Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thoughts on Changing One's Name After Marriage

"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet agrees with me!

We rarely get paper mail from people we know and like anymore, so this isn't normally an issue, but in December, when we were getting seasonal cards, I can't tell you how many were addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Chuk Chuksmith. (Note: His first name isn't really Chuk and his last name isn't Chuksmith; I'm just trying to make a point.) What is most odd to me about this situation is that every single person who addressed the envelopes knows I didn't change my last name when I got married.

It's not that I find this offensive, but I do find it puzzling. What's so wrong with not changing my name? Why do they care? Why are they unwilling to comply with my preference? Their actions send me the message that they don't approve of my choice. I don't need their approval, but it makes me feel the need to educate. Unfortunately for you, I can't sit down with each of them and explain my numerous reasons, so I'm educating the public at-large.

My name is a connection to my family of origin. My father died very unexpectedly less than two months after I got engaged. I never got to say goodbye. His last name is something of his that I can "carry" with me everyday.

I got married when I was 29. Being an older bride, my achievements are in my maiden name. Degrees, references, publications, and professional history have a hard time staying associated with you if you change you name. I got my Master's degree three months before I was engaged; earning it was incredibly hard work; I want that diploma hanging on my office wall to have my name on it, not my former name.

I'm involved in some complicated legal issues involving my late father's and late grandparents' estates; changing my name midway through would cost more money and complicate things further and it's already hard enough for me to deal with that crap as it is.

Changing your name is time-consuming and I'm lazy.

Historically, the reason women's names were changed when they married was because they became their husband's property. (This is also the reason slaves had the same last names as their masters.) I don't want to be associated with that legacy. (Another fun fact: In China, women don't change their surnames when they marry.)

I asked Chuk if he would ever change his last name. He absolutely wouldn't. He wouldn't even think about both of us hyphenating our last names. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

When discussing this issue with people before I had made a final decision, no one could come up with a single reason why a person should change her name other than tradition. Well, actually, my sister-in-law said the reason she changed her last name when she married was so that she could have the same last name as her future children. This supposes that 1) I plan on having children in the future, which is definitely not a guarantee, and 2) That even if I did have children that they would be given Chuk's last name, which is also not a guarantee. I mean seriously, I would be the one doing all the hard work for the first 40 weeks and that's not even counting breastfeeding. But I digress. Point is, when I weighed my pros and cons, there were no pros. (Keeping a meaningless tradition alive is not a pro to me.)

Now, I fear I may sound more strident than I really am on this issue. Keeping my name was what was right for me. The vast majority of my female friends and family members changed their last names when they married and I think that's rad. It's rad because it's what they wanted to do. I did what I wanted to do and now people act all judge-y.

A little more than a month ago, I was talking to a group of women who all happened to be DAR members (I mention that to illustrate that they were all kind of traditional, well-mannered women who were all familiar with proper etiquette) none of whom I'd seen since before my wedding. One of the ladies asked, "You changed your name when you got married?" When I answered in the negative, all the women had difficulty concealing their surprise. They said things like, "Oh, um, well, my neighbor's sister hyphenated her last name when she married." As if I had just revealed I had some rare and shameful disease and they were still trying to relate to me, except mine was the worst case they had ever heard of.

So because this is still a public service announcement, and because I know you never want to be that guy, if you want to know if a newlywed has changed her last name (I admit you do need to know!) but don't want her to secretly blog about you for doing so later, ask her if either of them are planning on changing their names. Bonus points: ask her if her husband is changing his name. After a year and a half of engagement, and nine and a half months of marriage, not one single person has ever asked Chuk if he was going to change his last name/had changed his last name. Scores of people have asked me.


  1. Great article! It's strange how persistent this tradition has been while many other traditions are crumbling. The only good reason I can think of to change one's last name is if one's original last name is so unpleasant that the spouse's name would be a big improvement. I don't like my last name all that much, which is why my child has his dad's last name, but I'm not changing mine because it's MY NAME. I do feel like a member of both families--just like I feel like a member of my mom's family even though I have my dad's last name.

