Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Name Changes

Lisa Belkin, author of last Sunday's much discussed Times Magazine piece on equally shared parenting, wonders on one of the Times numerous blogs why so few women these days are changing their names.
Names are intimate and personal reflections of how we present ourselves to the world, and the decisions of these couples make clear, in the words of Amy Vachon, how “there is no perfect choice.”

Changing your name feels unequal, she says. Not changing it means not being seen by the world as an automatic unit. Hyphenating works, at least for a generation, but can be long and cumbersome. Using one name for work and another at home means never remembering who you are.
This is one of the things that conservatives appear to have won on, but I can never quite figure out why. I never understood why one day you would just decide to change your name. It's as if you end your existence as Single Person and become Married Person. The connotations behind this are a little ridiculous and buy into the "happily ever after" narrative too much for my taste.

Furthermore, I never really understood, if it's such an important issue for families to all have the same names (because how would you know you belong to one another otherwise?) why it has to be the woman that changes her name. Why can't the man? I've yet to hear a good response to that one. Changing names to become a "unit" is silly. What if you were asked to change your name each time you changed jobs or professions? People would say that's silly, but for me it's no more silly than changing your name each time you change partners.

I plan to not change my name if I get married for the same reasons Lisa cites. I've already begun shaping my public persona with this name. There's no reason to change it. I agree that the naming of the children can be problematic, but frankly I'm not worried about having children just yet.


aethelred said...

When my wife and I married, she was undecided about changing her name. Her visceral inclination was not to change, but she could envision situations in which it would serve a practical purpose for us to all have the same name, and my wife is a very practical woman. I stayed out of this argument, since I didn't and don't think it's really my business, and I had no useful points to add.

In the end, she did not change her name, partly (I think) on the advice of my father, who pointed out to her that it would inevitably hurt her professionally to take my name. After 10 years of marriage, we haven't yet encountered anything that has made us regret this decision.

Jenica said...

I'm getting married in a few weeks and am not changing my name. I know my fiance kind of wishes that I would, but he also knows (and has said) that since it's my name it's obviously my decision. We live in a pretty liberal area, but all of our friends our age who are married have the same last name. I've never understood this tradition and why even now it's almost shocking if a woman doesn't change her name (you should have seen my fiance's mother's reaction when I told her I was keeping my name).

I remember telling an acquaintance that I wasn't changing my name, and she said that if she got married her decision to change her name would depend on how much she loved her husband. What can you say to something like that??

John M said...

It seems pretty simple: if you don't want to do it, don't do it. I don't understand why that isn't sufficient, and why it's necessary to criticize the women who choose the opposite. You seem to be opposed to it for the following reasons: 1) it seems arbitrary; 2) it doesn't fit with your concept of marriage; 3) you don't consider it important for families to have the same last name; 4) you have begun building your professional reputation under your current name.

Those are all perfectly valid reasons. My wife came down differently on those questions on took my last name when we got married. I don't understand why the validity of your choice makes the opposite choice invalid. Also, I think that your "it's no more silly than changing your name each time you change partners" line of reasoning is fairly weak. Most marriage ceremonies, whether civil or religious, include a promise of "'til death do us part" or some such thing. While it often doesn't work out that way, of course, I suspect that the vast majority of people who get married, liberal and conservative alike, view it as fundamentally different from (and more permanent than) a new job or a new romantic relationship.

The "conservatives have won" formulation makes me sad. I tend to view feminism as being about creating choice and options for women, not imposing a requirement that they do all things exactly the opposite as their grandmothers did.

Cycleboy said...

You wrote, "I didn't and don't think it's really my business, and I had no useful points to add."

I disagree. It is only no business of yours if you think that ONLY women can change their names. If you add to the options (keep, change, hyphenate) the other choices of YOU changing your surname or both of you selecting another name then it IS your business.

john m:
You wrote, "3) you don't consider it important for families to have the same last name"

Well, to repeat what I said above, if having the same surname is so important to you, as a man, why is the option of you changing YOUR name simply off your radar?

Besides, the idea of having the same surname never occurs to the Koreans, or the Chineese or the Spanish and (in all probability) many other cultures, so, why is it so important?

Nicole said...

I'm going to be married in 3 months - and can't quite figure out this issue. Yes, I've started a strong personal brand under my current name. Yes, I am a feminist and am aware and indignant about the past and current oppression of women at the hands of a society that systematically benefits men.

My partner and I have been together 7 years, and lived together for 4. For us, marriage is about a declared social commitment, and, though neither of us are particularly religious, a promise before our people and our God to one another. It's funny, but I *do* think there's something to sharing a name. Although it doesn't have to be his, or even mine, when you get married you are creating a new family unit, and it is as deep a part of your identity as your past. I'm coming to think of it as an expression of my future.

Ultimately, I think it's too bad that the messyiness and painfulness of the past is allowed to color (in sometimes harmful and contentious ways) the creation of something that can be beautiful and forward looking. Surely my husband-to-be and I are not social equals - society sees him as a man, and he benefits from that privilege. Yet we are able to have frank discussions on that topic, and equality exists among us internally.

I also love and respect both our heritages, and don't want future genealogists to be confused by a random, made up name. Our current idea is to both take on my name as a middle name, and his name as a last name. It's keeping my past identity, and saying YES, AND...yes, I am me, and now I am also something new, part of this new family.

There's no denying the past - and the way that it colors the current and will color the future. That awareness doesn't mean a wholesale rejection of tradition, per se, or rather it shouldn't have to mean a rejection of those traditions. It means something to me that my mothers and grandmothers all changed their names, and as such I'm looking forward to it; it also means something to me that my fiancee is willing to take on my family name just as we're taking on his.

Thanks for the provoking post!

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