Where Logic Meets Love

A Married Woman by Any Other Name...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

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A Married Woman by Any Other Name... | Faith Permeating Life
Since this discussion got buried in the comments of another post (which already had the most comments of any post so far!), I thought it would be good idea to give it its own post.

I'm not sure if I've mentioned before, but one of Mike's minors in college was Women's and Gender Studies. We took a class together called "Women and Psychology." I also took a grad class called "Women and Communication" taught by my advisor/favorite professor, who was a very outspoken divorced feminist. So as you can imagine, between the two of us we encountered quite a lot of discussion and debate around issues like historical patriarchy and the sacrifices women make in our society.

In that atmosphere, it would have been impossible for me to plan on taking Mike's last name without giving some thought to it first.

I have attempted to make some big countercultural decisions in my life, none of which have yet panned out. At one point, I decided that I never wanted to learn to drive. (I did.) My mom tells me there was a point I swore I would never go to college. (I did.) Then when I graduated high school I said I was never getting married. (I did.) And I'm pretty sure at some point prior to that I had decided that if I did get married, I would keep my own last name.

So what changed?

Common vs. Rare
For one thing, when I arrived at college, I was no longer the only person in school with my full name. Having a very common first name for my generation, combined with a very common last name, meant that from the moment I stepped on campus and went to pick up my student ID I had to clarify "which one" I was. My first year, there were only two of us, then the next year two more showed up, though apparently they both left by the following year because it was back down to two of us again. I have a feeling the other Jessica got mistaken for me more often than the other way around since I was very active in multiple organizations, including the student newspaper, so my name was pretty well-known on campus. Still, it caused problems and was just generally annoying to feel like I wasn't unique.

Mike, on the other hand, has such a rare last name that as far as I can tell there's only one other person in the world with my married name (one of the many reasons I don't share my full name here). If you Google my name, everything pertains to me and only me, which is a blessing and a curse. I've been able to build up my online footprint from scratch, so I won't be connected to anything from college or before if I don't want to. I also don't have to worry about somebody else with the same name posting inappropriate things and having them mistakenly linked to me. Future employers Googling me will find my LinkedIn profile at the top of the list, not buried among thousands of links about other similarly named people.

The Jokes... Oh, the Jokes
No, I didn't have an embarrassing maiden name, like Weiner, but my full maiden name was similar to a celebrity's name. When I got to college, I met a lot of new people, and when I started job-hunting, I met even more people, and about half of all the people I ever met felt the need to make an awkward joke about the celebrity with the similar name. I got so sick of it. It didn't happen often with people my age, but practically every adult my parents' age felt the need to crack a bad joke. And that's not what I wanted people's first impressions of me to be linked to!

The other problem with the name resemblance was that because my name wasn't identical to hers, I got called the wrong name. A lot. And then people would feel obligated to make excuses about how they were thinking about their friend or their cousin or somebody else who looked like me who had that name, but I knew what the real reason was. I've been married almost two years now, and in that time, nobody has called me by that wrong name. It's been fabulous.

Family Heritage
Mike comes from a relatively big extended family: His dad is the youngest of 9, and he's one of 23 grandchildren. However, only two of his grandparents' sons had sons, and Mike's the only married one. It's looking more and more likely that we may be the only one of that entire clan to have kids we could pass on the (very rare) family name to. So it was pretty clear which of our last names we wanted our kids to have. Which brings me to...

If this had been the only reason, I'm not sure if I would have taken Mike's name, but it's definitely the icing on the cake. For better or for worse, American society pretty much operates under the assumption that moms and dads and kids all share one last name. Even with all of the paperwork that schools require to document family information and legal guardians and whatnot, I still know of cases where moms were questioned about picking their kids up from school simply because they didn't have the same last name. And particularly since we're planning to adopt our kids, the more that I can do to make sure everyone knows we're a family unit, the better. Certainly this could have also been achieved by Mike taking my last name -- for example, my former boss's husband took her last name -- but for reasons #1, #2, and #3 above, that wasn't a good option for us.