  2. I've been married twice.

    The first time I was 20. My family was in utter chaos and I honestly felt like I was escaping--or being saved by my equally young husband-to-be. I changed my name without batting an eye. It didn't hurt that he has one of those really fantastic romantic last names, and that it sounded great with my first name.

    I got divorced six years later. I struggled with changing my name back. I wanted to have the same name as my kids. But I wanted my own name too. What made the choice for me was becoming a professional writer a couple of years later, and not wanting an ex-husbands name as my professional name. I knew that at some point I would probably remarry and that would be--awkward.

    I was 32, I remarried.

    I found changing my name to be much much harder this time. I had been using my maiden name professionally and personally for a long time. When my daughter, who was born before marriage to her father and so has my maiden name on her birth certificate and not her fathers, started school they made her use my maiden name. So one of my kids had my last name, and one had his fathers. (Confused much???)

    This time it was another baby that convinced me to finally go ahead and change my name. She's so much younger than her sister and brother, that at some point soon it will be just me and her dad and her. I wanted us all to have the same name.

    By this time, the family chaos had settled, and I wasn't so ready to give up my maiden name.

    I have a really unusual first name, and I think that somewhere along the way that came to be more important to me than my last name which is clearly interchangeable! I've had three so far. But I'm always Shaunta.

  3. I was 21 when I married 25 years ago and I took my husband's last name. I liked my maiden name and (still) love my father but looked forward to taking my husband's last name.
    The only thing that bothered me was the way the older sales ladies used to put my name on sales receipts as Mrs. Brent Lawson (Karen). Just like that, with my first name in parenthesis--like my first name--my identity was an afterthought!
    A funny thing is that way back then I could use his charge cards by signing "Mrs Brent Lawson" and no one batted an eye!

  4. I went thru your entire rationale before I got married but decided in the end to change my name for simplicity's sake. It's just easier for me to have the same name as my husband and future children. My mother kept her maiden name for many of the reasons you mentioned and it was difficult for us kids to have parents with two different names - people always thought they were divorced! But everyone has to make that own decision, as it's a very personal one.

  5. I'm late in the game. I know. But I found it through a WFMW and then I kinda kept reading some more of your posts.

    This is a very interesting subject to me, one that I've put a lot of thought into recently.

    I married 2.5 years ago and was very reluctant to change my last name. It was very unique, and I was marrying a Smith. (Gossssh, how lame.) And my family is just the coolest. I mean it. I have super awesome parents and super awesome siblings and I love being a part of that family. And love that there's only one of me in Connecticut. Seriously. Probably a million Smiths, but only one of my family. I put off changing it for a while, but my family is conservative and liked the tradition of changing your last name. I know, I know, tradition is not a good reason for you, and I'm totally cool with that, but I guess it was a good enough reason for me. And I wanted to show some dedication to my hubby, that I plan on being part of his family as well. BUT because my degree is in my maiden name (and honestly, because I just love my maiden name and my family and the ties it keeps), I chose to hyphenate my last name. It makes my full name super long and kinda crazy, but I'm cool with that. We (my husband and I) are generally still known as the Smiths, and no one would think twice about me referring to myself as a Smith, and that's fine with me, as I like being associated with my husband, but I can also use my full (hyphenated) last name if I chose, so people are aware where I came from, they connect me with my family, and I'm distinguishable from others.

    And I'm super easy to search for on facebook.


    Thanks for this discussion!

  6. When my husband and I got married, I didn't change my name. About six months later, we changed our names together to a mutually agreed-upon name, as we wanted our kids to have the same last name. Until we changed our names together (and sent out cards telling people about it), we got TONS of Christmas cards and other mail addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. HisFirstName HisLastName." And all of these people knew I hadn't changed my name! Granted, I WAS offended by it, but mostly I was just confused. It really did seem like they were condemning my choice. I don't refuse to correctly address letters to women who have changed their names, after all.

  7. Another fun fact for you: women don't change their last names in Spain, either. They just have never done so. I think other Spanish speaking countries and possibly Portuguese speaking may be the same. Children normally get two surnames: first from father and second from mother (but you can switch nowadays).You may use only one of those for everyday life but formally you have both (a bit like people who only use their middle name for formal identification).

