First, let’s start with words. As a species, we use words to communicate. In the beginning, language was rudimentary. Used to signal an alert of danger or the availability of a food source. In order for individuals to successfully communicate, they had to use the same sets of sounds to identify objects, actions, places, emotions, and the individuals themselves. Over time, human language has evolved from a tool to assist with the basic needs of sustaining life–to how we use it today. Reading a worn copy of Harry Potter, ordering Chic-fil-a through a speaker, emailing friends across the world, happy hour gossip, the comments section in Twitter.
While the ways in which we use language have expanded with time and technology, it still holds true that, within communities, the same set of words are used to identify people, places and things. A name is a word used to identify an individual. But a name doesn’t feel like just another word. We retain our name across the world. It goes with us no matter where we go or who we encounter. Who we are as people, our identity, is tied to our identification. Our background, our familial ties, possibly our generation can all be gleaned from the sounds used to identify us.
Yesterday, I met up with my college roommate for brunch at Le Diplomate in DC. Over buttered toast, she begins telling me about a gripe with her husband of two years over her resistance to adopting his surname as her own. She described their compromise: professionally, academically and legally, she will keep her maiden name. Socially, she’s happy to use his. In the most millennial sentiment I may have ever heard, she says, “So, I changed my name on Facebook and OpenTable.” She’d told him that tradition wasn’t a good enough reason to give up the identity she’d built over the past thirty years. I tend to agree with her.
A quick tangent. I am irked by most traditional marriage conventions. Given that women are no longer moving from the parental home straight to a husband’s home, are no longer property of said husbands, are quite capable of making their own way through the world, can vote, earn income, and own property… you know, equals… why do we keep these silly traditions?? Ok, tangent over.
I remember in college, this same roommate, whose parents immigrated to the States from India, telling me about the trouble of choosing a spelling for her first name. In high school, she’d adopted a shortened, Westernized version. She was unsure who she wanted to be. The all-American girl everyone grew up with, or the girl with the richer name and cultural background? The confident, successful woman sitting in front of me yesterday had no qualms voicing her concerns about retaining the portions of herself attached to her maiden name. At the same time, this wildly intelligence woman, understands and accepts the importance her husband places on being a Mr. and Mrs. Hence, Facebook and OpenTable.
This conversation had me wondering about other friends who recently tied the knot. Checking in with my best friend, who was married this past July, and who has updated her Facebook to include both her maiden name and husband’s surname, I asked if it was legal. With an equally giggle-worthy sentiment, she texted me back after midnight to say she’d been too lazy these past seven months and is now waiting until her taxes are done to add her husband’s last name (sans hyphen) to hers. I can only imagine the hassle of trying to do one’s taxes with two legal names within the same calendar year. You do you, bestie. She leans a bit more to the traditional side but I truly love that she is using both names. If our name, our identification, is linked to our identity, shouldn’t the melding of two lives into a partnership warrant a growth in identification? I guess my issue with this is that it is typically only the woman who grows in this manner.
When I moved to Italy after college, I learned from the family with whom I was living, that Italian women retain their maiden names in marriage and that children adopt the father’s name. Fairly progressive, Italia. This is a convention I know well. To this day, my mom says she should have put her own last name on my birth certificate, but chose that of my biological father instead, for no other reason than tradition. I was legally identified as being family to a man that my mother had no intention of allowing contact with me. This bow to centuries worth of patriarchy did me no harm, and is actually an interesting and meaningful part of my identity. When I was fourteen, I chose to legally change my last name and adopt that of my dad. The man who actually raised me and whose name I used socially anyway.
I like to say that I will not change my name again for a man–I’ve done it once already. However, I do see a kind of gracefulness in changing one’s name with the ebbs and flows of life. Making your identification match your identity at a given point in life does not have to represent a succumbing to a societal norm for norm’s sake. Whether it be using a nickname, adding a hyphen, reverting to a maiden name after a traumatic divorce, or adopting the name of the man who raised you like his own, making a conscious choice about the sounds we use to identify ourselves, one way or the other, demonstrates an awareness of self.