Sunday, July 1, 2012

Why I regret not changing my name

I didn't for a minute consider changing my last name when I married Matt. I made a lot of changes when we married, like my religion, or my dreams of marrying someone who loved the outdoors and would teach me how to kayak among the dolphins or how to get over my fear of bears, but my name seemed too much.

My reasons for keeping my name after marriage are many. First, I have earned my name. It is difficult to spell, has too many consonants, and no one can ever say it outside of Quebec. By the time I reached adulthood I felt as though I'd put my time in, taken one for the team, and I was unwilling to just change it, give it up to the past. It was my name and I would stand behind it no matter what. And on the practical side I had already published articles in my research field under my original name and I didn't want my previous work to go unnoticed if I started publishing under a new married name.

I am also a feminist and that means I have spent a long time thinking about what happens to women when they marry and struggle with a new identity, including a new name. Marriage hasn't always been the kindest to women, and while I am confident that Matt and I married as equals, as two people who loved each other and wanted to grow a family together, I was unwilling to ignore the way marriage has historically defined women as property, rendering them invisible under various institutions, like the law. Marrying my husband was the first step in our family, but I didn't want to get lost along the path. Keeping my name was a way of marking this part of me, the part that never wants to forget the efforts involved in creating and supporting a culture that values men, women, and children together.

Plus, did I mention how many years I endured under the wrath of the silent "b" in my name?

It's been five years since I made that decision, and now, I regret it. All of my reasons for keeping my name still stand, but now their are new ones. Their names are Alyce and Shira. When we talked about keeping my name, I remember telling Matt that they only thing that might push me to take his was the possibility of not sharing my name with my children. That was easy, he said, the girls can take your name. Well, that was easy. But then I was pregnant with Alyce and we found ourselves on the phone listening to Matt's father beg us to continue his family name, and I just didn't care enough (or have a strong enough backbone) to keep to my decision. Did it really matter, I wonder? Probably not. And always the people-pleaser, I suggested to Matt that we keep with tradition and name the girls after him.

It turns out that for me it does matter. Having a different name from Matt and the girls doesn't make me question my place in our family. I am just as much a part of this chaos as Matt or the girls. Of course. But on a regular basis I am made acutely aware that I stand alone with a different name. Alyce has started asking me questions, asking me to explain why we don't share a name. When I register her for school, or fill out the forms for Shira at the emergency room, I need to emphasize that I am indeed their mother. I don't know why exactly, because it doesn't make intellectual sense to me, but I really don't like that question. Don't they look at me and see the hours of labour I undertook to give birth, or the months years I've spent breastfeeding or waking up at unnatural times because my girls are early risers, because that's what I see. They see our names side-by-side and they look up at me and ask, are you the mother? Ugh. Of course I am. And I also want to order those silly reply labels for our mail and I want one name.

I don't quite recognize these preferences in myself, but they're mine nonetheless.

How do I reconcile this with my feminism? Is this just the beginning of my conflating my identity with that of my husband, or another one of those times where motherhood makes a woman turn away from feminism? Am I turning away from a deeply-treasured value simply because it's hard to feel left out sometimes? No, I don't think so. The feminist call for women to keep their names was timely and necessary. It was a call for women to redefine their marriage and the marriages of future generations. And while we can't turn our backs on the efforts of feminist movements past (because we must defend and protect the rights and opportunities afforded to women on account of this hard work), we can redefine some of the terms. My feminist commitment does not hinge on my last name. And while I probably won't change my name at this point, my unexpected reaction to my decision has reminded me how important one's identity truly is. It's complex. Things change.

If you get any mail from us in the future, just be prepared for a lot of extra letters on the reply stamp, including that silent "b."

1 comment:

  1. Today, it’s not really an issue if you decide to keep your name or not. There are a lot of women today who have kept their last names after getting married, and they’re happily living married lives. Women have a choice, and that choice shouldn’t be shoved down their throats. A lot of women change their last names for the sense of unity it brings to a family, and some change it because they like his last name better.

    Kimora Avery