What’s in a name?


What IS in a name?

Specifically, a surname? And would you change yours? (Or have you?)

This is the question I quite innocently postulated on an email to my friends. And the response was: quite a lot, actually.

Full disclosure: when I got married, I kept my maiden name for work (in an industry where your name is a large part of your currency, most journalists do the same) and – bit by bit, card by card (but not yet my passport) took my husband’s surname for ‘home and personal use’. He didn’t insist, and said he didn’t mind what I chose to do; it was my decision.

Having said that, the other day he was filling in a form and asked which name I wanted to use. When I said ‘our’ surname, he was quietly pleased. And I’ve just turned to him and asked how he feels about it. The answer? “Happy, although I would have been fine if you hadn’t wanted to change it.” In fact, he, like me, has grown into me being a Mrs.

I felt, quite rightly, that my job as a journalist meant I could have my cake and eat it, so wasn’t averse to changing it. (Although it’s weird at first, right? I cannot be the only person who’s sat in the doctor’s waiting room, not responding to the calls for ‘Mrs So-and-So’ because that’s not actually your name.)

So, for me, it was a fairly simple decision. I liked my old name – it was me, who I was, it tied me to my family and my past. True, no one can say it but, hey, it’s mine. But I also wanted to mark us becoming a team. Perhaps had I been marrying a man who insisted that I take ‘his’ name, rather than one who was gently keen for us to share ‘our’ name, it might have been different. As it is, I love my dual identity – it’s the closest I will ever get to being a spy; I like that I have a work persona and a family persona; and I love that all three of us share a name. It has ceased to be his name and his family – it is our name and our family. Interestingly, had I not changed it upon getting married, the birth of our daughter would have prompted me to do so. She really cemented the fact that we had become a team – and I wanted us all to have the same name.

I find it fascinating that my friends and acquaintances are divided between the people who change their name on Facebook before they even go on honeymoon (one girl went so far as to change it on her wedding night) and those who are vehemently opposed to doing so.

“Of course I would – and I think my husband-to-be would be upset if I didn’t. It’s a very obvious sign that we’ll be married and I like that idea,” shrugs one friend. “My mother always kept her maiden name which I thought was rather cool,” says publicist Anna. “She’s been married to my dad for 39 years. But I changed mine as ‘Hope’ has a nice ring to it – though I spent two years re-branding myself!” (This is no mean feat: Anna has a PR agency which bears her name.) “I’m in the process of wedding planning and have a definite plan regarding my name post-marriage,” says Nina. “I intend to take my lovely fiance’s surname in my personal life, so we will be Mr and Mrs, but I will retain my maiden name for work. I am known by this name by clients, colleagues and other professionals – to change it means confusion could well arise.”

Alex cheerfully admits to a “schizophrenic approach” to changing her name. Like me, she retains her maiden name for work – that was the easy part – but then she has a self-confessed hotchpotch of names.

“It’s partly due to laziness, and in part because my maiden name is me. I got married shortly after my dad died and my name is/was his name. It was part of my connection to him and there was no way I was going to change it then.”

“I still feel my maiden name to be ‘my name’, my connection to my family, my heritage, but since having children, some things have changed. My children are part of my new family and I want to have the same name as them and so slowly, I’m embracing it. I want them to feel connected to me.”

I get this. I felt I came ‘round to my new name gradually. Another friend describes it as “claiming” the name and “making it her own”. However much you like your mother in law, you are still the ‘next’ Mrs So-and-So, and you have to find your way of making the same name work for you. (“Although,” remarks Alice, “it Drives Me Crazy when my MIL describes my children as ‘such Wards’. Okay, they have your surname, but I grew them in my womb. Give me some of them!”)

In the no-way corner, we have those who wouldn’t so much as contemplate changing it. Lucy has a different surname from her boys (although they have her surname as their middle name) and cannot abide being called ‘Ms’ (it’s an anathema many of us share). “It is,” she says very clearly, “my name. It is who I am. Why would I change it?” My friend Jo sent me a long, thoughtful email on the subject, which is so articulate that I shall not attempt to paraphrase, but simply give her the floor.

“I made a point of keeping my name for several reasons: on personal basis, I feel it’s an intrinsic part of who I am, and that fundamentally doesn’t change on my having said ‘I do’. Also, as the last of three girls on my father’s side (something I suspect was a slight disappointment to my dearly departed grandfather), our particular surname has reached something of a genealogical cul de sac, so I felt a certain loyalty in continuing it for as long as possible (although in retrospect, my deeply traditional grandfather probably wouldn’t have approved of my not changing my name, but you can’t win ’em all…).

Ben and I discussed it before we got married, and he was perfectly happy for me to keep it. I do get annoyed when people address me as ‘Mrs Harrild’, but they are usually of a certain generation and it is balanced out by my glee at the (fewer) times Ben is referred to as ‘Mr Adlam’. One of his conditions also was that any children would be Harrilds: I was keen to hyphenate, but he wasn’t, so Felix has Adlam as his second middle name, which is the best compromise I could reach, and I would do the same for any subsequent children. I imagine things might get a bit tricky when Felix goes to school and I have a different surname but it’s a fairly common occurrence, and I’m keen that he grows up with an ingrained sense of equality…if this helps to emphasise the point from an early age, then I’m all for it.

Possibly more importantly and on a more global scale, I also felt that changing it would have been a particularly retrograde step, (although I recognise the irony of my defending my right to keep my father’s and not my mother’s name). I am repeatedly disappointed by the number of my friends who have changed their names. I can think of only two, possibly three people of my immediate acquaintance who have made a point of not changing, a fact that mildly dismays me every time I think of it: how have we arrived at a society where women are free to do and be anything they choose, yet the majority – albeit largely those in certain social strata – willingly participate in the ultimate declaration of conformity to a patriarchal value system?

And finally, I’m really quite lazy, so not having to change all the millions of things with my name on them after we got married was something of a hidden bonus!”

My friend Caroline has long professed that she wouldn’t change her name upon marriage, “As far as I’m concerned, your name is your name – might as well change your first if you change your last. And so far, I haven’t.”

“However, much to my husband’s (and even my reluctant) amusement, my stand has been almost completely undermined by the fact that almost everyone I know has totally ignored me! Almost all of my close friends send cards to Mr & Mrs Paul and Caroline Daly, as do all of my family and relations. Even work colleagues can’t get their heads round it and call me ‘Ms Horwood Daly’. We had so many cheques sent to us for various happy occasions addressed to Paul and Caroline Daly (and I was too polite to send them back with the thank you card asking for the name to be changed) that I ended up changing the name on our joint account so we could cash them.”

“I’ll probably end up changing it to Daly eventually as now I’m not so against it. Part of my reason was that I would hate to get divorced and have to change it back, as if your identity is such a transient, flimsy thing. But marriage and two children later, and I’m feeling that we’re very happy and in it for the long haul and so it seems less of a big deal. I haven’t done it yet though!”

Image: Via Society Bride

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