At first it seemed simple. Before he’d even proposed, both R and I loosely assumed I would take his name; I liked the romance of it, felt my typical longing to belong. It seemed such a fait accomplis that we readily registered Orla at birth with his Irish surname. Even the dog has his family name called out at the vets.
Sometime after he’d proposed, my clarity faded. Perhaps it is simply one of those things you can’t fully grasp in the theoretical, or maybe my feelings have changed over time. Now, when people ask if I intend to take his second name, I start to bristle, a thousand unexpressed considerations jostling for space on my tongue. Most of all comes to mind one very simple question – why? Why should I?
Of course, we all know why; we know the historical connotations of ownership exchange, of women passed between men like fat cows at market, and the steps we’ve taken as a progressive society to escape this system.
We know now that women are equal, that great marriages are a partnership, that you cannot possess a woman any more than you can capture an ever-rolling ocean wave. We know this, and yet still… Still in the English language we mark marriage with Miss vs Mrs. Still, when you sign your marriage certificate, there’s no space to record the mothers’ names. In a thousand quiet, subversive ways, women are still disadvantaged and dismissed, however much we’ve cleaned up the surface associations.
Considering the options
I tried to balance the options. The problem is – as it so often seems to be, with any patriarchal bullshit – that every choice you make somehow labels you. In the case of a surname, quite literally labels you, for life.
Double-barelling our names just doesn’t work. Plus, there’s the argument about our children having to join four names when & if they marry, though at this stage I’d be prepared to write Orla off to this for a simple solution.
The most appealing idea for me was to be entirely equal and take a new name together. I suggested this to R with a breezy sort of enthusiasm, but his immediate affronted response and refusal surprised me. CHANGE his NAME? It hit him as a ridiculous idea – this, even before I had chance to offer my excellent suggestions of ‘Snowman’ or ‘Skywalker’.
& that isn’t because he’s a closed-minded, cave-dwelling mysoginist. On the contrary, he’s a bearded, Guardian-reading, Fairtrade-coffee-grinding Liberal. A regular person, then, experiencing a normal reaction to being asked to abruptly change his identity. Because it is ridiculous, when you stop and think about it.
That women don’t have this reaction only speaks to how conditioned we are to the idea. From the time you first try on your crush’s surname in a puffy pink heart on the back of your maths book, we are rehearsing for this change. As adult relationships get serious, it becomes a real consideration; One friend of mine initially hesitated to even date her now-husband because his second name was ‘Wanker’. (They went down the choose-a-name-together-route, FYI. A wise decision, I feel.)
Changing your name is a big deal, & generally not in a good way. A privilege usually reserved for witness protection programmes, family breakups and becoming a porn star, it requires learning a new signature, replacing all your official documents, and my own personal lifetime nemesis, filling in lots of boring forms.
It means changing seats in the roll call of life. As a T, I’ve always enjoyed my comfortable position at the backend of registers and lists. It provides ample opportunity to rehearse my line (‘here Sir’, said with just the right combination of boredom & respect) while the Andersons, Browns and Clarks have to suck it up at the top of the bill. I don’t want to change places. I don’t want to start again.
A fresh beginning
I’m seduced by the idea of a fresh beginning, though. A new name, I imagine, is better even than a fresh Cos delivery or a new planner for a hit of second chances. The name I’ve worn so far doesn’t have a whole heap of happy connotations for me, & I’m sure I’ve my share of google-creepers motivated purely through dated, hopeful spite.
How nice it would be to leave all of that behind. How lovely to be a new person, overnight.
That’s not what marriage is for though, is it? You don’t go home that night and become someone different; in fact, the person you’re marrying is sort of relying on the fact that you won’t.
& when I think of all that I’ve achieved over the last year, I’m pretty glad it’s tied to my old, slightly jaded full name. When I think about writing a book – an actual possibility for this year, as it happens – it’s my original name I want to see on the cover. I want to walk into a bookshop, pick up my book and see the name I have carried my whole life so far written on the front. Whatever connection I could forge with a new name would be lacking the poingancy and purpose of that original pairing on that day.
Besides, I rationalise – when I wake in the night in cold uncertain sweats – I can change my name any old time. Who says it has to be on my wedding day? Who says it’s a now-or-never enterprise?
I could do it on a Tuesday one rainy July, six years from now. I could discover I actually really love filling in complicated forms, and be so damn glad I saved this opportunity.
What’s in a name? A string of letters, a jumble of consonants and vowels. A sense of identity, a history, the record of every time it was spoken. An entire shady history via Google search.
A new name is no bad thing, but in line with my wabi sabi, minimalist attitudes, I think I’ll stick with the one I’ve got. To be perfectly honest, I’m just not done with it yet.
Did you change your name when you married? How did you decide what would work for you?
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