The divorced feminist professor I mentioned earlier -- she kept her last name when she got married (and tried to convince me to keep mine), but her kids' friends called her Mrs. [Husband's Last Name] anyway, even after the divorce, since that was her kids' last name, and she didn't bother correcting them. I think I would feel weird either having to correct kids all the time or just being called by the wrong name.

I've found sharing a last name with Mike to come in handy numerous times since getting married. Again, for better or for worse, no one questions that I'm his wife. We can pick up each other's library books when holds come in; we can use each other's credit cards when necessary.

I should reiterate that these were just my reasons for changing my name. This doesn't mean that I think everyone with a common name should take their spouse's last name or vice versa. But I am a big fan of having reasons for your actions and being able to explain them. Many people assume that I took Mike's last name because, well, that's just what you do when you get married, right? Others think I fell prey to old-fashioned, stereotypical, patriarchal notions about ownership and tradition. But in reality, I had my reasons -- and now you know what they are.

If you are married, did you change your name? Why or why not? What have been the pros and cons of your decision?


  1. Here are my thoughts copied and pasted from the other post's comments:

    1) My maiden name is super rare and hard to spell and pronounce. It's also towards the very end of the alphabet. No more "Huh? What kind of name is that?" and "Can you spell that???" or hearing garbled mispronunciations at the doctor's office. It also can be annoying being last or near last for things.

    2) My family owns a business and is pretty well-known in our area. I had the opportunity for anonymity! No more questions about if I was related to so and so, or did I know someone else, etc.

    3) I also felt like it made us more of a family unit and would simplify things. I also liked C's last name a lot, which is more of a vanity reason.

    Now, here's why I miss my maiden name:
    1) My married name is SUPER common around our area. Combine that with my first name, and there are 2 of me at my hair salon, 2 at my eye doctor, and 2 or 3 at my dentist. Yes, mix ups have happened.

    2) No one knows me! When I called places after I got married that I had done business with before I got married, I had to throw in my maiden name so they would know who I was. This also meant people thought I hyphenated. Little bit of confusion! Also, the name used to mean something to some people. You could hear the "Oh, it's a XXXXX" resound in their head. Not that I got any special treatment but places that had done business with my family remembered the name. There was a familiarity.

    OK I think that's enough!

  2. I didn't change my name when I got married, and my husband didn't change his. Oh, we planned to, but while we don't legally force women to take their husbands' names we make it a royal pain to do anything other than keep names or have the woman change. So almost three years later that still hasn't happened, and probably won't until we've gotten to the point where we have to deal with a child's last name asap. Sometimes I joke that we should just take the last name of the first child we adopt.

    The last name thing really, really stinks when you start to think about giving the name to a child. Obviously it makes sense that I think about that more because I plan to adopt, but so many women give their children wretched last names simply because that happened to be the dad's last name.

    And our main reason for taking a new name together was symbolic, but our main reason for not actually doing so yet is... my reality is set up to only make it easy to live out patriarchal symbols. So I guess that is the biggest con so far, while the main pro is that I got to know for sure how much of a feminist my trad husband really is. We'll see how I feel about all of this once we actually start the paperwork.

  3. @Rabbit
    I love that the anonymity of a common name is both a pro and a con for you. That's how I feel about having a rare name now--I don't get mixed up with anyone else, but I also know that if I ever do anything stupid it will follow me forever because there won't be any confusion over *which* Jessica ________ it was!

    My married name is a pretty simple name and yet it is always screwed up. Because it's so rare, people have never heard it before, so they misread it as some other name or assume that it must have a complicated pronunciation.

    It's funny--I bet most men don't give this much thought to the pros and cons of their last names because they just assume they're stuck with their name for life. Only we who have changed our names have a reason for comparison!