    I'm into medieval studies, too, and children in Spain at that time could take on either last name. So sometimes one sibling would have a paternal surname and another the maternal one, just like in the case of one of the comments above. I think that's very cool.

    Personally, I wouldn't change my name for anything in the world, though being Spanish I guess I'm biased... it just seems too odd to cease using your own name...

  8. I'm totally for freedom of choice. I understand that women want to keep their identity. But, if you don't know who you are, how can you get married? The bottom line is, if you love your husband, you will take his name. It's completely disrespectful to him and his family if you don't. My sister-in-law is not taking our family name and I can't stand it. It's such a slap in the face. I don't know if I can get over it. So, you may want to weigh the pros and cons. If you don't care about your in-laws feelings, you probably shouldn't marry into that family. I see it as being selfish and vain.

  9. "The bottom line is, if you love your husband, you will take his name. It's completely disrespectful to him and his family if you don't."

    So, basically what this person just said is "I know women want to keep their identities, but I'm childish and get offended when I don't get my way, so I don't really WANT them to keep their identities. Your a selfish and vain person for wanting to keep your name, but men aren't for wanting to keep theres." Way to take personal choice away from women.

    I'm not married, and not dating anyone, but I will soon have a Masters degree, and I don't think I'll change my name. I like it. It fits me, it identifies me, and if someone proclaims that I don't love him if I don't take his name, well then, I'd conclude that he didn't love me.

  10. "But, if you don't know who you are, how can you get married?"

    This is what I don't understand about this comment. I know exactly who I am: I'm Dr. Myname. That's why I decided to STAY Dr. Myname after I got married. Neither my title nor my identity changed when I walked down the aisle. What did change is that I got a wonderful, unique, much-loved partner who wants to cherish my unique identity just like I want to cherish his. I'm not any less his wife because I wanted to keep my name.

    I'm lucky, though, in that my extended family--which is very, very traditional and old-fashioned--is so proud of my PhD that they didn't even blink when I kept my name. The cards we got for our first Christmas used both of our full names on the envelope!

  11. I love this! Every single point you make is completely valid and I agree. When I was engaged last year, I had a mini-melt down when talking to my fiance about changing my last name. I too am older (28), so I have finished some schooling (still in medical school now), written a book, established a kind-of well-known identity as a writer, etc. under MY name. I also understand your thoughts about your family name being a legacy to YOUR family. It all makes total sense.

    I don't know if I will change my name when I do get married (I called off the wedding to my super-supportive fiance who called me selfish when we had this conversation), but I like that you say it like it is. The main reason that I would still consider changing my name is that I think it signifies that we (the future hubs and I) are starting our own unique family. We are no longer children of our parents, but the future parents to our children. I guess it's not fair that the hubby's name gets to take precedence, but someone's last name has to.

    I guess we'll see what happens when I get there :)

  12. Visiting from UBP and had to throw in my two cents.

    I changed my name because I always thought of myself as FirstName MiddleName. That was where my identity lay. In short, I had no real attachment to my maiden name. My husband isn't fond of the majority of his family, so he isn't super proud of his name either, but he wanted to give it to me when we got married. It was a big deal to him that we share a name and a life. I'd never thought of both of us changing names, but I changed my name before I was done with school and got a professional certification, so now everything is in my married name. And it IS my name now and one I'm proud to share with my kids because of what we've made of ourselves.

  13. You raised valid points and you got quite a discussion going. Let me throw my hat in the ring, :)

    When we got married, I kept my father's last name and hyphenated it with my husband's last name. He said he doesn't mind and I should do what I want to do. My reasoning was similar to yours, I had already gotten my degree, was a little bit older than most brides & so forth.

    When our son was born, he got my father's last name as his middle name (along with two other names) and his dad's last name.

    Legally, I sign with the hyphenated but for the most part, I use his last name (mainly because I'm too lazy to write it all out, lol) but for me, knowing it was my choice makes a difference (plus, now that we're separated, I'm kinda glad I did)

    Bottom line, it's your name, nobody should tell you what to do with it (unless you're changing it to an obviously offensive one, but that's for another discussion).


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