Saturday, January 7, 2012

My name

My earlier post on Equality sparked a comment from JT about surnames.  Which is an interesting story - at least to me. 

I got married the first time at age 23.  I desperately wanted the white picket fence and while my husband to be didn't express any opinion one way or the other about what I did with my surname, which was disappointing at the time, I opted to take his name.  I went from an unpronounceable/unspellable surname to Smith.  Talk about a mind-blower.  When we separated, 2.5 years later, the very first thing I wanted, above all else, was to have my own surname back.  Had to wait for the final divorce paperwork later that year, but I stopped using Smith immediately whenever I could.  I told my dad at one point that I'd never change it again - and he said something comforting like "don't worry, you may very well get married again", and he was a bit shocked when I told him it had nothing to do with getting married, I wasn't ever changing my name again.

Talk about a pain in the ass to change your name BACK.  It's all normal and sweet when you get married and change your name.  But no-one seems to get that you might ever change it back and you get lots of raised eyebrows and questions when you do.  It's a hassle and a pain.  Case in point, 8 years after I got divorced, I enrolled in law school at the same university where I worked while I was married.  I had already advised them in my paperwork that I had previously been registered with that university under a different name and now my name was legally changed, etc., and had been told this was a non-issue.  I showed up on day one of law school orientation and they handed me a student ID for Sarah Smith.  I rejected it and again explained the situation, and the lady said I should just take it and use it "for now".  I rejected it again - it isn't my name after all.  So there we stood, for probably 15 minutes, having this discussion about my past divorce etc., which I hadn't even thought about it years, surrounded by a pile of strangers with whom I would be spending most of my time in the next year...I was irritated beyond belief.  I got my correct ID the next day, by the way.

So fast forward 12 years, and I'm getting married for the second time.  Now perhaps if Sean had had what I consider a "cool" name (I've always been a sucker for those Mc- names), I might have had other thoughts, but I never even considered changing my name.  One day, must have been a month or so before the wedding, since we hadn't gotten our license yet, Sean made some comment along the lines of "just think, in a month you'll be Sarah _____" and without any thought at all, I shot back "no I won't, I'm not changing my name."  He sat back stunned, I realized perhaps that wasn't the best way to share that information for the first time, and we then had a nice talk about it.  He had those normal feelings about wanting us to share the same family name, so I invited him to change to my surname.  He sat back stunned again and said "but I LIKE my name" and I said "and so do I" with an additional explanation of the hassles of my changing my name yet again - particularly with a professional career - and it all worked out.  As it turned out, he didn't really care as long as I didn't expect to hang a hyphenated name on any kids we might have. 

I had law school friends who married after we finished school and were attorney-licensed, and it was a mixed bag of who changed their names and who hyphenated and who didn't change.  I have heard of marriages where both spouses changed their surnames to an entirely new surname.  Being eternally interested in people's stories, I am always curious about how folks come to the decision. 

I had lunch with a male lawyer friend before my wedding and the issue of surname came up.  He was incensed.  By that I mean that this normally quiet and calm man raised his voice at me, in Subway, about how I was required to change my name!  I was stunned (and amused actually).  His rationale was that if a woman accepts a diamond ring, she is also accepting the fact that she will be taking the man's name.  I think I responded with something like that if Sean felt that was the deal, I'd have skipped on the diamond.  Probably didn't help my friend calm himself down too much.  We remain friends, and I'd be curious to know, now 10 years later, if he still feels so strongly about it.

When we were first married, our church was updating their church directory and it was really problematic for them to caption our photo with two different surnames.  I think we may have ended up both with Sean's name because the poor secretary in charge said the computer system just wouldn't accept two surnames, and that was OK because at first I intended to use Sean's name at places where we were sort of known as a family (like church) but it just got too confusing.  When we moved five years ago, neither our new church nor anyplace else at all had an issue with it at all.  I only use my "real" name now - it's second nature for me to point out to the Y or school or daycare that I have a different name than the rest of my family.  No one cares.

I still am not sure if Sean's family has figured it out - or is willing to acknowledge it - now nine years later.  My immediate family, I think, gets it right. We don't get a lot of snail mail anymore but I do look at the birthday and Christmas card envelopes each year and see how they are addressed.  I don't really care if it's Mr & Mrs. Sean ______, or The __________ Family, but sometimes I get birthday cards addressed to Sarah ______ and that is a bit more eye rolling. 

Just to be clear, I take no position on anyone else's decision about changing their name.  It is a totally personal decision and I make no judgment.  Well, except when a kid is given a hyphenated surname, with two unpronounceable, unspellable surnames - I might make a little tiny judgment, in my head, about that. 


  1. I may have lucked out in this situation. The Wife, since she was named for her father, who was well-known in small town she grew up in, was only too happy to change her last name to mine. "Oh, Wilhelmina Jones, you must be Wilhelm Jones' daughter." All the time. Which is fine when you're 10, less so when you're 25 and sorta wanting to get away from your parents. Which is the same reason I didn't countenance taking her name.

    If our names had hyphenated harmoniously in either order, we could have been convinced to do that, but they didn't.

    Luckily, the advance of society, and the advent of all different kinds of familial relationships has made the whole "the computer won't take it" much less prevalent.

    Good for you, sticking up for your own name, You've earned it.

  2. I just think this is a lesson to all about being nonjudgmental. "You don't have your husband's name??!!". Well, who cares and it's nobody's business anyway.

  3. Perhaps to a fault, my name matters to me. It has my history and my identity sewed up in it. Admittedly, I think it is a "cool" name. Perhaps I wouldn't care so much if it didn't have heritage and a cool sound tied to it .....
    And that's just my surname.... I resonate well with the first name people know me by but there is a story around that. Stay tuned....

  4. My Dad died when I was 4 and my sister 2, and his last name, our last name, is a treasured, honored part of us. It made me feel sickish to think I'd change it one day when I got married! Then I met the guy I was going to marry, and I changed my name without a second thought. My sister changed hers too when she got married, with many second thoughts. I have cousins who haven't changed their names, who have changed and then decided to go back to their own names, but I haven't regretted my choice at all. It was right for me. And my sister and I now have matching tattoos....our maiden name on our ankle. I've had people joke, "so you won't forget who you are" I say nope. It's in memory of our Dad. It's my favorite tattoo.

  5. Just in case you are wondering, no, I am not the heir to the entrepreneur who put surfing on the map. Or is it possible that in places other than California, my name does not conjure up the image of a wet suit and surf board? The company even had the decency to spell it correctly.


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