Sunday, 23 October 2011

What's In A Name?

One of my friends got married last year and much to my surprise, she changed her name.

She's a fairly independent person, her family is very important to her and after her father died she made a big point of commemorating their shared history.

As a result, I was not expecting her to be the kind of person who would giddily start referring to herself as 'Mrs [My Husband's Name]'.

Now another friend in our circle is engaged and is planning to change her name as well.

I have trouble wrapping my brain around the whole thing.

My name is... my name.

It's part of who I am.

I've never really thought about getting rid of it and the fact that other people are so comfortable with doing so confuses me.

I know it's traditional and a lot of people say it's 'easier' but still, unless I was marrying someone with a super awesome surname like Wartooth* I don't think I could do it. And even then I think it would be an addition and not a substitution.

There are all sorts of arguments that usually get trotted out at this point about "If you hyphenate your surnames then what is the next generation supposed to do? How long do you want these names to get?"
At least two women I know who are in long term de facto relationships that have produced children have kept their own surnames** but all their children share surnames with the fathers, not their mothers.

Though it may be unfair, to me that sort of thing always smacks of appeasement.

"Of course they're your children! See? They have your surname!"
"Look! We have children together and they have your surname! They're like little yous! Please don't leave us..."
"I know how you like to own things and now it's like you have your own franchise..."

What with DNA testing it's no longer necessary to use surnames to denote who put what into whom and what the result was and having the kids share the father's surname alone really feels like a matter of possession.

If the children shared the mother's surname alone it would also feel a bit odd as the children are no more just a product of their mother than they are just a product of their father***.

If a same-sex couple get married and adopt a child or give birth to a child, people would acknowledge that a decision would have to be reached that was acceptable to both spouses/parents****. Why do people find it so hard to apply this recognition of individual identity to hetero couples?

There has to be some kind of sensible solution. Or even multiple sensible solutions.

I know stepping away from the 'tradition' means having to think a bit harder about things and have - what might be for some couples - some rather involved and fraught discussions but there are plenty of options:
  • both keeping your own names with no alterations
  • one or both of you adding an extra surname either in front of or behind your own
  • adopting a shared hyphenated surname
  • making a composite surname from components of both or your originals surnames
  • making up a badass new surname that has nothing in common with either of your previous surnames
If you choose to take your spouse's name because your own family was an abusive or neglectful train wreck and you want nothing more to do with the name, go nuts.

If your parents named you something cruel and unusual that turns your full name into a little sentence that has made your life hell, I can definitely understand you wanting to change your name*****.

But don't change it just because your spouse's parents/grandparents/family biographer will crack the shits if you don't or because you're worried about people looking at you askance.

We don't accept bullying as acceptable when it comes to partaking in or abstaining from controlled substances, engaging in sexual acts or whether or not to become a parent; why should it be allowed or seen as appropriate when it comes to something as important as your identity?

Catherine Deveny wrote several newspaper articles and a blog post on this topic and when I brought the subject up at work I was actually rather shocked at how conservative most of my female coworkers were, either believing that a woman should change her name 'just because' or using the 'it's just easier' explanation that has Catherine knocking her head against the wall.

I'm sure some people like the idea of changing their name and as long as they're doing it for reasons that they're happy with then that's their choice and right but the whole practice will always weird me out a bit.

*That was just an example, I'm not really thinking about marrying a fictional cartoon character. Toki and I would be totally incompatible.

**It was three but one of the women mentioned got married, took her husband's name and now has the same surname as her children.

***I also know some men are a little paranoid about their likelihood of getting custody or visitation rights after a marital/relationship split and that this option would only exacerbate that anxiety.

****Well, those people who accept the validity of same-sex relationships and/or the existence of same-sex sexual attraction...

*****In any of these circumstances, you could have changed it by deed poll of course but a lot of people don't seem to consider that.


Erin Palette said...

I'm a big believer in both spouses having the same last name. Perhaps it's because I come from a military family, but to me having the same name just states, forthrightly, that you are all part of the same unit and you each have the others' backs.

That said, it doesn't have to be the woman who changes her name; it can be the man, or both can change their names to something universal. It's not so much who does the changing as it is the uniformity of familial identity.

Ricochet said...

Coming from a family that shares one name I can definitely appreciate that point of view but when it comes to actually contemplating giving up my own name I can't make the two things mesh.

I think family is one of those things that is more a matter of commitment and awareness. There are some families that share the same name that are so unhappy and dysfunctional that you'd never consider them a family.
There are some families where one parent has one name, one parent has another and the kids either have hyphenated names or they've gone the 'boys get one surname, girls get the other' route and as long as they love and support each other there's no loss of community or connection.

It's a deeply personal thing and everyone has to decide for themselves. The key issue that worries and disappoints me is how much negative feedback women who want to keep their own names still get from society.