use it professionally, and often, I don’t use it personally either, because I don’t remember to. And because I’m not quite ready to. And because I like not having to.

My last names have always been ambiguous. Mispronounced, mismatched, left behind and snatched up again. I recognize parts of myself in all of their variations. When I took Bear’s last name, I recognized myself there, too. So now I have three last names. Not all at once, but as though they are floating in a bowl and I can pick the one or two I need out and use them.

When people started addressing things to me using one of my original last names and Bear’s last name, without a hyphen, I smiled and thought it was appropriate.

At some point, far in the future, maybe I’ll settle down. I might have a steady name. But I kind of hope that I never do. After all, I don’t think I want to be a steady person. I don’t want to identifiably belong to only one family, because I don’t. I belong to more families than that. And most of all, I belong to myself. Who knows who she is.

*  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love how I’ve never really worried about my skin. My mom used to tell me not to pick pimples because I’d have  all of these tiny scars. But that never seemed like  good reason to stop picking them to me. I’ve never thought I’d look a lot worse if I was marred in little ways.


Kate on December 22nd 2010 in feminism, life, marriage

28 Responses to “Taking a name”

  1. Noel responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    I like the idea of picking a name out of a bowl!

    Aside from the family/memory/attachment issue, I think for a lot of women it’s a professional question too. I have many female friends who, because they got married later in life, have built up a whole professional image and reputation based on their maiden name. (Hate that term, maiden name, but what else can I call it here?) So the idea of changing that name and losing all the capital that goes with it becomes really problematic.

  2. Kate responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    Absolutely. I feel like that already, even though I haven’t had time to build a big career. I care about the things I’ve already done, and I’m not ready to leave the name on those things behind.

  3. Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    I feel like I’m in name limbo. At first I couldn’t bring myself to say my husband’s last name out loud after my own first name. I would just introduce myself as Samantha.
    Now I’m starting to find it awkward to see my old last name next to my first name. And I’m still not comfortable with my new name.

  4. Cassie responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    I always loved my maiden name, and being completely sure that I would never get married (I fancied myself the lone wolf of an ex-homeschooled woman), I didn’t ever plan on being called anything else. It reflects my Greek heritage, which is a huge part of my family’s and my personality and traditions, and it’s a name that nobody has ever really heard, hearkening back to our little village in Greece where there is probably centuries of inbreeding amongst the inhabitants. :P

    Then I was due to get married and it was really bothering me. My husband’s last name is kind of badass, and I definitely like it, but it’s very… not Greek. Kind of southern. The opposite of my awesome Immigrant-New-Englander family heritage. So I decided to change my name when I got married so that I changed my middle name to my maiden and took his last name. I was all amped up for this sweet new mix up, but then when I got to the social security office, they said I had to get a court order to change my middle name and named off a long list of documents and lawyers that I’d need to do so. So I decided to just take on my new last name and do the middle name thing later. Four years later, I still have my given middle name and I guess I have finally melted in to my new last name. I carry my maiden name with me as my own personal treasure and try not to judge people’s feminism or love for their culture based on traditions they may take. And when I meet another Greek at work as one of my patients, I make sure to tell them my maiden name and share in some of the culture where I can get it. :)

  5. Christin@purplebirdblog responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    I love the last name bowl. I’ve been married, changed my name to his, divorced, changed my name back to my maiden, and if I get married again (which is likely, just not for a while), I will take his last name, but I think I will turn my maiden name into my middle name, simply for the fact of how fond I am of a cursive “L” and I was so sad to lose it last time, but I’m too lazy for hyphenation. :)

  6. Rabbit responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:43 pm #

    I work at a Vital Stats office, and something we see a lot of women do is take her husband’s last name and replace her middle name with her maiden name. So, “Bonnie Marie Smith” becomes “Bonnie Smith Jones.” Increasingly, the children also receive the mother’s maiden name as their middle name, so the hypothetical Bonnie’s child might be named “Brandon Smith Jones.”

    This is how Filipino naming conventions work, from what I’ve seen on birth records and what I’ve been told. Many white women have picked up on it, though.

  7. Kate responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 12:45 pm #

    Interesting! Thanks for the info!

  8. Rabbit responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 1:06 pm #


    Your’e welcome. :) I don’t often have anything to contribute to blogs (I’m very much a lurker) so I’m always happy when I can add something to a discussion.

  9. rachel responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    I “kept” my name. Isn’t the rhetoric we use interesting? When women change their names they “take” their husbands’ as if its an acquisition of some kind of property. When they don’t change they “keep” their names as if it could be lost. I think what you said about memories and family inheritance fits into that.

    Anyway, I did not change my name. In WA you have to fill out a separate form after you’ve legally been married, but even if it were an easy option I wouldn’t have. I joked to my husband that if his name were more attractive than mine I would consider changing, because my name is common enough to never be mispronounced but not ubiquitous either, whereas his name is constantly misspelled and mispronounced. But I couldn’t fathom suddenly introducing myself as someone else.