  4. @Rae
    Changing my name was a huge pain in the butt even though I did the "normal" thing! I can't imagine how much more complicated it would be to change it to something new.

    I didn't know you were also planning to adopt! That's awesome. We want to adopt our first from infancy, so we will probably get input on the name, but down the road we might adopt an older child / sibling set. I hadn't thought about the name thing too much, but your comment makes me realize that our children may end up with some bad name combinations when they take our last name. I've heard of some kids going by nicknames or middle names after they get adopted, so I guess that is an option if they hate the combination with our last name.

    Good for your husband for being on board with doing something non-traditional!

  5. I thought about the pros and cons of name changing too. It came down to this for me: we wanted to have the same last name to symbolize our united family. Although it was painful for me to give up my last name, everyone understood/expected that. If he were to give up his, I think it would have been a very controversial decision and offended his family. It just didn't seem worth it. Unfortunately I went from a hard to spell last name to a last name that sounds easy to spell but isn't.

  6. @Jackie
    For me, it was both good and bad that most people expected me to give up my name. Good because, like you said, there was no controversy and no need for explanation. Bad because, as I explained above, people assumed there had been no thought put into it, and I like people to know that I think through decisions like this. So sometimes I end up explaining why I did it even though people probably don't care :) just so they understand that there are other options and that this is a choice, not a default obligation.

  7. @Jessica
    That's exactly it! When my maiden name is googled, all of that is alllll me. Google my current name, who knows how long it would take to find ME. Legally, I am Jennifer maiden name married name, so I kept my old self with me, and have the full name on my resume. That's important, given that some of my references knew me before I got married, and might not know that i did get married, or even what my new name is.

    As for my husband, he probably would die if he had to go by my maiden name. He's traditional about that stuff, lol. At the beginning of the month, we got new health insurance cards. I had been with this plan/company years ago at another job, before we were married. There must have been a glitch in the computer when they went to enter my info, because my maiden name was on BOTH of our cards! It was hysterical to see him with that name. I am keeping them, and we did get new cards with our legal names on them. The insurance company thinks it autofilled in my old info when they entered my SSN, even though other info, like my address! showed as correct.

  8. I took my husband's name for several reasons

    1) It made me feel like a true part of his family. His family has been there for me in ways my actual family would never even think of and it has been a blessing to take on that name

    2) My maiden name was an innocent word that is also slang for a certain part of female anatomy... hello dirty jokes, and I teach middle school...it wasn't pretty

    3)This one is lame, but i have a speech impediement that makes the letter "r" difficult. My maiden name had 2, my married name has none :) It sounds stupid, but having to spell my maiden name all the time and then STILL not having people get it, was emotionally difficult.

    4) I teach in hte district that I grew up in and that both my family and my husbands family currently live in... and his family name gets A LOT of respect in this town. Everyone knows and loves at least one member of his family.

    I think whether to change or not change is a personal decision, but for me it has been a worthwhile change.

  9. @Rabbit
    That's so funny! I remember one time when we were first married someone we knew got mixed up and called Mike by my maiden name, and it was just weird. I really feel like my married name fits me--maybe because it is uniquely mine.

    P.S. Glad you figured out how to use the Reply button! :)

  10. @Amanda
    This is what I mean about everyone having their own reasons... those are totally legitimate reasons, even wanting a name that's easier for you to pronounce. And I do not blame you for wanting a less tease-able name, especially as a teacher! Glad your decision was a beneficial one for you.

  11. Oops, I'm a bit late to this, but basically my view (as a single 19 year old) is that I will change my name. I've just always assumed I will, probably because it seems like the 'family-y' thing to do and like some of you have said, it simplifies things if you all have the same name. At the moment though, my last name is a rare one. Our family (5) are the only ones with it, and since I only have a sister, it won't get passed on, and will end with us. This slightly makes me want to keep my name, but I'm thankful that I have a fairly unusual first name too, so even if I marry someone with a really common surname, I'm not likely to know anyone else with the same full name. At the moment, I'm the only one.

