Saturday, May 6, 2017

Surnames #2

Alan recently created an account in my name, and signed me up as a “Mrs” instead of a “Ms.” He seemed surprised by my dismay at this discovery: “I didn’t think even think about it!” he protested.

“This is exactly the problem!” I retorted. “You never have to think about it as a man! There’s only one option for men because they’re not defined by their marital status!”

I called the company to request the forms required to change to “Ms,” then spent some time fuming specifically over how much time this process had taken from my day and how much I regretted changing my name when I married (I was [half-]sure Alan would think twice about my title if we didn’t share a surname). And then I spent a little more time fuming generally over patriarchy. And then, dear readers, I had an epiphany.

Before we went down to Currarong recently, I compiled a playlist for the roadtrip featuring 156 songs. We started off shuffling the entire playlist and skipping through songs until we found one we could all agree on listening to, but it didn’t take long before we just found the beginning of the soundtracks section and played 9 or so Moana and Matilda the Musical songs on repeat for the rest of the trip. This is probably why, as I thought about names and patriarchy and fumed to myself that afternoon, I started humming the tune to Naughty from Matilda.
If you're stuck in your story and want to get out,
You don't have to cry; you don't have to shout.

'Cause if you're little, you can do a lot, you
Mustn't let a little thing like "little" stop you.
If you sit around and let them get on top, you
Won't change a thing. 
Just because you find that life's not fair, it
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
You might as well be saying you think that it's OK.
And that's not right.
And if it's not right, you have to put it right.

But nobody else is gonna put it right for me.
Nobody but me is gonna change my story.
Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty.
I first admitted to regretting changing my name in this post about weddings at the end of 2014, although I’d thought about it a lot over the years before that (the fact that I can track – through this blog – my thoughts on all the topics I’ve deemed important from 2011 to now is both very handy and very embarrassing). At first I’d justified my name change, thinking it’d been an unbiased choice, but reflecting on the decision I saw that it’d been made based on what was expected and what seemed normal (all but one of the women I’m related to changed her name when she married – I gave up counting at 18 relatives), rather than on thoroughly weighing up two equal alternatives; as Clementine Ford said in an article from earlier this year, “Either it is only women who end up saddled with hard-to-pronounce names and terrible fathers (unlikely) or these are instead excuses offered to soften the blow of what seems in other respects to be an intellectually unsound choice.” Since 2014 I’ve had an “Oh well, it was a mistake, but what’s done is done” attitude about it, but finding myself singing the lyrics to Naughty suddenly reminded me that I was not as powerless over this situation as I’d previously imagined myself to be.

It struck me for the first time: I COULD CHANGE MY SURNAME AGAIN. This idea filled me with intense excitement followed quickly by intense anxiety: Would Alan change his name too? How would his family react? Would everyone assume it was because we were on the brink of divorce? Would I be okay with not sharing a name with my children? Why/why not? Could I deal with that much extra paperwork?! I turned to my pool of wisdom (a Facebook group made up of hundreds of folk from around the world who’ve been on similar journeys away from conservative evangelical versions of Christianity), and asked for their thoughts on the matter. The responses mostly suggested that I hyphenate my maiden name and Alan’s surname, but I’d already rejected this idea – I’m naturally inclined towards minimalism, and having three syllables in my first name already feels like a burden; adding an extra two to my surname was not an option. Others pointed out that my maiden name was also my father’s name, so what difference would it make whether I was named after my husband or father? I may as well keep things simple by sticking with my husband’s, they said (I’d considered and dismissed this argument already).

One woman told me she’d dropped her surname completely, which is something many women in her circles had done as a small way of sticking it to The Man. Another woman told me she’d made up a brand new name, and it still brought her joy to say and write it, even years down the track. A few respondents encouraged me to think of poor future historians trying to keep track of my genealogy (they had no idea how messy my tree was already) and to choose something family-related. Meanwhile, Alan was excited about the idea of me changing my name (he was also high on pain medication for his recently-injured back, so it’s quite possible it was the drugs talking/smiling). He wasn’t interested in changing his surname, but he was fine with the kids’ surnames changing. SO.

I realised that the idea of keeping Alan’s surname had become unacceptable; I’m far less willing to live with cognitive dissonance these days, and I couldn’t, with integrity, keep both the name and my feminist ideas about how the world should look. Changing to a different name would not be a rejection of Alan or his family, rather a rejection of everything that me taking a new name in the first place had represented: that I was Alan’s property, that the work of adapting would be entirely mine, that my identity was less important than his, that he would be the sun around which our family would orbit. I also realised that me going by the same surname as my children was a strange hang-up to have, given I’ve had a different surname to my mother for most of my life and in no other scenario would I consider sharing a name a valid indication of closeness. 

But I also realised that I’ve been left out of almost all photographs with my children thanks to my unfortunate over-functioning (and Alan’s unfortunate under-functioning) as the memory-maker in our family (I may return and write about this soon, once I’m done crying about it), and I didn’t want to erase myself from my kids’ lives by name as well. SO.

I’m currently researching my family’s history to find the maiden names of my grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers that have been discarded upon marriage. Richardson and Conran are among the options, but I’m enjoying exploring higher branches of my family’s tree for the first time. The plan is that Hazel and I will change our surnames once we’ve picked The One. (I love Mo’s full name too much to change it; I figured aesthetics was as good a reason as any to help decide which kid would be lumped with me, name-wise. Also, I really like the idea of giving Hazel as much of a patriarchy-free start as I possibly can in this world in which sexism – exemplified well by the expectations around name-changing – is still so normal; this feels like a small gift to my precious Moana-and-Matilda-loving girl.)

The paperwork ahead is filling me with dread (the emphasis is to help you imagine the poem I briefly considered writing; alas, I have more important things to do with my time), but my license is due for renewal very soon, which is timely: deadlines are my friend. SO. That’s what’s happening. 

(I wish I had a pithier end to this post.)


  1. I love this so so much. Good for you! There is SO MUCH that I would change about my engagement and wedding if I could have my time over again - but one thing I'm glad I did was stubbornly refuse to change my name. I hate that I have my father's surname, but taking on my husband's also seemed somehow so much worse. I would personally love to see more men who call themselves feminists taking on their wives' surnames. I only know 2 men who have done this - and they have both shot up a million points in my view, but they really shouldn't have - because women have to do this all the time! I hate the argument in favour of women changing their names in order for their new family unit to all have the same name - because that issue could just as easily be resolved by men taking on women's names.

    1. Thank you for your encouragement! I know of no men who've taken their wives' surnames, so you're beating me. :) I find it odd that so many men don't think to themselves, "Would *I* like to change my surname?" before expecting it of the women they're marrying. If the answer is no, maybe a) check your privilege and then b) leave your fiancee's name alone. UGH.

  2. Tim Minchin’s subversive lyrics empower yet another!
    Good luck with your plans.

    My sister recently reclaimed her surname, though she didn’t return to her birth name.
    She changed her surname to ‘Bell’ following her separation from her partner. This name wasn’t found in our family history, but partly echoed the ‘Campbell’ on our mother’s side, and partly was just a name she liked, which evoked the image of independence and empowerment of a bell ringing out. Her kids now go by Bell-hyphenated with her ex’s surname. It seems to be working well.
    Also an interesting coincidence, given your blog’s title.

    1. Haha, it's far easier to enjoy Tim Minchin songs these days!

      As for Bell/e, I love the sound of the name, and I LOVE your sister's reasons for choosing it! It actually made the top 7-or-so on my list, but I realised it's too closely tied in my mind to Rob Bell - I have great admiration for him, but I didn't want to name myself after anything related to that world.