What exactly am I talking about here? Well, suppose an independent and self-sufficient woman actually finds herself to be successful in both romance and career? Are we allowed to judge her for wanting to take her husband’s surname? Does she lose her feminist card? Exactly how and why my friend and I were on the subject of changing one’s name upon has marriage has completely escaped me. What I do know is that I asked her if she’d given the matter any thought; completely expecting her to say that she’d be keeping her name. (My question isn’t premature. They’ve been together for over six years. In some parts of California they’d have already been married and divorced by now.)
Seriously though, she’s already earned her professional degree and I don’t think she’s ever going back to school. And while she’s not an established name in her field, she’s certainly not new either. It’s just not her surname, it’s a part of who she is, who we all are. Our very first gift, other than life itself and it seems incredibly outdated to adopt this portion of the marriage script for tradition’s sake. Unless of course, you’re one of those people who’s really into upholding traditions. And I suppose if you’re even into marriage in 2012 or beyond that you’re probably somewhat invested into upholding traditions or at least keeping up appearances.
Hold your horses, there because this isn’t a judgment on traditional minded folks. I fully intend on enrolling my daughters into the Girl Scouts. Thanksgiving Day consists of turkey, ham, macaroni & cheese (yes, I’m Black. No, it’s not Kraft), sweet potatoes and a homemade cranberry and granola dish that I stole from a Mexican American friend. Even with that last dish, I’m keeping the spirit of relationships between Pilgrims and Natives alive. See, I love traditions. But this might be the end of the rope for me.
My problem is simple. History is pretty murky. Can you untangle present day practices from their hate filled origins? Or maybe I’m just thinking about all of this too much. When I get married (if I get married) will my husband and I jump the broom as it’s traditionally done in African American weddings? Well, it’s a part of my culture that stems from a tradition because slaves weren’t typically granted wedding ceremonies and wanted to mark the occasion in a celebratory manner for themselves. Should I leave that part of my history in the past or embrace it? Can I even know for sure if anyone in my ancestry ever jumped over a broom?
I get that in order to live in society you have to play by some of the rules at least some of the time. If I were truly anti-establishment I wouldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day at all, nor would I wake up at 4 am on Black Fridays to spend hard earned money on gifts that no one really needs. We all pick and choose our traditions to some extent and luckily we live in a place where most of us have the freedom to pick and choose. So if you pick marriage and choose to change your name because it’s a tradition you want to uphold, I’ll turn up my nose to you in your face. Let’s start a new tradition of letting each other know exactly how we feel about personal life choices.
I’ve digressed. Back to my friend and you’ll never guess what she said. “I don’t know. I want everyone in the family to have the same last name. It’s like a family.”
I stifled laughter upon the realization that she was serious. There was nothing to say. I just replayed what she’d said over in my mind. She saved me from faking understanding when she kept talking.
“But I can’t be walking around with his last name.” Finally, something I could understand. I burst with laughter. (I would insert a really off-color remark here, but it’s not that kind of blog. So instead I’ll tell you what you don’t know. If she changes her name, she may never work or fly again. The combination of her first name and his last name would raise every red flag and a couple of white ones, too.) Then I did what any best friend would do.
“Please change your name! Please! Please Just do it!” I was giddy at the thought of all the offensive and funny stories in her future. “Well, have you guys at least talked about it yet?”
“No! Oh God, no. Talking about it would mean we’re talking about it and he’s not ready to talk about it,” she said.
Did I mention they’ve been committed for over six years? Yeah. Don’t worry. I’m not going to talk about it. “Some people hyphenate,” I said. I knew it was a horrible suggestion but there aren’t many alternatives and I wanted to say something.
“With my last name and his, it’d be a mouthful.” To that effect, I completely agreed with her. Six syllables are a mouthful. People would just end up not saying her name at all. “And,” she continued, “some women hyphenate on official documents but still go by their maiden name. So why even change it?”
“For a compromise.” It makes sense to me. Go by your maiden name but sign your married name on checks, passports, and every dotted line. But she still hadn’t answered my question. She didn’t want to change her name but wanted everyone in the family to have the same last name. One of those ultimatums had to give.
“So you’re changing your name.” I prompted, really wanting her to commit one way or the other.
“I don’t think I can,” she said.
“So you’ll give your children your last name. Some cultures do that.”
“Who? Who does that?” she said indignantly, convinced that I was yet again making something up.
“Mexicans! I know they do. It’s like some Spanish thing, isn’t it? Okay, maybe not Spanish. But I definitely know I’ve heard that Mexicans give offspring the mother’s maiden name. Which makes the most sense because you always know the maternity of a child but the paternity could be questioned and denied. I think it’s smart. Mama’s baby! Papa’s maybe?”
“No. They children have to have his name.” I decided not to go there. If the Mexican argument didn’t work, I didn’t really have any other tricks up my sleeves. “You could combine the names.” Insert my feeble attempts at combining an English an Southeast Asian surname and you’d be laughing as hysterically as I was that night. The combo names just weren’t cute.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m keeping my name.”
“Oh really? Miss Little Southern Belle?”
“Well, besides the fact that neither my dad or uncle passed on the family surname to any boys and the name would die off without this great sacrifice; it’s my name. Why on Earth would I change it?” I asked.
“He might ask.”
I snorted my scoff. “I don’t think I’m marrying someone who will expect me to change my name. He could ask and then we’ll talk about. We could even have a 12 hour long conversation every third Tuesday of the month (Cue Julia Roberts from Stepmom).” We both laughed. “But no. I’m not changing my name.”
You’re still a family regardless of how many surnames are in your family. Drop your middle name and make your surname your middle. Too attached to your middle name? Keep your surname and ask him to change his name. Families today have completely evolved from what they traditionally were two generations ago. That change scares people and makes them quick to define what marriage can and cannot be and the many rules of engagement. But family isn’t about the name. It isn’t about the appearance of being a single unit, welded into one with the husband’s last name. It’s about actually being a single unit, yet still allowing everyone their individuality. It’s about making room in your life to add more people to love. You’re no less of a wife without his name in the same way that you’re no less of a family if you decide not to have children. I get wanting to send out Christmas cards with one family name on the envelope, but your boyfriend doesn’t even believe in Jesus, so you can’t send out Christmas cards anyway.
Kidding. (Not really.)
The best compromise is to hyphenate the family name. The next question is what will your daughter do when she gets married? She can’t possibly drop her hyphenated maiden name after all the energy expended to get it just right. Nor can she hyphenate and already hyphenated name. Maybe you should only have boys.