The naming of wives

A few weeks ago, Amber wrote a blog entry about her reasons for keeping her maiden name when she got married, and invited other married women to explain why they’d made whatever decision they’d made on the issue. There seemed to be a good blog entry here, and I’ve been meaning to get round to writing it, and here it is.

My feelings? I firmly believe that it’s outdated and sexist to expect a woman to change her name just because she gets married. Personally, I would have been outraged at any attempt to force me to do so. I’m fortunate enough, however, to live in a society where this viewpoint is generally accepted, and nobody would have dreamed of trying to make me do any such thing. So it was completely my choice to change my name, and I did so.

This decision probably surprised quite a few people – I believe money changed hands between members of my immediate family over the issue of what decision I’d make. But it was something I’d thought about and was quite clear on, and have never regretted. These are my reasons.

It was a decision I made, really, when I was working in paediatrics as part of my training, when I found myself getting to know women in labour who had one name, then taking care of babies born to them who had a different surname. It seemed a little…. disjointed. It didn’t bother me that the women I met did things that way, but it did make me realise that it wasn’t how I wanted to do things. It made me think about what it would be like to spend years of parent-teacher evenings explaining to the teacher that, yes, I was Jamie V’s mother even though my name was Dr W.

And what would it be like? Well, a pretty minor nuisance as such things go. I couldn’t imagine any teacher in this day and age raising an eyebrow about it, and wouldn’t have cared if anyone had. The point was, it bothered me. I realised that I wanted us all – me, the man I married, and our future children – to have the same surname. Marriage was the start of the new family we were creating. Having the same name was my way of showing the world that this was the case.

Of course, that didn’t mean that it had to be me who changed my name. However, the other available options were distinctly unfeasible.

Double-barrelled name? Struck me as an effective way of getting the worst of all possible worlds. For one thing, both my maiden name and his name are difficult to spell anyway. Subjecting myself to a lifetime of having to spell them both out was not on the cards. For another, unless my children wanted to end up with triple or quadruple-barrelled names, somebody was eventually going to have to make the decision to drop something. It seemed better to me just to tidy things up properly at the start and leave the name in a fit state for usage by others.

And, for a third, it would singularly fail to solve anything. Not only would I still be subject to all the hassle of a name change, but my husband would be subjected to it all as well. Even if he had been prepared to agree to that (which he wouldn’t have been), I wouldn’t have put him through it. Why on earth would I have wanted to? Just to make the situation superficially more equal? That’s the sort of muddled thinking that Jerome K. Jerome satirised in his story about limbs being cut off larger people in order to make them more equal to smaller people. Seeing equality as some kind of be-all-and-end-all rather distracts the focus, in my opinion, from realising that the whole point of equality is to equalise out the good things. Trying to ensure that my husband underwent the same amount of inconvenience as me in the name of equality struck me as a major perversion of the whole idea.

That latter disadvantage also applied to the possibility of combining both our surnames to form a new one. Besides, as it happens, we had surnames that simply didn’t go together well to form anything that anyone would ever want to spend the rest of their life being called.

One possible other option that I had, and one that a lot of female doctors use, was to change my name for personal use and keep my maiden name for professional use – Dr W. at work, Mrs V. at home. Thinking about this option made me realise that, while I did have a certain amount of attachment to my surname and felt a pang at the thought of giving it up, I actually had a much stronger attachment to my title. My surname wasn’t a fundamental part of my identity, just something I was used to having around – but my title, my label of ‘Doctor’, was a fundamental part of my identity. When it came to the point, I preferred the idea of giving up my surname completely to the idea of giving up my title part of the time. I just didn’t want to be a Mrs.

Besides, it struck me as more confusion than I wanted to put myself through. I preferred the idea of just going through one huge lump of hassle right at the start getting my name changed all the way across the board, and then spending the rest of my life knowing what the hell I was called.

So, the only options I was OK with were for me to change my name to his, or for him to change his name to mine. I’d have been perfectly happy with either. Barry wouldn’t. The options he was OK with were for me to change my name to his, or for us both to keep our own names, and he was perfectly happy with either. So the solution to that one was pretty obvious. Besides, although neither of the two names was a great option (after living with my maiden name for thirty-three years, couldn’t I for crying out loud have got one that wasn’t off at the tail end of the alphabet and was easy for other people to spell? I earned that, dammit), it was fair to say that his was the better option of the two. (Some of the people in the comments section on Amber’s blog who also gave this as a reason seemed quite embarrassed about it, saying that they knew it was a pretty superficial reason. I don’t get that at all – after all, your name is a pretty important part of your life. What’s so superficial about wanting to have one you like, given the choice?)

So I changed my name. And while I did, as I’ve said, feel a deep pang of nostalgia about it, I didn’t, as I’ve also said, feel that I was losing part of my identity. My identity is quite secure, thankyouverymuch, and, while it depends on all sorts of things, my surname is not one of them. The staff and patients at my job got used to it more quickly than I’d have believed possible, and I got used to it more quickly than I’d have believed possible.

And, although it was a fair bit of hassle having to send off marriage certificate copies left, right, and centre to everybody I could think of (almost two years later, I’ve only just got round to changing the last of the official records), I’ve also got to say that there were things I rather liked about changing it. For one thing, I liked the idea of having a new name to represent a new phase in my life – it was like some kind of tribal ritual, or like the Ursula Le Guin book whose name is currently escaping me in which everyone changes their name in early adulthood and then again in old age to reflect wherever they’re at in their lives at the time. For another, I have to admit to getting a kick out of the very fact that it wasn’t really the expected thing to do. I’ve lived my life to a general theme of “One of these things is not like the other one…..”, and I don’t like fitting neatly into an expected box. I’d rather strike out across categories, defy labelling, confound people’s expectations. Otherwise, it just gets boring. And, for a third thing, it did mean that I got at least something of an upgrade in my quality of name.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The naming of wives

  1. Oy, that post was worth the wait! Now I am curious about what your original, hard to spell, at the end of the alphabet name was.

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