Something Borrowed

It’s an old pastime of young girls to imagine their future selves, embodied in a future name – written and signed. Using the last name of a crush, perhaps, just to see how it all fits together, and the vibrations through the air as it rolls off the tongue. It sounds just perfect, and so does the imagined pride of having this new identity, to be this new someone that matters to a particular someone. This pastime is learned at a young age and continues into adulthood. Don’t even try to deny it now. It is learned at a young age that we, as girls, take our husband’s surname – because we will marry. Most girls learn this from their mother and their own family. Mom took dad’s name – and that is how the world works.

There has been a lot of chatter around whether a woman should take the name of her husband’s. And a lot of judgment. It isn’t a new discussion. There are a number of ways that this could go.

  • The traditionalist: a woman changes her family name to her husband’s upon marriage.
  • The relegation: adding the new name last, demoting her name to a middle name that is really never used, let’s be honest.
  • The egalitarian: the abhorred hyphen.
  • The keeper: no change. You modern woman, you.
  • The feminist: man takes her name – I know, rare. It happens. So for completeness, humor me here.

There are issues with each of these options, as there are issues with the concept and act of committing to sharing your entire life forever with a single, often dynamic, person in an unstable world of circumstance. But, that is a discussion for another time.

Now, a necessary aside: this is coming from the perspective of a straight, (partially) white, educated, middle-class female and in the context of getting married, though there are plenty of other reasons to be changing your name. Changing names with the added attachment of another person, however, brings about these particular complex and curious ruminations.

Judgment is always passed on our choices. This choice in particular puts a label on an identity. This change is out in the open, on exhibition to the public. This change brands a shiny new scarlet A – there to be recognized and acknowledged, and judged. She’s anti-feminist. She’s lost herself. She’s attached. She’s no longer her own individual. She doesn’t care about her career and what this will do to her professional life. The hyphen is so unattractive. It makes your name too long, how inconvenient. The name no longer speaks to a pure heritage. It’s a jumbled mess. She doesn’t want to be attached to him. She doesn’t want to label herself. She doesn’t love him enough. And, how emasculating.

Why the judgment? Why is so much physical and virtual brain space dedicated to this choice?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

But names carry so much, even if all they hold is a mental construct to which we are unwillingly subjugated by the perceptions of others. It’s the first experience of labeling and identity about which we usually have little choice in today’s Western society. And it follows you around. It is a label, that once attached, is to encapsulate a personality, career, self-image, judgment, and social experience – and the choice is so seemingly arbitrary. So what does it mean to change it, when it’s been established and when, say, things like marriage maybe come along? Well, with all of the hullabaloo about it, we seem to think it means a lot.

Much of this discussion has been built around the rise of the “career woman” and how we must lean in to get ahead in this world. In the relatively new professional world of females, keeping one’s name has become an indicator of an independent, ambition-driven woman, entrenched in circumstances where her own brand carries weight enough to warrant breaking tradition and forever attaching her label to her past, current, and future achievements. Alternatively, she could simply like her name, just the way it is.

Still, there are long lists of how-tos that in themselves reflect the impending judgment and re-evaluation. You’re urged to introduce it in the right way to soften the blow: “How to Change Your Name and Keep Your Professional Identity,” “Changing Your Name? Tips for the Workplace,” how to write that first email. Regardless of how it’s done, you can hear it already, “Oh…, she got married. And this makes it different from before. She has concerns and obligations to someone else, and relationships and character facets that I can’t discern from over here.” When taking marriage and a changed surname as public announcement of a woman’s capacity for care and empathy but also dependence, this change can be perceived as weakness. This decidedly does not pair well with the image of the career woman.

So, here it is. The public discussion and judgment and professional & social reception and identity and brand, all laid out in various spaces of physical and virtual reality. So, how does one choose?

I consider myself independent, a feminist. My career is important to me. My name is attached to things. Regardless of whether or not I get married, it’s a choice that captures identity and forces greater understanding of its facets and veiled values. So…would I change my name?

The conclusion that I’ve come upon is that this choice is a deeply personal one, which means high variation for different kinds of people and different circumstances. Anti-climactic, I know. I’m sorry to disappoint. I never claim to have these answers. I’m better at the questions. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll share my thoughts of the moment on the matter and how others might start to think through this choice.