  12. @Just me
    Having a unique first name would definitely help! That may make it easier for people to know who you are after you get married (like Rabbit was saying above about calling businesses with her married name).

    I think I said this on the other post already, but you never know what might happen when you meet "the one"! Perhaps he will have a terrible last name and want to take yours. It could happen :)

  13. I'm happily unmarried but always interested in discussions of names. I think the "right" decision about whether a marrying person should change his/her name or whose last name a child should have depends very much on the names involved and the family circumstances.

    In general, though, I advocate keeping the same name one's whole life because it's simpler, and giving children their father's last name because the mother's biological connection to the child is more obvious and I feel that using the father's last name "balances" things. Just my opinion.

    I'm not a big fan of hyphenated last names, unless they are relatively short and sound good AND the whole family has the hyphenated name, not just the wife or just the kids or everybody but the husband. I know a Stahl-Wert family, pronounced "stalwart"; that's a good name. But I've encountered some hyphenated names that sound awful and/or are just cumbersome:

    Thanks for this article! It's always interesting to read about a carefully thought-through decision.

  14. @'Becca
    This is a very unscientific observation, but it seems to me that hyphenated names were popular for about a generation and then the trend started to die. I think people eventually realized that kids with hyphenated last names will grow up and not be able to hyphenate their own hyphenated last name with their spouse's without it being completely unwieldly (if the original hyphenation wasn't bad enough, as in your examples!). As much as it seems like the most balanced and compromising thing to do, it's not entirely a practical solution.

  15. I'm intrigued by your former boss' situation, as they're the only other M/F couple (besides me) I've heard of where the guy has changed his name! It made me wrack my brain for a little while if I've ever supervised someone named Jessica, but I'm pretty sure that there are at least 2 of us, now. :)

    For us, it was a combination of factors, but in essence:
    - We wanted a family name. We're not legally married (as a bi woman, it feels weird to engage in an institution that's only available to me because I've chosen an 'appropriate' partner), and since we plan to adopt, having a unified name is one way to make things slightly less complicated.

    - I was NOT going to take his name. It's so firmly the default and the assumption here in the US, and I personally did not want to contribute to that. At a gut level, it was just a Hell, No sort of a thing. (I figured this meant hyphenation or a totally new name, but he suggested taking mine, which worked very well for my lazy self!)

    For me, the thing that I like most is seeing situations that make people think about their assumptions around all of this, and getting our systems (and databases) to stop breaking when there are different last names to consider.

    It's somewhat ironic to me that our situation *doesn't* challenge the status quo all that often, because most of the time it's just assumed that we're married and I took his name. Corrections happen, but we're not nearly as countercultural on a day-to-day basis as some folks assume.

  16. To be honest there was no real reason for me to change it except I just wanted to. There wasn't a real thought placed behind it. It was just a casual "Ya sure I'll change my last name!" If you ever get to know me you'll find out real quick I am very down to earth about things. (And at times you wll find out that I don't always think..I just do it.) Luckily I don't regret it. I like my husbands last name!

  17. These are the best reasons I've heard for changing your name! Sure, it's not for everybody... but it sounds like it's working well for you. The hubster & I really struggled with this decision. Maybe I'll post about it someday? But in the meantime, I loved reading yours : )

  18. I love this topic because I actually think about it a lot. My last name is super rare and hard for people to spell/pronounce, but I don't feel annoyed by that... it's actually kind of part of my identity now. My family has a song to help people remember how to spell it and everything, and it's just kind of a joke among a lot of my friends. Plus, the "family heritage" reason Jessica mentioned is opposite for me--I have one sister and two female cousins with the name and after us, that's it! Which makes me kind of sad.

    Also, for a while I was considering going into academia and I think it's tough to change your name if you're already published... people get really confused.

