The Changing Name Changes When We Get Married

Interesting story in USA Today about more men taking on their wives’ last names when they get married. Some newlyweds are no longer following the patriarchal tradition of taking the man’s last name. There are all kinds of alternatives from combos to hyphenations to taking the woman’s last name.

But I don’t understand the backlash people get for this over some kind of lack of manliness. How stupid is that? Apparently women should take the man’s name–along with his DNA–and stay in the kitchen.

What I do understand is the backlash for practical reasons. Say Joe Johnson and Patty Smith get married and become Joe and Patty Johnson-Smith. They have a kid, Bill Johnson-Smith. Then Bill Johnson-Smith marries another child of a hyphenation-name marriage, Sally Martin-Graham, and they become Bill and Sally Johnson-Smith-Martin Graham? Boy, their kids are screwed.

OK, that’s ridiculous. I know that.

While I’m not trying to justify the patriarchal tradition by saying anything else is ridiculous. I’m just saying I think a cultural standard is important. It should give direction (what will our name be?) and continuity (what are the relationships?) and meaning (why do we do it this way?). Perhaps the patriarchal standard has lost its meaning (I don’t think it signifies the submission of women anymore, even if it once may have meant that), though many of our cultural traditions have lost their original meaning and we still follow them.

I guess I’m trying to say that if you’re going to start a new naming tradition, more power to ya. But you should consider the direction and continuity and meaning behind it. How will it work for your children and their children (even if that solution is just every generation decides for themselves)? How does it help explain the relationships in your family (or is that not important?)? And what is the meaning behind it all–why did you do it that way?

And if you’re trying to overcome a long-standing tradition with something new there needs to be an element of education involved. Donna and Mike from the USA Today story seemed to think everyone would nod and smile at their tradition-bucking choice without a word of explanation. You’re trying to overcome hundreds of years worth of tradition–a little help please?

I thought it was cool to hear from a couple in college who basically made a new last name together, a powerful symbol of their marriage making them one. But if you just spring it on people, of course they’re going to scratch their heads. It doesn’t mean they’re sexist. It means they don’t understand.

Certainly the American patriarchal tradition is not the only one. Other cultures have other approaches. Somali children at my wife’s school take on their father’s first name as their last name (in which case I’d be Kevin Kerry, and would never again have to hear jokes about naming my child Jimi).

There’s nothing wrong with doing it differently and bucking the trend. But I think you need a solid rationale. That’s why we have traditions. You at least should have something better than “because I’m a big ole granola liberal and I wanted to tweak the tradition while showing my wife I love her.” The last part works, but I’m not so sure about that first part.

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4 thoughts on “The Changing Name Changes When We Get Married”

  1. I have slept 4 of the last 30 hours, so excuse me if I don’t make sense (I just typed excute me accidentally, if that tells you where my mind is at).

    Dave and I created a new last name for ourselves. We told most people about it at the wedding showers. Dave’s maternal grandpa had a huge freak out, saying that God wouldn’t know Dave in heaven because his name had changed (what about mine, dude?), but Dave’s family was actually pretty cool about it. His mom (who has remarried and has a different last name) was really supportive of it, which was nice because she wasn’t really supportive of anything else involving our marriage.

    Eight and a half years in, and no one really remembers Dave’s “maiden name” because no one else he knows has it.

    I don’t think it’s anyone’s business what our rationale was. I think we had a good rationale, but it’s personal and not really something I think we have to share with the world. Our last name is Hunt and people just have to deal with it.

  2. Random thought: the Somali approach (which I probably didn’t get quite accurate) actually makes it much easier to know how everyone is related. You can track it back through the father much easier than just having the same surname (which really doesn’t tell you anything other than you’re all related).

    Jaime, I’m curious–how did you come up with Hunt? I think it’s always interesting when people create a new last name to see how they did it. Is it just a mashup of your old last names, or was it something else?

    And I think sharing the rationale is important only if you care how people deal with it. If you don’t care that Grandma freaks out, then keep the rationale to yourself. But if you want Grandma to be happy with it, you better be prepared to share your reasoning. The people in the article just seemed kind of sily that they were oblivious to the fact that people would think this was new and different.

  3. Dave and I tried out a bunch of last names. My maiden name was short, but very hard to spell and pronounce. That got old, so I wanted something both easy to spell and pronounce. Dave’s maiden name was long and alliterative, so he wanted something short and starting with a different letter than “D” so people would stop mixing his last name up with his first. We tried out a few — Bond, West, Hart, D’Artangnon (don’t ask) — but decided on Hunt because it is virtually impossible to misspell or misprounce, it’s short, and it sounds good with our first names. In retrospect, I would have gone with something that didn’t rhyme with a slang word for the female anatomy because every once in a while people mis-hear what I say and get a little testy. Hunter might have eliminated that problem.

    We ran a blurb in our wedding newsletter with a lighthearted look at our new name. A couple Dave was friends with liked the idea so much, they did the same thing.

    In today’s modern world and in today’s big cities, I don’t think it is as important to be able to trace the family line.

    And I am sure glad my name wasn’t Jaime James. ;)

  4. My wife and I talked about talking an untraditional route. My last name is Fudge and my wife Erin is a singer/songwriter. She wasn’t so sure that Erin Fudge would be a credible stage name (possible band name “Erin Fudge and the Sweet Nothings” which she didnt think was so fun). We talked about taking her last name and about mash-ups like Cressfudgeman. In the end, we went the traditional route and Erin can choose to use her maiden name as a stage name if she wants.

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