    In this year’s batch of holiday cards, some have referred to us as “Mr. & Mrs. Husband’s full name.” I find this very irksome, even if people are only trying to be formal. How is that the man gets his full name in this address but the woman doesn’t get even her first? Why is marital status even important enough to be part of our legal identities in how we’re addressed. (There’s a lot of buzz recently about the decline of marriage and how its cultural value is decreasing while policy remains stagnant.) I much prefer the cards that include each of our full names, no Mr Mrs or Ms.

    Of course, by not having the same last name, a couple can’t be referred to as The Smiths, or whatever. And that’s sad, because its cute. One of my good friends solved this problem for us by combining my one syllable name with the last syllable of my husband’s as she and hers had done for themselves jokingly. The result sounds kind of hideous and obviously made-up, but it’s growing on us. I think it makes perfect sense to have some names you use among friends, others you use professional, etc.

  10. Kate responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    I’m with you on the whole Mrs. and Mr. Husband’s Name thing. It bothered me on my wedding invitations. It bothers me now, as I’m writing thank you notes and don’t have the first names of women along with their addresses (I don’t remember the names of everyone who was there). On a practical as well as on every other kind of level, it’s frustrating.

  11. rachel responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    How about just Mr & Mrs Last Name? At least then you don’t give one more importance than the other.

  12. Noel responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 2:24 pm #


    Sometimes my boyfriend and I joke about combining our last names into one new mash-up, like those celebrity couple nicknames.

    Loving the discussion here! And I love @rabbit’s suggestion about the middle names. My mother’s maiden name is my middle name and I so cherish it (and plan to somehow pass it on to my kids too.)

  13. Dana Udall-Weiner responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    I think about this all the time, because having a double barrel name sucks. But so would choosing one over the other. So I hyphenated, and am mostly glad I did. I realize it’s hard on other people, particularly since both of my names are hard to pronounce, but I sort of feel like people have to just deal with it. If you’re a famous, well known person, others put up with it. I think of Katherine Steiner-Adair, whose name sounds totally normal to me. If you’re not well known, then people tend to think it’s arrogant and self-righteous to hyphenate. There really is no ideal choice, and men are lucky they don’t have to face this issue!

  14. Kathleen responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    I love this post! I’m glad you remarked on how people you’ve known before wouldn’t know it was you they were reading about if they saw your new name somewhere. Basically for that reason — so I have context and can be linked to both of my families — I’m using my last name and his at the moment. Not hyphenated, just three names total. It’s especially helpful since we’re living in my hometown; I still have the identifier everyone is used to associating with me. I don’t know what I’ll do in the long run, or if we move… but this is good enough for now! :)

  15. Barbara responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 4:37 pm #

    I was slow to take my first husband’s name, wanting to express feminist values. But then I also wanted people to relate to us as a married couple and then as a family of people with the same last name. Divorce reintroduced the name dilemma – but that name was already my professional name and the kids’ name, so it stuck. Remarriage presented a new dilemma, not which last name to use, but which middle name to use because the Social Security agency offered only 3 spaces for 3 names. I chose the name that is my children’s last name. But when I write all of my names, I see that it reflects a life’s journey.

    I think it is more awkward when someone changes his/her first name. How do you start calling your friend by a different first name?

  16. Just Josie responded on 22 Dec 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    @Barbara: I know all about the “different first name” thing, and yeah — it take a lot of getting used to for most, and most people (to the name-changer’s exasperation), especially the ones to whom he or she is closest, don’t even bother to TRY calling you by a different name. It’s sort of complicated for me, because I haven’t changed my name legally or anything, it’s just that I’m legally Samantha Jo *last name here*, and when I was a little kid I didn’t have much of a preference, but my mom preferred the “Samantha” shtick, but then with that name people will call you “Sam” and/or “Sammy”, and once one finds out your middle name is Jo, it’s “Sammy Jo” all the time. I always thought it was ridiculous, because everyone in my (immediate) family had always called me “Jo” or “Josie”, but my mother hated for OTHERS to call me that. Then we argued incessantly over how to spell “Sammy” once I reached the age at which I actually gave a damn (I wanted an “ie”, she wanted it to remain the “y” that she had dictated in all her controllingness), and she would CRY just so I’d feel too bad to spell it with the “ie”. At which point, I started going by “Jo” at school. People were like, “Wha?”, but the teahers got it — except no one else could wrap their brains around it, and then this year (freshman year of high school), I started going by “Josie”. What’s funny is that, while all of my teachers call me by that name, none of my friends do — although the people who I don’t really even associate with do! (Actually, no one really calls me “Josie”, because I somehow acquired the nickname of “Jose”.)

    And then I find myself annoyed at the way that people say it with an “s” sound, rather than a “z” one. ^.^ Oh, boy. People keep asking me if I’m going to change my name “again” next year, and I’m like, “May-BE. JUST to annoy you.” xD

    Wow, I fail at summarizations.

    The “Mr. and Mrs. *Husband’s Full Name” thing has always disturbed me as well. From the time I was a little child, I remember it would really get me riled up, haha. To me, I guess it just always has seemed like the ultimate loss of selfhood for the woman that marriage *originally* was.

