I found myself in a bit of a quandary when it came to the question of name changing after getting married five years ago.
On the one hand, I felt very strongly that I wanted to have the same surname as my husband, so that as we created our own brand new family together we would all share one family identity, without having to make any complicated decisions about what our children’s surnames would be. I had treasured my own united family identity growing up, after all, and I wanted to give my children the same sense of unity and belonging that I had enjoyed.
On the other hand, I felt very attached to my family name; it was so bound up with my sense of self, I love the little family unit my parents created so very much, and the sense of our family identity and roots was incredibly important to me. (Ironically, I’m aware that this was largely made possible by the fact that my mother took my father’s name when she got married.)
I didn’t want to double-barrel our names because that would have been a bit of a mouthful (“Caldecott-Lippiatt”!), and it would have also passed on a bigger problem to our kids, one generation down the line; you can’t exactly double-barrel a double-barrelled name, after all. My husband felt very strongly about keeping his name, for similar reasons to mine—which left us at a bit of an impasse.
While there are lots of different solutions, I don’t personally feel like there is one perfect solution that works for everyone, just the best option for each individual couple. Some people choose to create a whole new name for their new family unit, for example, but that was never going to work for us, because we were both so attached to the idea of family history and wanted to keep a sense of continuity with the past.
My own imperfect solution was to keep my family name, Caldecott, for work, and to change my legal surname to my husband’s family name, Lippiatt. I’m a writer, and come from a family of writers, and I had always wanted to have a special pen name, anyway, so this was a pretty good solution for me. Using my family name for my work, my “public face” (on any articles and stories or books I write, on work contracts, and on my public brand and social media profiles) is a way for me to keep that connection to my roots and my family ever present and alive, while privately friends, family, Facebook friends, and my passport and legal documents refer to me by my legal, new(er) family name. I will always be both Caldecott and Lippiatt, now.
Our names are such an important part of our identity, so it’s a very personal—and often emotional—issue. My husband, an academic historian, tells me that the reason the tradition of the woman taking her husband’s name has been a default for many cultures throughout history was because paternity is always more questionable than maternity. For most of history and in most cultures, social mores have severely ostracised women who have had children with someone other than their husband (whether that’s “out of wedlock”, in cases of adultery, or even rape), as well as penalising the children in question. While the man involved in extra-marital baby-making could—and still can—easily disappear without a trace and without having to face any substantial consequences, women would often be in danger of public execution, as they still are in some cultures today. In other words, there was a deeply practical reason for the woman to take a man’s name: it makes a statement to the world that he is claiming paternity—and therefore responsibility—for any children, as well as the well-being and safety of his wife.
Thank goodness that our society has become a far less judgemental place than the world represented in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and we need to do everything we can to protect women who still suffer from unjust laws and traditions in countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Despite this, however, I don’t think the tradition of a woman taking her husband’s last name was entirely a sexist, patriarchal convention: there’s something beautiful and important about the age-old idea of a man being required to step up and take public responsibility for the family that he’s going to be a part of creating and caring for. No matter what else has changed, women still bear the biological burden of having children, and it is still just as easy for a man today to escape his responsibilities as a father as it used to be, the development of paternity tests not-withstanding. Personally though, I don’t think that a man needs to give his wife his own name in order to make this statement of responsibility, involvement, and commitment; he could make a similar gesture by accepting the gift of her name.
Either way you look at it, I think that some people are too quick to suggest that a woman is un-feminist because she takes her husband’s name, and on the flip-side I’m also uncomfortable with the prevailing expectation that a woman will take her husband’s name after marriage. This issue is far more complicated when you start to dig into it than it seems at first glance, and it should be up to individual couples to make up their own minds. After all, if no one is being pressured by social norms, the gesture of name-giving and accepting can be beautiful and profoundly meaningful, whichever path you take.