Guest Post: The Dude Speaks (and Speaks…) About Marital Name-Change

My Name Is?Dude here.  First things first: I didn’t pick that nickname, and I certainly don’t use it at home.  Aimee calls me certain expletives and my friends call me by last name.  Speaking of last names, after reading Aimee’s identity theft post (the one about maiden names, hyphenation, yadda, yadda), I offered to write a complementary post on the topic, as viewed from my perspective.  Here goes…

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

The oft-quoted passage from Shakespeare obscures Romeo & Juliet’s real lesson.  While a rose by any other name may indeed smell equally sweet, I’m not sure that Signores Montague and Capulet fixated on scent.  It was pedigree and genealogy about which they worried, and, to that end, names disclosed and meant quite a bit.

Names come to define and signify us.  More than just labels, they also become laden with emotion, identifying information, and meaning; giving up a name means forfeiting a portion of our identity.  People have come to know me as my name, and to know my name as me.  I wasn’t willing to give that up when I took my vows, and I didn’t expect that Aimee would be any happier to either.

Our Story
As loyal AYMB readers, you already know the punchline: When we married, Aimee took my last name, jettisoning her birth middle name and replacing it with her maiden name, sans hyphen.  This decision — one that she drove, but that we made together — flew in the face of our liberal upbringings, education, and beliefs.  That my partner would tend the house and children, while I tended to our income seemed just as crazy as the prospect that my partner would bear my name like a possessive.  Fast forward a half-dozen years, and both have occurred.   I joke that we’re the accidental traditionalists.

To be clear, I never asked Aimee to change her name, nor would I have asked.  I imagined that she would either keep her maiden name or hyphenate our names together.  We both found distasteful the concept of a woman giving up her name in order to take her husband’s. (Let’s shamefully assume heterosexuality here.)  It’s an unfortunate tradition that smacks of uglier times when women were treated like property, and when their parents (read: fathers) bartered them into marriage.  But, as Churchill famously said about democracy (it being the worst possible form of government…except for all the others), we found name-changing to be the worst possible and least likable option, besides all the others.

The Alternatives
So, what options are there?  Well, the obvious alternative is for wives to keep their maiden names.  I was fine with this.  But Aimee wanted to have the same name as her children.  (Again, traditionalism sneaks in.  Even as we were open-minded about name-changing, we just assumed that my name would pass on to our children.)

How about hyphenating?  Not a bad alternative, we thought.  But what if we hyphenated the kids’ names, too, and then they married hyphenated kids?  Four surnames?  And then what if their kids married four-surname kids?  The prospect of exponential hyphenation seemed silly and simply impracticable.

How about I take Aimee’s name?  It wasn’t something I wanted consider.  Besides that people knew me by my last name, that name is so rare that my brother and I are the only males (assuming our female cousins cling to tradition) potentially to pass it on.  I couldn’t countenance a situation in which my family name would disappear in a generation.  “Hypocrite!,” you shout.  No, not at all. That I so vehemently opposed giving up my name only made me anticipate and accept that Aimee likely would would not give up hers.  (That she ultimately did shows the power of tradition as tie-breaker.)

How about the clever and trending practice of merging names into a new one?  This also has the added attraction of having both parents share their name with their children.  But for all the equity in this approach, it also doubles the “harm” of name-changing:  Now two people would be cleaved from their past identities; two family names would stop being passed to future generations.

Because we both found ourselves early in our careers, we did not much consider the option of using a maiden name for professional reasons and a married name for personal reasons.  That practical option allows the wife to preserve her past identity (somewhat), while also allowing children to have the same (legal) name as their mothers.  But it also plays right into tradition, again, by assuming that children should take on their fathers’ names.  Worse, it prevents children from being associated with their mothers’ professional successes.

‘Til Death Do Us Part
So there we were as newlyweds, two feminists fully aware of the irony of Aimee taking on my name.  We realized it was an imperfect choice, but accepted it as the least imperfect (for us) of the alternatives.  By making her maiden name into her middle name, Aimee honored her family heritage while also preserving her past identity.  By taking my name, though, her family name will not continue down our branch of the family tree.  That is regrettable.

Each couple needs to choose the option that works best for it, hopefully honoring the wishes of the bride (who so often is the one most affected by it).  Our own decision has worked well for us.  We just thank our lucky stars that my name was not Montague…