Friday, October 15, 2010

Name Change Trauma

I agree with the general consensus that the world seems to have that a family should share a family name. It gives a sense of coherence and it sends a message to the rest of the world that the family is a unit. So, my family should have a family name, which we all share.

Within the context of our society and culture (being that I am not myself a famous person, or someone who has an established professional identity associated with a particular name) I also accept the premise that if my name is different then my husband’s, or my eventual children's, there might be assumptions about the status of our marriage, or whether the kids are 'my kids' (which is silly because actual maternity is such a small part of relationship with children that gives that sense of ownership and responsibility). It will be easier, in my life, if my last name is the same as my husband, I accept that.

This is where things get tough. I accept that I live in a largely paternal society that recognizes the 'man' as the 'leader', and for that reason, the woman in typical relationships gives up her old family name, and takes her husband's name, symbolizing her leaving the house of her father, and entering the house of her husband (yea, riiight).

In my particular state and county there are two 'default' name changes options when you get your marriage certificate. One is to simply remove the maiden name, and add the husband's last name. So, rather then be Ruth Elizabeth Ames, I would become Ruth Elizabeth Langstraat. The second option (we're so forward thinking here) is to hyphenate both names, so I would be Ruth Elizabeth Ames-Langstraat, or Langstraat-Ames.

I personally think hyphenated names are silly, cumbersome and confusing. I understand that some people like them, but what happens when Ms. Splonskowski-McDonald marries Mr. Milenowitch-Martinelli? Mr. & Mrs. Splonskowski-Martinelli-McDonald-Milenowitch? We break into choruses of bad children's songs the loop indefinitely.

I am also gratuitously, substantially and irrevocably attached to my maiden name. So what's a girl to do?

Because we were travelling internationally immediately after our nuptials, and didn't want to deal with it, we chose (with little advisement) to forgo my name change at the time, and deal with it later, when I could choose an option that better suited my needs. I finally settled on adding Ames as a middle name. This is a common and even old fashioned choice, as evidenced by my conservative friend's Catholic mother, who did the very same thing. So I would be Ruth Elizabeth Ames Langstraat. Simple, right?

There is trauma associated with the change of name. I don't know that I could have stomached giving Ames up completely, had Luke pressed the issue, I may have freaked out, called the whole thing off. Despite the fact that getting married doesn't change nearly enough as the Wedding Industrial Complex, or the romance films would have you thing, changing your name, and essentially deleting an aspect of your name (the ultimate symbol of our identity) is like deleting an aspect of that identity. And to be less philosophical about it, I've been Ruth Ames for 25 years and I rather like her! (My husband adds, he likes her too, but he also likes Ruth Langstraat).

It was with this social injustice (or perhaps that's too strong a word, social unfairness?), and anticipated trauma that I approached the Lane County Circuit Court on Wednesday with the purpose of changing my name.

Can I just say, I understand why lawyers and judges dress up so much? Short of wearing a power suit and heels, I don't think anything could have overcome the overwhelming feeling of sleazy-ness and criminal disapproval that I felt going into the courthouse, the security took longer then it does at our local airport, the direction was confusing, I had to take off my shoes, and despite the fact that everyone there was polite and respectful, I couldn't help but feel as if they suspected me of some crime. They wouldn't even let me take my knitting into the courthouse!

We approached the front desk, only to be informed that they didn't sell the forms here, I had to go to a stationary store a few blocks away and purchase them. A mere five minutes after the haranguing experience through security we were out and walking down the street. At this point the mere apprehension of the process had escalated to alternating fury, frustration, fear and grief. I was neither polite, nor calm, though the walk to the store helped, marginally.

A few minutes later, $12.50 poorer, we returned to the court house, went through the same security protocol (this time, since we were pro's we expected it to be quicker, but the line was longer so it took it's good sweet time). We headed to information again, which directed us to a series of windows with glass there, to protect the clerks. After the woman helped walk me through the forms and watched me sign them, and took $150 of our dollars, we were informed that the forms need to be posted for 15 days, in case anyone objected. Then I could return to attend my hearing at 8:30 in the morning on a Friday, yes missing potential work, to verify that all was well, and then after paying yet another fee, perhaps then I could have my new name.

Talk about making me feel like a criminal for bucking the trend. I mean I wasn't changing my name to Captain Awesome (yes, that was an actual posting on the board!), or Sunshine Starfish, or Pearly Gates or Adolf Hitler or something weird, offensive or outlandish, I just want to keep my identity as part of my name! And yet, here that process was as effectively criminalized as if they'd put me in handcuffs.

Ok, I may be exaggerating on that one, but an already traumatic experience of letting go of an aspect of my identity was exacerbated into panic, and anger by a difficult and expensive process (not helped by the fact that the clerk thought I was a divorcee for some reason! "No," I said, "I'm going the other direction!")

After we were finished, and headed off to run other errands, a bit of psychological reverie also revealed to me that my husband’s excitement over my name change had also made things worse. He was so excited for us to share a name that he didn't realize that some of his excitement was translated into pressure from my perspective.