    Anyway, I'm still planning on taking my eventual husband's name because I really like the idea of being a "family unit." No verdict on what that will be yet... although I'm actually not a huge fan of my boyfriend's last name :) it's unique and easy to spell and pronounce, but it's a word and it's kind of silly, haha.

  19. I plan to keep my name for two reasons. 1) I am the oldest of five granddaughters on my dad's side and I feel responsible for keeping that name alive. I have had this name my whole life and my identity doesn't change just because I get married. 2) My boyfriend is an immigrant with a very distinctive last name. While I am trying to learn his family language it is not my heritage and taking his name as my own feels like telling the world that I am something that I am not.

  20. So many great comments!

    What I know of my boss's situation is this: She changed her last name when she married her first husband, but during the 20 years they were married always felt like her maiden name was her true name. When she married her second husband, she kept her maiden name. Eventually he decided to change his name to simplify things.

    I agree that most systems are woefully inadequate for the kind of diversity that exists among families and names. For example, people whose last names are two words often screw up our computer systems at work. It shouldn't be that way! Our systems should accommodate variations rather than assuming one model fits all.

    I would definitely be interested in hearing your story! I love to hear about how other people thought through decisions like these.

    I love that your family has a song for spelling your name! I can definitely see how you might not want to give that up.

    At one point I asked the professor I mentioned for advice about my name, and she said just to make sure that the name you get published under is the one you're keeping. Unfortunately I haven't succeeded in getting anything published yet... ah well.

    As you've seen from other commenters, there are other ways to create a "family unit" name than taking your husband's name. Have you thought about whether he might take your name or about creating a new name?

    @Emily Ward
    I definitely know what you mean about #2. Mike and I were just discussing recently how when we see someone's last name we make assumptions about their nationality/ethnicity, but particularly if it's a woman it may be her spouse's nationality and not hers. You are probably right that people would make incorrect assumptions about your identity if you were to take his name!

  21. Everyone's hit on a lot of ideas I've thought about in whether to keep my name or change it if I get married. As of now, I plan to keep it for many of the reasons others have discussed but also for one I haven't seen anyone else say: Having already had this experience once, it's kind of awesome to hear him get mistakenly called Mr. your last name. Given roles and expectations in our society, I love it. And usually, no one realizes the mistake except the two of you.

  22. @Tracy
    That's funny! I think there was one time someone accidentally attached my maiden name to Mike and it was just super-weird. But I can see how it could be seen as a cool reversal of normal roles, or at least a taste of that, especially if you really like your last name. Good luck with whatever you decide!

  23. I can't decide how I feel about this issue. The feminist in me wants to rebel and keep my name on principal, but I don't have all that much of a reason for it; not especially a lot of job notoriety or whatever. I keep trying to convince him to change to my last name, but he won't go for it. :-P I've also suggested combining last names to create a whole new one. We shall see!

  24. @Dashing Gray
    A friend of mine got married recently, and she and her husband created a new last name, each moving their last names to a middle name. She alerted everyone online ahead of time that her name would be changing to an unfamiliar one. I hadn't actually known someone to do that before and thought that was pretty cool.

    If there's one thing I learned this weekend, it's that you will always be able to find people with an opinion on how you should do things--and somehow you have to figure out what you really want to do. Good luck working it out :)

  25. I know I'm a little late on comment on this post-but I just found your blog! And the whole name change is sooo interesting to me!

    I added my husband's name as my last name when I got married, but I kept my maiden name as a middle name (so yes, I have 4 names). I def had an attachment to my maiden name, people have called my by that name. And it's me. And while we don't have kids yet, I tease my husband that my maiden name will work itself into our kids (biological & adoptive) when we have them. It's just a nice way to acknowledge both families heritage. And I love name that have meaning, or there being a reason/meaning behind the names that are picked.

  26. @Abby
    I think you're the first one on this thread to have kept both names, so thanks for adding your thoughts! I love that everyone has different ideas about what is most important and whether names are important at all. It's really interesting!


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