What’s in a name?

I recently found out that my mother-in-law and I have…differing opinions on something that’s kind of important.  I casually mentioned that it’s possible I might choose to keep my last name when Dallas and I get married instead of taking his (something he is, by the way, totally okay with).  His mother, however, asked me “why even get married if you’re just going to keep your name?”  She has concerns that any kids we have will be treated differently if their parents have different last names.  But I think the last straw for me was when she told my father-in-law over Sunday lunch a couple of weeks ago that I was “ashamed” of their last name and wasn’t going to take it when Dallas and I get married.  It was frustrating, not just because I haven’t actually made a decision yet (it’s not like we’re getting married next month or anything, jeez), but also because I feel like I have good reasons for not wanting to let go of my name.

When I was born, my parents were young–Mom was 20, Dad had just turned 24–and they weren’t married at the time.  When they got my original birth certificate issued, I had my mom’s maiden name as my last name.  After my parents’ marriage, they had the certificate amended and reissued with my dad’s last name as my last name; this all happened before I was ever old enough to go to school.  I don’t remember not having this name; in fact, I remember cleaning out a cupboard in our house a good fifteen years or so ago, finding a medicine bottle with my birth name on it, and getting really confused.

I went through school with this name.  I got a high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree with this name.  This is the name people know me by.  This is who I am.  And yeah, it’s had its problems–upon meeting some guys who lived near me in my very first dorm in college, I found out that I share a first and last name with a British adult film actress.  So if you Google my name, you’ll find porn, but it’s definitely not me (she’s a blonde, I’m most definitely not).  So changing my name would be nice for that reason, I won’t have to wonder when I introduce myself to new people if they’re aware of this.

I can understand Dallas’ mom’s point, to some extent–if we’re living in a smaller town or a place where fewer women keep their last names for whatever reason (it seems like in big cities and university towns, I’ve known more women who kept their maiden names for professional reasons), people will assume we’re divorced or that we’d never been married in the first place, and it’s possible that they’d treat any kids we had differently based on that assumption.  If we have any kids (we really only want one), they’d have his last name, even if I don’t–not just because I don’t want to completely reinvent the wheel here, but also because he has a super, super uncommon last name, one he’s proud of because it shows where his family comes from, and he’s very proud of his German heritage.  If Dallas and I don’t become parents someday, he’s the last member of his particular family line.  His dad has one sister, who doesn’t have any kids.  His grandfather had one sister.  His great-grandfather was one of ten children, and while he had three brothers who lived to adulthood, they all died in their twenties and thirties without ever getting married and having children.

But at the same time, I can trace my ancestry back to two young people who left their native country, Ireland, in the wake of a horrific famine.  They were younger than me, and both traveled separately, without parents or siblings, to Detroit in the early 1850s.  They most likely didn’t know each other until they met in Detroit.   They were married in the fall of 1853, and were the parents of five children, the youngest of whom grew up to be my great-grandfather.  It’s important to me to be able to retain that link to my ancestry in some way.  I will always self-identify as an Irish-American, whether or not my last name reflects it.

Chances are, I’ll drop my middle name, which has always felt like my parents just kind of decided on it last-minute and has never quite suited me, and legally make my current last name my new middle name.  Then I’d take Dallas’ last name.  That way, it feels like I get to have it all–legally, my last name is still around, and my in-laws won’t feel like I’m ashamed of their family and their heritage.  In fact, I’m not ashamed of it–I also have German ancestry, just from a different region than Dallas’ family.  (His ancestors came from Baden-Württemberg in 1860, mine arrived in 1890 from what had been Prussia before 1871, but that area has been part of Poland since 1945.)  I’ll just forever be using my best dirty looks on people who point out that my first and last names have the same first six letters in sequence and telling them that no, my parents didn’t think it was cute, it’s my married name, thank you very much.  And then there’s the matter of spelling it and pronouncing it…

But of course, here’s a lady who has a good point (excerpted from a letter to the editor in The New York Times last summer):

If having a family name were really the point, then the practice of both the man and the woman choosing a completely new name and both changing to it on the wedding day would be common. It’s not. Why? Because men won’t change their names. Why? They don’t want to give up their identity. And neither should women.

New Hempstead, N.Y., Aug. 25, 2013

I don’t know why something like this is so divisive, and I think the letter-writer is correct (keeping MY name wouldn’t make us any less married, and Dallas agrees with me on that point), but sometimes you have to bend in order to not be completely bowled over by the tide.  It’s a solution I can live with, a solution that won’t alienate my in-laws, and I couldn’t be happier about that.  On some level, it bothers me that something like this would be such a huge issue in this day and age, but I can still hope that if I have a daughter or granddaughter who wants to keep her last name someday, nobody will even raise an eyebrow.


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