When all is said in done, it really isn't a big deal. And really, it should be difficult to change your name, the government has valid reasons to keep track of those things, and valid reasons to have those things reviewed by a judge, but the trauma I experienced indicates to me that the attitude about women changing their name, and the options that they are given is outdated. If I simply want to hold on to my old identity, while adding my new family name, I should be able to do that without going through the same difficult (and expensive) process that Ms. Flowers Rainbow Patchouli does. And I don't know if it's a feminist issue, for sure the assumption that the woman changes her name, not the man is. But with the relative common-ness of non-traditional name change practices, perhaps the process in Lane County deserves an update.


  1. It's so funny: I was thinking about this topic on the way home, perhaps picking up on the cosmic vibe you were sending. It is ironic that at once, as the practice of not changing a name upon marriage increased, we suffered a catastrophic event as a country that increased scrutiny on identity documents.

    I'm sorry that your efforts were so traumatic; I expected ours to be, but all I had to do was shell out some $$$ and send off copies of certificates and forms.

    I would say that, from my viewpoint, an essential part of bringing in any kind of alternative perspective - be it labelled "feminist" or not (I lament the fact that "Humanist" has already been coopted to mean something else entirely) involves not making any further assumptions from that single second perspective as much as possible.

    For example: I once told a friend that I'd make a decision about changing my name to my husband's or not based on how it sounded. The guy seemed horrified (and this is someone I think of as a relatively modern, enlightened thinker about most things). I meant it, seriously. One of the perspectives I like to take is that it's possible to opt out of attaching any kind of deep personal meaning or statement to a decision to change a name, & just go for something that sounds the best, or is shorter, or easier to write or spell. It's not one I'd expect everyone to share, but it *is* a possibility.

    There doesn't have to be a deep political statement on the part of a couple about whether the woman is now "owned" dur to a name change to her husband's, or that she's not because she keeps "her" name. Honestly, "her" name was likely her father's name in the first place (her mother's in some, perhaps a step-parent's). As in your case, the woman may be attached to it because she's had it her whole life. In others, like some professional women I know, their certifications, practice or reputation are in that name and changing it would cause a huge upheaval and confusion for a length of time they're not willing to undergo. (A friend changed her name to her husband's only when she retired, at 65, for that very reason.)

    You're spot on about the hyphenation, too, & it's a reason I'm not electing to do it.

    I've seen some practices I really like that I think should be put out there as options in various "beyond your wedding to your marriage" resources:

    1) Both parties hyphenate. Awkwardness for both, but emphasizes the creation of a new family. Kids get the hyphenated name, get to do as they will when they marry.
    2) An unusual one that won't work for everyone was forming a single compound name - I had friends who married in Australia and were able to form "Whitesmith" from "White" and "Smith" - and that's just what they did.
    3) One of my favorites: both parties choose a new last name together that's different from either of their previous surnames, and both change. Christopher of Hoghton did this when he married his second wife; they were both tired of being verbs (Rolls and Chase) and they jointly chose "Lancaster".

    For me personally: none of the immediate family surnames were ones I wanted to keep. I come from an abusive background (mostly verbal and emotional, but it still isn't something I want to clutch to me in perpetuity). I was eager to make a move to a different surname; my first husband's last name was not at all euphonious with my last name or with my first name, and he wasn't interested in changing. No change that time. I'm happy with the name I've wound up with.

  2. I agree that it's unfortunate that women are publicly making a statement about their name change choice, regardless of whether any statement is made or not! If I was marrying a man who'd name I didn't like, I might not have chosen to take it. Fortunately I find Langstraat appealing.

    In the wedding communities and message boards that I read throughout the process of planning our wedding, there were lots of people who were doing the combine names (Amestraat?) or coming up with something completely different ( Luke joked we should both change our last name to Crowe, so he could really be Mr. Crowe )

    In all, flow is important, and some names just don't work. That's also contributing to keeping the name because I think Ruth Ames Langstraat flows better then just Ruth Langstraat. Something about the th-L is hard for me to get ... in the end, practicality will tell me what I actually end up using, I suppose only time will tell.

  3. Hi, Ruthie!

    Interestingly enough, I'm going through the same thing. I've been a Williams for 30 years now....and suddenly have to change to Harris. I asked Future-Hubs how he felt about the whole thing and -- get this -- he is actually VERY adamant about my changing!

    I replied flat out, "You are open-minded about me and all my 'neo-feminist' glory, but have the nerve to put your foot down on something as silly as a last name?!"

    The Look he gave me told me it wasn't so "silly" of a deal.

    Alas, I'm changing mine. It just isn't worth his disappointment (and potential resentment). But I'm standing up on the inside with my fist raised in "neo-feminist" solidarity.

    I am not, however, looking forward to the legal process of changing my name. Maybe I'll keep Williams in there somehow. My first name is already hyphenated, so hopefully it won't look too awkward.

  4. @GemEnigma It is a bit weird how men just assume that we're going to change to their name, and get bent out of shape at the suggestion that we're not as into it as they may be. I'd be interested to hear why your fiance feels so strongly about it. Hopefully your legal process goes more smoothly then mine, good luck!