Monday, January 11, 2010

Lasting names

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!

City Hall does have a pretty ceiling, though. I was so giddy that day, I was only looking up.

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?


10 comments:

Marisa said...

We have been married three months and are still not sure what to do. My husband's last name is my brothers middle name, so it sounds funny and out of order for me to even hyphenate it!! I think I'll hyphenate eventually, but still go by my last name professionally---maybe :)

Eco Yogini said...

yep, we'll be both hyphenating our last names, which resulted in Andrew's parents flipping their lids. seriously. i'm hoping that by the wedding they will have recovered.

i'm a little nervous about what that will mean... and i refuse to be "mrs." and will go with miz...
and hopefully will let those moments role off me when they occur... or get used to them (like those letters that will be addressed to mr and mrs h. blegh)

i guess it makes a lot of sense that in more traditional societies there would be confusion.

Born to be Mrs. Beever said...

Even though I'm going from Campbell to Beever (ugh), I am a traditionalist and will be taking his name. That's just the way it has usually been done and I am happy to be identified with him that way. The funny thing is, I have a daughter with an ex who I was never married to...so I hyphenated her name (Campbell-Read). I asked her once I got married and changed my name if she wanted to drop the Campbell from her name or change it to Beever (doubtful) since she won't technically be 'connected' to me anymore with that name. She adamantly insisted she will not be changing her name as it is HER name! I thought that so funny...even at 14 years old she feels strongly about who she is name-wise. So I understand where you are coming from.

{Morgan} Cape Cod Bride said...

I am in a similar situation as you. I am a newlywed and currently getting my Ph.D., and want to keep my name for personal and professional reasons, as most women in my field do. However my husband is more traditional and practical, and thinks it's more sentimental and easier if we have the same name, and I do agree with him to a certain extent. I am going to legally change my name for sure, but haven't decided if I will hyphenate it or what yet. Regardless, I will go by my maiden name professionally. Being in the field of psychology, having separate professional and personal last names can also be a great way to help ensure privacy, and I like the symbolic separation as well.

A Los Angeles Love said...

I grew up with a mother who had a different last name and it never caused any problems at school, hospitals or elsewhere. So much so, that I never worried about the implications of keeping my own name - it was just the obvious thing to do. It's been funny (and a bit disconcerting) to discover all the problems others are facing with this. Of course, we haven't really told his TX family yet, so my first troubles may be right around the corner...

Sadie said...

Well, so, um... As Mrs Ryan Simonovich, I have to 'fess up that he's doing a much better job with our double last name than I am. Our compromise of "both" was nice and convenient that you *can* do one name change legally for marriage in CA (each) and it's the last name.
However, while our licenses say it, and my email signature says it, I have yet to (gulp) change any of my banking, SS# or passport, and we have a new family member showing up in, oh, 3 weeks. Whose birth certificate will have the double last name, in addition to some 4 first (and middle) names, which are our concession to our families, all of whom need input.

Having published under my maiden name (which I call my "normal" name, go play with that psychological response, eh?), I tell people it's my professional name, and that they are to keep that one on the books. It hasn't stopped the university throwing in his former last name as a replacement on some things, much to my annoyance, [and what does one call his maiden name? or do men start out as Men and therefore have Names, which shall not be messed with? hmmm?]...

My advice is that so far, it's been confusing and fun. He gets called Mr R.S. at school, which doesn't take much stretch to see the lovely acronym of MRS (the entirety is MARS, which he thinks is "awesome"). I can't yet sign my signature, so I mostly stick with the old one and giggle and say "oh, that on my license is my married name, I guess I'll get used to it", and most people don't mind.

As to being Mrs something, it depends on the day as to whether I really want to get them to get it right, or if I'll just have them call me Sadie.

Oh, and please, if you move blognames, be sure I have it...

elizabeth said...

@Sadie: I've taken to calling the original last name - or 'normal' last name - the 'birth' name. This has the benefit of being both more accurate and less gendered, and suggests that anyone, not just women, could take on another name, even men who have Names.

I suspect that inertia/ busyness/ laziness will impede our doing anything about the middle names for awhile... but I do think that EGNAB is a great acronym! (For similar reasons, the blog URL will remain the same, even though the name is new.)

As far as the Mrs: a wise woman once told me that the best reason for getting a doctorate is that you can use "Dr. X" whenever making reservations, causing people to think that you are both a man and important, and therefore ensuring better service :) When better than the honeymoon to try out that trick - but no dice, apparently, when I'm with the hubby.

the un-bride said...

I've SO had that conversation. People in Cali seem pretty able to deal, although I've complicated things by keeping my name professionally, and slapping his onto the end of my original birth-given 3 names for legal stuff. But when I say that I prefer to be called Miz Mylastname, I get funny looks. Or teased, if the other party to the conversation happens to be male & older than I am.

Weird, huh? I'm still trying to wrap my brain around why ANYBODY but me cares what I call myself. But then, those same people seem to have an opinion about the fact that we got married, too.

Poor souls need more entertaining hobbies, I say.

Miss Anne said...

So funny, but so frustratingly accurate!
I changed my name when I was 19 - I dropped my (father's) surname and adopted my middle name as a surname. The reason I gave on the legal documents was that I 'no longer wanted to be phallically marked by the patronym' (yep, I really did write that down). So when I got married, there was never any question of taking on his name. But I have also tried to keep my 'Miss' - not because I don't want to 'admit' I am married - I couldn't be prouder to announce my life committment to him - but because I resent that our language inherently identifies a woman's marrital status in the application of a title in a way that it does not do for men - even the more ambiguous 'Ms' implies that there is a change in relation to one's marrial status. Why should I change from Miss to Ms, just because I am married and I don't want to be a Mrs? (Sure, it's fine if you choose that, married or unmarried, but don't MAKE me do it!) I would love to have a doctorate, just so I could avoid the whole question!

elizabeth said...

Way to wield the feminist lingo at 19, Miss Anne! With that sort of wit, a doctorate will be a piece of cake, and you'll never have to worry about patronyms or gender markers again!

I started using "Ms." rather that "Miss" after college, when I decided that no one needed to know my marital status, and the two-letter abbreviation was suitably equivalent to "Mr." To me, Ms. doesn't necessarily denote any particular marital status.