Scene: Reception desk at a Caribbean island resort hotel, where Eric and I are staying for three days to relax after trekking in Patagonia (more on that soon). We've booked the "Honeymoon Special," which offers a free airport transfer, and a bottle of Champagne in the room.
Receptionist: Are you Mrs. Hislastname?
Me: No, I'm Elizabeth Barefoot.
The Receptionist gives me a perplexed look.
Me: We ARE married.
[I bring my left hand - with its delicate band - to the counter. I've left my engagement ring at home during our travels. I suspect that, compared to the hardware she sees on many honeymooners' hands, my low-key bling is not very convincing.]
Receptionist: But what should we call you? How shall we address you?
Me: Ah, I guess you can call me Ms. Barefoot.
Receptionist: Is that "Missus" Barefoot, or "Miss" Barefoot?
Me: No, it's "Miz" Barefoot.
An even more perplexed look. We're not in Berkeley anymore, Toto. Back home, at least half the married women I know have kept their birth names. And everyone goes by their first names, anyway.
Me: [searching for some handle that will make sense...] Or you could call me "Dr. Barefoot." [Since even my students call me by my first name, I figure I may as well get some mileage out of my hard-won degree.]
Receptionist: [lighting up] You're a DOCTOR? Oh my goodness! I want to ask you a question...
Eric: [breaking in] .... Not a medical doctor....
Me: But if you have an environmental problem, I might be able to help...
At that point, the Receptionist gave up trying to figure out what to call me. We offered up "Professor," but that didn't gain any traction, either.
This was my first real confrontation with the name-change expectation. Given the amount of time and effort and commitment I've put into establishing my professional identity, changing my name never made sense to me. Actually, even before all that, it never made sense to me. In giving up her name, it seemed that the woman was being asked to subsume her identity to that of her husband, a role I wanted no part of. After living with one name - which I like very much - for decades, I didn't have any desire to change it. I'm also profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of being defined only by my relationship to someone else - in my mind, "Mrs." sounds a lot like "possession."
Our friends and family (especially mine, who have known me to be stubbornly independent) implicitly understood this: I've fielded only one question about what I was going to do about my name. Both my sisters-in-law have their birth names, as do my best friends. My mom reverted to her original name when my parents divorced, and stuck with that name after she remarried. In this context, it would have been almost strange for me to change my name.
Eric and I had several conversations on this topic before we got engaged. He probably would have been happy for me to change my name - to harmonize with cultural expectations - but fully understands and appreciates the reason that I have chosen not to. Of our two last names, his is slightly less mellifluous, and more prone to annoying nicknames, which he's suffered since childhood. I encouraged him to take mine - we could be "Dr. and Mr. Barefoot" or "the Professors Barefoot" - but sadly, that is rarely done. More importantly, he is the only male in his generation of his family and feels strongly about passing on the name (whereas I have two brothers, and two nephews, so our last name is not about to die out). Thus, any offspring will likely be Hislastname.
In a nod to family unity, we thought it would be nice to take each other's last names as middle names, reversing what women who change their names have done for years (eg., I would become Elizabeth Middlename Hislastname Barefoot, and he would become Eric Middlename Middlename Barefoot Hislastname, creating a really excellent acronym in the process!). However, although San Francisco City Hall offers numerous options for combining and changing names while applying for the marriage license, adopting new middle names is not one of them. To do this, we will have to file for an official legal name change. Bah!
I feel fortunate to be surrounded with people who accept and respect my feelings about my own name - really, what is more personal that what one is called every day? And I recognize that for some (maybe even most, outside of the People's Republic of Berkeley) families, sharing the same last name is important. However, I didn't expect that people I don't even know would be unable to address me by my name, if it wasn't the same as my husband's. Thank God for the progressive and protective bubble of the Bay Area!
Have others reacted with surprise or confusion at your changed or not-changed last name? Have you found creative ways of managing the expectation that women change their names? Have you confounded others expectations, in one way or another, about what your name would be after marriage?
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