Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Last Names

Last week I called up an optometrist's office to make an appointment for Ryan. He would be a new patient (yeah, it only took us two years of having vision coverage to get around to finding an optometrist for him), so the receptionist needed to take down some information from me. She asked me if I should be listed as the emergency contact and then commented, when I gave her my name, that she was surprised I'd taken Ryan's last name and that that's not very common anymore. Um....what am I supposed to say to that? She said it like it was a positive, so am I supposed to take it like a compliment? I could've launched into a whole conversation on the topic, but it didn't seem that on the phone, making an appointment was an appropriate place to do that. So I kinda stumbled through a, "oh, hmm, yeah" and we moved on.

But, since I have the space to have that conversation here, I thought I'd do so. I have very mixed feelings about having taken Ryan's last name as my own. I do not, for one instant, believe that all people who change their name have these feelings, though I have come across some people who do. What I'm writing here are simply my own musings on the topic, as it has related to me. I do find the receptionist's statement odd, because I know many, many people who have taken their spouse's name, mostly women taking the man's name, but occasionally a man taking the woman's name. I also know a few who have both kept their birth names as well as some who have hyphenated their names. But, by and large, I'd say the majority of my friends and acquaintances share a last name.

Before we were married, I didn't give much thought about the whole changing the last name business. Partly because it was what I was used to people doing. Ryan brought it up once as something he thought would feel weird. I shrugged it off, while simultaneously realizing and vocalizing that I was actually somewhat happy to leave my original last name behind. It was associated with certain things that I didn't want to be associated with any longer. I, thankfully, had been given a middle name at birth, and so could choose to completely eliminate the last name and still have a middle name. So, yay, fresh start!, right?

Except that the process of changing my name everywhere was rather annoying, actually. Go here to do the Social Security card, make sure you have the marriage certificate with you, go there to do the driver's license, another trip and more forms to change things with the university. I actually waited on the driver's license so that I could also wait on the passport. You see, they had changed the passport laws just before we were married, no longer allowing a simple addendum to the back of the passport, but requiring the purchase of a whole new passport if a name change was needed. I knew I was hoping to travel with the orchestra that year, so I kept the passport and license in my birth name in order to make life easier (and cheaper). In addition to these annoyances, it felt weird to leave my old name behind. It was a huge part of me, though I hadn't realized it. So much of who I was was wrapped up in the name I had carried with me from birth. Erin Layton had done everything I'd ever done. Erin Phelps didn't really exist. I figured I'd get over that with time.

But I've never really become used to it. I mean, sure, I respond quite easily to my new name if someone calls it out and I never falter when typing it somewhere. But it doesn't really feel like me, if that makes any sense. I'm very detached from my name now, in a way I never was before. And, of course, there are the complicated feelings due to the fact that our last name traditions are rooted in patriarchy and women being seeing as objects; property that passes from ownership of the father to the husband. Not a fan of that at all. I've sometimes thought that maybe I should change my name back, because I kinda wish I'd never changed it in the first place. Except I can't. I've not been Erin Layton for long enough now that, while I don't feel that I'm really Erin Phelps, I also am definitely no longer Erin Layton. I've changed and grown in the past eight years in ways that definitely leave the former me behind, but for some reason they haven't cemented this new name to me. My birth name would now feel just as foreign as my current name does. I'm not even sure why it matters so much to me that I feel a connection with my name; maybe it shouldn't. But I do know that I used to feel that connection and that I no longer do. Perhaps I just need to give this new name another ten, twenty years. But if so, that makes me rather sad that I have to live that long without feeling my name as an integral part of me.

Ryan and I were discussing this one evening, and the complexities that children add to the picture. From our own situation we already knew that having me give up my identity had ended up feeling like a loss of self to a certain extent. It's not particularly fair to automatically expect that from either partner, though it does make things easy when naming the children. If we both kept our birth names then what last name would we give to the kids? Do you give some mom's name and some dad's name? (Last night we jokingly said we should've given any dark-eyed children my name and any light-eyed children Ryan's, which would've left us with a Gareth Phelps and a Malcolm Layton, but that would make name choosing much more difficult (it'd have to sound good with two different last names) and as it's a few weeks before an eye color is solidified for most babies, it would also make the naming process take longer.) Most people give their kids dad's name, though I know some who give them mom's name. But this creates the possibility of one parent feeling separate from the family unit by not sharing the same name as their spouse or children. Probably not a concern for some, but we both felt it might bother us a bit. I also know friends who married and changed their name simply so their children wouldn't feel confused as to why mom or dad had a different name. Then there's hyphenation, which seems great, with both partners taking on the other's last name in addition to their own, but it becomes a nightmare when your kids grow up and marry. Do they choose one of their hyphenated names (causing concern to them that whichever parent's name they don't choose will feel they're being rejected?) to combine with one of their spouse's hyphenated names? You really can't hyphenate again as that quickly becomes ridiculous. Smith-Yarrington-Patel-McNally would be a nightmare to spell out on forms (not to mention for kids learning to write). I think if you decide to go that route you have to be 100% okay with the idea that your kids will pick one name or the other at some point. While this wouldn't bother either of us, I don't think, the hyphenated name thing seemed far too annoying for both us and our kids. I can see why it works great for some, but it just isn't our preference.

