What's in a name?

I can't decide whether to take my husband's name once we're married.

Cary Tennis
April 20, 2004 11:57PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I recently became engaged to a delightful and wonderful man with whom I have been in a committed relationship for almost a decade. I am incredibly conflicted about whether to take his name once we are married. Navigating this world of pre- and post-wedding identity is more difficult than I had imagined.


I come from a long line of women, including my mother, who have kept their maiden names. Growing up we had three different last names in a four-person household. This has led me to believe that there is a rather loose connection between last name and family. My own last name is the legacy of my biological father, whom my mother divorced when I was a wee thing and whom I can recall having met two times.

This history makes me ask myself why I would want to continue sporting the name of a man that I have never even really known as opposed to that of my darling, chosen husband-to-be. At the same time, having been the only person I know with my last name, I feel as though it is even more closely identified with my identity. It is mine and mine alone. I have accomplished things with it. At the risk of sounding like Gollum, this makes it more ... precious -- fundamentally more me, somehow. I am not sure that I would know myself without it.

My fiancé, however, comes from a more traditional household where they all share the same last name and he very much wants for us to do the same. Although he tries to hide it, he is hurt by my reluctance to create a legal and very visible bond to each other in this way. Being the lovely man that he is, he knows that this is my decision to make and will support it completely. As an aside, I have no desire for him to take my name or for us to create a new name together. The issue is really me losing my name -- what I change it to makes little difference. The act of changing it is the rub. For the record, given a clean slate with no history, I suppose I actually like his name better.


As a feminist, I believe that the changing of one's name should be a personal decision that is beyond judgment by others. I am receiving a modest amount of pressure from girlfriends to put my maiden name and its connection to a family that I have never known behind me. Personally, I am uncomfortable entering into a relationship that asks me to check myself at the door and that requires that I sacrifice something that my fiancé is not even asked to give up. The thought of receiving mail addressed to Mrs. So-and-So and signing checks and changing my e-mail address and being known as Mrs. John So-and-So causes a huge lump to rise in my throat. I feel reasonably certain that every time one of those things occurred, I would be struck by a deep sadness. I fear that I might disappear and be forever cast in a supporting role.

Why am I conflicted? My fiancé is a fantastic person who has stood by me and has asked for nothing in return other than my happiness. I would so love to give him this gift and take his name. It would mean so much to him and I truly, madly, deeply want to do this. I have a bit of a weakness for grand gestures and do see the appeal of being connected by name. As a complicating factor (albeit a peripheral one), I associate Mrs. So-and-So with my future mother-in-law, who has proven to be a very difficult presence in my life.

I believe that I have thought through all of the relevant issues and I still cannot decide. I am tempted by the mystique of a one-name household and want to honor my future husband this way. I also want to honor my mother and my pre-married self and set an example for my children that it is acceptable to deviate from the norm on matters of name-taking. I clearly cannot do both and so it is that I turn to you. Perhaps you can help me sort out my competing desires and make a decision that will bring a smile to my face every time I answer a solicitor's call.


Remaining Nameless

Dear Remaining Nameless,

You sound like a candidate for surgical hyphenation. The procedure is quick and relatively painless, and leaves no scar -- only sometimes there's a little bump at the end of your name.

While you're having your names surgically hyphenated, you might consider having a few symbols removed. I can see, from what you say, that you have been chronically exposed to an atmosphere in which symbols have been allowed to attach themselves mechanically to certain presumptive realities to which they do not in fact adhere in nature. It's an environmental disease, the predisposition to which is often hereditary; through regular exposure to a dense atmosphere of mistaken assumptions, a web of pernicious assumptive cartilage can grow up and literally enmesh your symbols in it, consuming them, enclosing them, even changing their appearance so they do not look like symbols at all anymore, but like assertions.


At first, when you are quite young, you might notice that your life has begun to seem a little strange and unreal, as though the obvious things you used to be certain of now have a strange, fuzzy outline. Whereas you used to be able to tell the difference between what was actually going on and what people were saying was going on, now you start thinking maybe you were wrong, maybe what people say is going on really is what's going on; it's comforting to adopt the illusions of others, as it's fun to try on your mother's clothes, but it's also a little sad and scary to lose yourself in someone else's notions. Bit by bit you find yourself becoming like the grown-ups, competent but ineffably saddened, as though you'd burned all your clothes in the alley. After a while you get used to it, the way you get used to a tree that grows and blots out the sun. You forget about the clear light that used to surround the objects in your backyard, the statuary, the vases, the pots of geraniums.

This often occurs in households where female members have undergone severe bouts of oppressive spousal regulation. Naturally, any woman will use any available ideology as an antidote. There's nothing wrong with ideological antidotes to oppressive spousal regulation when used in prescribed doses for limited periods of time. It's just not meant for regular consumption. When the spousal oppression goes into remission, the ideological regimen should be tapered off and eventually discontinued.

I know this is all rather abstruse medical talk, but remember: I'm a white man pretending to be a doctor!


As I've said again and again in these columns, it's how you handle the larger ethical and moral questions in your life that really shapes your relations with others. Symbolic things such as what band you like and what shoes you wear -- and whether you hyphenate your name -- are indications about your preferences, but they are not in themselves important moral or ethical decisions. If you want to think about this problem seriously, think about how you can reach out to others in your life and include them. The best way to do that, I think, is to hyphenate. So make an appointment as soon as possible with a surgeon who is board-certified in surname reconstruction.

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Cary Tennis

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