One of the most common complaints I hear from women who don’t want to change their name is the fear that their family name will “die out,” and I’ve heard the reverse from men as well. So I think the default last name of a newly married couple should be whichever one of their names is shared by the fewest guests at their wedding … and negotiations can go from there.
The truth is, it’s easier when you share a last name, and it’s a wonderful symbol of your shared life. That said, it doesn’t have to be *his* name; I have friends where the husband took her last name, where they both hyphenated. My husband and I chose a new last name – a shared family name.
When my wife and I first got together and were talking about marriage, without even prompting her, I said simply “Hey, what would you think about me taking your last name?” Why did I offer?
Because I come from a family of all boys. If my father has any concerns about “his name passing on”, he has three sons to do it for him. I know both of my younger brothers are far too close-minded to ever consider it themselves, so why not be the first one to go a different route?
She was surprised I offered, but as we talked about it, we at least got to a point where it wasn’t an assumption but a conscious choice of which direction we were going to go. We did ultimately decide to retain my name and she dropped her “maiden” name. (Notice we still call it a “maiden” name, a term that hasn’t been relevant for at least 500 years …)
This June I will have been married for 20 years. When my wife and I got married, she chose to continue to go by her maiden name. I wasn’t thrilled, probably because it threatened my manhood. Over the last 20 years my views on so many things have changed but not on this issue. The problem for me is that it feels like hedging your bets in case things go wrong or possibly infers, whether true or not, a lack of commitment, like we are not really a family but rather a group of individuals working together, at least for now. So the real issue for me (at this point in life) is not the woman taking the man’s name, but rather the family unit having separate names.
We will most likely be in the position in the near future of adopting a foster child and I wonder how she would feel if we told her she won’t be getting my last name or my wife’s. I can only think she would feel that maybe it’s because we might want to give her back some day. And if we don’t do that, whose name does she get and what does that mean to her? There is something about a unit of people calling themselves by the same name, family or group or otherwise, that seems to naturally pull us together.
Since I was a teenager I’ve adopted the quip: If I get married, the only way I’ll change my last name (my first name being Dorian) is if I marry someone with the last name ‘Gray.’ When I cavalierly explained this to my future husband, I got a stunned silence. I felt bad that it didn’t even occur to me that he would just assume that I’d take his name when we got married and thus be shocked that I announced that I wouldn’t be. “Are you ok with that?” I asked. “Uh, yeah I guess – it just never occured to me that you wouldn’t change your name,” he said.
I tried to explain that it’s very much a part of my identity, of who I was, that it’s the name of my business and had been for years so it wasn’t practical to change it, and not least of all, the whole connotation of ‘ownership.’ And then to make a point, I asked him if he’d be willing to change his last name to mine and he looked horrorstruck: “No!” “Well,” I said, “that is how I feel about not wanting to change mine.”
A lightbulb went off and I think he really saw what it meant for a person to give up their name.
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