Our best idea for us was for both partners to give up their birth name and choose a new last name for their nuclear family together. Some people would perhaps find a common ancestral name, others might use the letters from both last names to create a new one, still others might just choose one they liked. Except that we'd be horrible at this because we just aren't good at coming up with names. Ryan also pointed out that this doesn't really solve the problem, as now everyone feels a loss of identity. I pointed out in return that at least this way both partners could understand the feeling of loss, rather than leaving one partner to bear this alone. And, it has the potential to be a bonding moment as well, a choice that would symbolically represent how both parties are leaving their family of origin and beginning a new family together, which could go far to assuage the feelings of loss, as well as foster a fondness and attachment to the name that you chose together.

So, there you go, my thoughts on last names. I'm simultaneously happy that I jettisoned my birth name and sad that I didn't keep it. I think it would've been cool if we'd chosen a new last name together, but I can't imagine either of us going that route back when we got married. While I can't definitively say that I regret or am happy with the choice I made in this regard, I do wish that I'd given it much more thought, as I think doing so would've led me to feel more comfortable with whatever I/we had decided. I think that if/when our kids get to this point in their lives I will definitely encourage them to give it more thought than Ryan and I did.


Susan said...

This whole blog post reminds me a lot of Father of the Bride Part II. "How would you like to go through life with the name Cooper Banks-Mackenzie? The kid's gonna sound like a law firm." And my favorite: "Are you telling me I could have a granddaughter named Sophie Zankman?"

Erin said...

Haha, yes, I was thinking of that as well while writing it.

Amy Rose said...

It is interesting how this topic affects people differently. I wondered how I would feel about it, making the change. But once I met Devin, and we were engaged I was so excited to switch names. Granted, his last name is Rose, so I was going for a serious upgrade, in my opinion. I never liked my name growing up, I hated the way it sounded when people said my full name, but now I love my name. I think it is pretty and sounds nice all together. I wonder if I would have the same attachment to a new last name if it were... Hongerwetner or something like that, you know? Anyway, I hope you do eventually come to find a sense of identity with your name again.

Erin said...

Amy, I did know someone who married into the last name of Hamburger. She did change her name to that upon marriage, but I heard from my mom that they eventually both changed their last name to something else. I remember being surprised at the time that she was willing to change her name to Hamburger.

Amy Rose said...

I had a friend who married into the name of "Balls". They eventually both got tired of the jokes, and they both had it legally changed to "Ball".

Alanna said...

I totally agree with everything you said here, from how there's no good solution to why each solution feels slightly "off." I think it's a really hard thing, too.

I REALLY didn't want to change my last name to Smith when I got married. I loved my maiden name, and since I'm one of all girls, we all worry that our name will die out. I still miss my maiden name at times. The funny thing is that what really pushed me to changing it was because my oldest sister got mad at me for planning on doing so! I was pretty hesitant until she started lecturing me about how ridiculous it was for a woman to still be expected to change her name in this day and change. I love this sister dearly, but I haven't always agreed with her choices, and I've tried very hard to let her make her own decisions and not tell her what to do. So when she suddenly wanted to tell me what to do, it annoyed me so much that my response was something along the lines of shouting, "WATCH ME CHANGE MY NAME!!!"

Craig was grateful for our fight. It saved him a big headache! (He always jokes that he should have paid my sister to start that fight.) Anyway, our compromise was naming our first son Bentley. That still makes me happy. But I realize that not everyone's maiden name is conducive to that particular solution!

And shortly after my wedding, I met a girl whose married name was now "Fishbein" and I decided I could have done a lot worse than Smith!

Tiffany Alldredge Smith said...

Well - you could go the old Dutch way. All the boys in your family would have the last name of Ryanson - and all the girls would have the last name of Erinsdaughter. Makes geneology a huge problem though...trust me!