More thoughts on the name change question

In my visit to Auburn, I got to be a guest lecturer in an Intro to Women’s Studies class. I told the class that we could talk about any controversial issue they wanted, and we wrote a few on the board: abortion, name change at marriage, beauty standards, women in business. Because of the number of questions and comments they had, we ended up spending the entire class period talking about the name change question. You won’t be surprised to find that their first question for me was, in fact, The Most Common Name Change Question: what happens to the kids’ last names? I filled them in, quoting my comments on this blog.

One thing that really interested me about the conversation, though, was how concerned they seemed about utterly mundane things.

“How will you sign your Christmas cards?” one student asked, all big-eyed earnestness, and others nodded. “Will it be ‘the Piepmeiers and the Biffles’? Wouldn’t that be weird?”

I told them if we ever sent a Christmas card we’d probably end up signing it Alison, Walter, and Random Baby—that it wouldn’t be that big a problem.

“But what if people see that you and your husband have different last names and they think that you aren’t really that close?”

“Well,” I said, “Anybody who’s spent more than three minutes with us could tell that we’re close, and if someone is going to make a decision about my marriage without even spending three minutes with me, then I don’t really care what they think about us.”

“But what if people don’t understand why you did it? What if people ask you why?”

“I hope that people do ask me why,” I said. “Anytime you do something that’s different than the norm, people might be confused, and if they ask you why, then you get to have a conversation. You get to educate somebody—I think that’s great.”

“It just seems so complicated,” one student said. Although they seemed to get what I was saying, and many of the women explained that they thought they wouldn’t change their names, they also seemed oddly concerned with complications that don’t even strike me as complicated. The Christmas card? We should all have the same last name because it makes it easier to sign the Christmas card? Ease in signing Christmas cards—in fact, ease in general—is not my highest value in life, so I’m willing to negotiate some complications in working toward what is a high value for me, fairness.


Kenneth said...

Perhaps it's the result of living in gratifyingly progressive Madison, Wis. -- or, at least, not living in the South -- but most women I encounter don't change their name when they get married.

At a staff meeting the other day a new employee introduced herself, and after she said her name she said she was still getting used to it, having recently gotten married. I actually had to think about what she was saying for a minute, because at first I didn't get it.

Anonymous said...

Makes me think of how Rev John used to address you. Would make great Xmas card signatures "Lord and Lady Biffle-Piepmeier"


Curtis said...

You may be surprised to know my sister didn't change her name when she got married. I was in the receiving line at the church after the wedding, standing next to her new husband's grandparents. I asked, "So, Amanda, what's your name now? Young? Matthews? Young-Matthews?" My sister hit me with a look of pure steel and said, "My name is YOUNG. It has always been Young and it will always BE Young." Grandma almost passed out. It was a beautiful moment.

Alexandrialeigh said...

I kept mine, and usually when the topic comes up, I either get a very positive, "Good for you!" response, or I get a wilting look and a back-handed remark, like, "Maybe you'll re-think that for your SECOND marriage." (That one has actually happened.)

Quiche said...

I'm a Baird, always have been, always will be. It is a very Western-world practice, taking the husband's name. Surprisingly, Muslim women do not take their husband's names on the premise that women are persons in their own right, and do not lose their identity when they get married.
Likewise, if they adopt a child, they do not change the child's name.

joan said...

I spent much of my childhood with the Khasi tribe in the hills of NE India - one of the few real matrilineal tribes. Children actually took the mother's last name and my daughter liked the fact that the youngest daughter inherited.

Kelly Love said...

I have so many things to say about this...but really would like to have an over-coffee conversation at some point. My question is: Is it true that in the state of South Carolina, your children are required on their birth certificates to take the father's last name?

Anonymous said...

One other bit of context--in Alabama, at least until VERY recently, women's names were legally changed to their husbands, whether they wanted it to be or not. To NOT change your name, you had to petition for it.

Deborah Siegel said...

Awesome responses to the kids' questions, A! I kept my name last time. I was pretty certain I'd keep it the same again. Demise of brief first marriage had nothing to do with keeping my name of course! But I now find myself playing with the idea of hypenating, after a close friends decided to go the hypen route at the very last minute--aka, in line waiting for their marriage license at City Hall. I'll stay Deborah Siegel in print forevermore, but I must say I do like the idea of merging our names: Siegel-Acevedo. Jew girl-Latin boy. I dunno, it just kind of grooves me. But jury's out. We'll see!

Alison said...

Wow, what a lot of great comments! Is there a book out there that's collected men's and women's name-change stories? If not, someone should do that (Debbie? Kelly?).

I don't know what the law in SC is about the child's name--I guess I might find out eventually. Claire or Conseula, do you know? And Deandra, I did share your info about the laws in Alabama with the kids at Auburn, and they were appropriately shocked.

So, Debbie, the big question is, if you hyphenate, will Marco do it, too?

Kenneth said...

One good source about all this is actually Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, who has written many times over the years about the ins and outs of marriage and name-changing. As you might guess, her focus is on the etiquette end of things, but as the students' reactions suggest, people's etiquette concerns are real, and intensely felt.

So check out some Miss Manners books. As I recall, her advice is very practical and funny.

Katie said...

I just got married and am (slowly) in the process of changing my name and I have to say that the figuring out how to sign a christmas card with different last names is a whole lot easier than going to social security and filling out name change forms, changing your drivers license, your passport, your bank cards, not to mention your signature!