To begin with, it’s simple. Based on my most primitive fancies, what do I want? Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t particularly like my name – its appearance, spelling, sound. I’m not attached to it in the way I find that many are – by their family life and experiences. My last name has never carried the label feature, characteristic of my identity in the same way as my first name. Instead, it floats in my wake, as if connected by a shimmering string of a spider web, easily severed.

Names seem to fit others, while I’ve always had a hard time saying and explaining my own. It’s something I’ve been working on getting used to and I’d say it’s been growing on me for nearly 25 years now. Based on this, my choice seems moderately straightforward: welcome a change that may be more fitting. However, I work in a space where keeping your published name is ideal, if only for the sake of convenience, historic record, respect, and recognition. This is the challenge. What is to be weighed?

Again, my primordial inclination is to say fuck others’ perceptions and judgments and do what you feel. But then, years of socialization force some level of rationalized discussion. These changes induce perceptions and judgments that affect, if only by a smidgeon, respect, recognition, and experience. And experience shapes your life. Or maybe I’m making a bigger deal of this whole thing than it really is.

Luckily or not, I still have time to make my choice. Or I think I do. All I can say if it comes to it is that I hope that I will be the one to shape the name and what it means as applied to me in my past, present, and future – and not all the rest of it.

Loud.

“Konichiwa.”

Setting the stage for what was to be a wildly uncomfortable 9 minutes of unwanted bar conversation, he inserted himself into our circle with a single sarcastic utterance of the word. It rolled off his tongue with the same casual ignorance of a Gwen Stefani song. There we were – four girls – three of which look vaguely “ethnic,” body language completely closed off to passer-bys, and yet here he was – entitled to have his say, to be heard, to be validated. “Made in Asia?” he states pointing to a couple of us. I’m immediately bored. I know this conversation by heart. And so does anyone who doesn’t look like they could’ve come to the Mayflower’s reunion. “Where are you from?” – Insert X predominantly-white-albeit- cultural-mosaic/ melting-pot-country – “No, but where are you from?” “Carbon, you asshole. I’m mostly Carbon.” But instead… “Oh well my parents are from Y-acceptably-non-white-country-that explains-my-complexion-my-dark- features–and-confirms-the asker’s need for a “different” tickbox.” Then the conversation goes down one of two paths. The asker either smiles knowingly, pleased with their keen eye, or he/she spews a series of invariably misguided facts/ question about country Y. There’s also a third path which is generally much more pleasant and leads to a real conversation about place and identity and culture and leaves both parties feeling enriched, but that conversation doesn’t often start with “but where are you from.” The uninvited guest last night didn’t stop there however. He went on to comment on the beauty of eyes that go like this, pulling at the side of his face, before carrying out a lengthy inquisition about our choice to live in a country that’s not our own.  

I’d been under the impression that passive aggressive, systemic, or otherwise discrete racism was the way to go in this day and age…

So why was this man so unbelievably inappropriate? And blatantly racist?

– Lack of exposure to multiculturalism? Maybe.

– One too many Vodka Cranberries? Possibly.

– A systemic, entrenched sense of entitlement to voice any and all opinions and to have them be deserving of acknowledgment? Definitely.

– The right to be loud and proud? Always.

At 7 years old, I learned that my ankles were too loud. I had been wearing white capris at the airport and my mother was chided by the security guard for raising a slut. I think he took the “never wear white after labour day” a little too heavily to heart. At 8, my hair became too loud and was tamed under a veil. At 9, we moved somewhere where my hair and ankles could sing, but my voice was only tolerated. I became quiet, polite, a model student. Eventually, because my parents are awesome, I found my voice again (albeit metaphorically given that I probably still need a microphone to be heard across the dinner table), but I’d been trained to use it carefully.

Nevermind the absurd racism, the “Konichiwa” greeter was imposing himself on us as a man and allowing himself to judge our looks, our lifestyles, our core. You would be hard-pressed to find a women who would make similar comments to a group of men regardless of lack of exposure to multiculturalism or too many vodka cranberries, whereas the reverse is so much more common. You could argue that it’s because men still feel they have to take on the role of pursuer, and that’s all he was doing. But no, it was so much more (read: less?) than that. It was aggressive, it was with a sense of ownership and entitlement, and it was entirely unresponsive to the reactions he was receiving.

We should all grow up believing that we are deserving of being loud and proud, but with a level of critical thought, kindness and reflection. Otherwise, the resulting cacophony from the chorus of imbeciles is enough to make the US congress sound like Chopin.