  17. molly responded on 23 Dec 2010 at 1:24 am #

    I kept my name, and while we discussed it a bit beforehand, in the end it wasn’t that complicated. My name has always been my name and it’ll always be my name, just as my husband’s is his. I intend to add his last name as a middle name one day so that I can introduce myself as Molly HisName MyName, mother of Kids HisName. (He’s much closer to his extended family than I am to mine; his name would offer our kids a sort of connection mine wouldn’t.)

    In part this isn’t difficult because we live in a liberal city and have liberal families and friends. FWIW we don’t wear wedding rings either, because–for us–it felt unimportant and unnecessary. We made the decision to get married together (no proposal), and it changed almost nothing about our long, loving relationship. When I write all this it all sounds counter-cultural and radical, but we didn’t _do_ anything, we just just stuck with our default names and naked fingers.

  18. camelshoes responded on 23 Dec 2010 at 4:19 am #

    I’m a year off graduating in a professional degree and I’m quite attached to my (unmarried) name because I associate it with all the hardwork I’ve been putting in towards this degree. So I think I will work under that name and if I get married, take my partner’s name for personal business and be Mrs Husband’s-Last-Name. I’m not sure which name I’d have to have on my driving licence and other important documents though…

  19. Another Emma responded on 23 Dec 2010 at 6:06 am #

    As it stands now, almost half way through my engagement, I am really looking forward to taking my future husband’s name. I have always disliked my surname. Hard to pronounce, easy to make fun of, I’ll be glad to be rid of it.

    I was listening to Stephen Fry the other day and he was making a point about how your surname, that people put so much importance on, is actually just the one name that made it out of many many many surnames that have built up in your family history. I thought that was interesting.

  20. San D responded on 23 Dec 2010 at 6:50 am #

    I always thought “names” were a gift. I was gifted with the name Sandra, but as you know I use San D. (not officially or legally, but that is how I am known). To honor my parents’ gift, I kept the first part of Sandra, but when I stepped away and became my own person, I separated and stood on my own, hence the capital D. As for last names, I accepted my husbands’ family’s gift of their last name. I am of the generation of women who had the option of hyphenation, but found that combination too cumbersome both in the writing and the saying.

  21. claire responded on 23 Dec 2010 at 1:35 pm #

    in the olden days, people like me just followed the usual traditions, sad but true, however I loved my maiden name, so I just used it in the form of my business initials, crf, at all times, that seemed to satisfy me,
    But any name you use will be perfect for you at all times.

  22. Wei-Wei responded on 26 Dec 2010 at 3:03 am #

    I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get married – I realise that the constant cultural reminders might get a bit much, but in Chinese cultures nobody changes their last name. Chinese names are three, or more rarely two, characters, and the surname goes first. When people get married, both people keep their last names.

    I don’t really know how it works when you’re introducing yourself, though – my mom is called by my dad’s last name sometimes (eg: Mrs ___) but in writing, her name never changes. So I’m not too sure.

  23. Elisabeth responded on 28 Dec 2010 at 7:46 am #

    I’m keeping mine: partly because I’m an immigrant and it’s one of the few ways I can publicly “claim” my origin; partly because even though I love his family, I’m not part of it the way I’m part of mine; partly because I like the alliteration of my first and last name, with no middle (don’t have one); and partly because I’m that kind of feminist and if he doesn’t have to change his name, I’m sure as hell not going to.

    If it hadn’t been an old tradition, I would never on my own have had the idea to change my name at marriage (and especially, to have only me change my name). To me that really says it all.

  24. To Keep, Change, or Hyphenate: What’s a Woman to Do? | The Body and the Brood responded on 05 Jan 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    [...] many women, the change from maiden to married name is not tinged with ambivalence or sadness. Maybe they prefer their husband or partner’s name to their own. Maybe the change feels exciting, as it represents a fresh start, or makes public a private exchange [...]

  25. EmmaJ responded on 25 Jan 2012 at 10:18 am #

    I got married just over a year ago and I ‘kept’ my last name. We were engaged for just over two years and together for eight when we got married. Early on in our relationship when we had discussed the possibility of getting married someday we had a ferocious argument over my changing my name. I had always been adamant, even before meeting my husband, that I would not change my name on marriage, but he is an only child and only grand-child, the ‘end of the line’ so to speak, and he felt that we would not be a proper family if we were not Mr and Mrs HisName. He also felt that it was somehow an indication of my feelings for him that I didn’t want to ‘take’ his last name, his having grown up expecting that one day his wife would be Mrs HisName.

    In the end we met half way and I decided that I would be Ms E MyName HisName, giving me a visable connection to my family and any future family I may have. I liked this idea, but when it came to it I just never did it. I work under my maiden name and also it is just a part of who I am, I can’t imagine being ‘anyone’ else.

  26. Kate responded on 25 Jan 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    I hear you. Months after I wrote this post, I still go almost entirely by my maiden name.

  27. Eat the Damn Cake » the girly voice responded on 09 Oct 2012 at 12:15 pm #

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  28. Kate Fridkis: Why Do I Slip Into ‘Girly Voice’? | This Mongrel Land responded on 14 Apr 2013 at 2:06 pm #

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