all the decisions for the big day is one that will last long
after the thank-you notes are sent: What will you do about
your eyes and imagine your ceremony. If you’re following tradition,
when you enter the reception, someone (please tell me you
won’t let it be the DJ. OK, never mind. It’s your wedding)
will introduce you as . . . As what? What are your new names?
Have they even changed? If you can’t answer these questions
off the bat, or are uncomfortable with the answers you have,
maybe it’s time to review your options.
the most common approach,the time-honored step of a woman
taking her new husband’s last name is certainly easy in that
it’s expected, and the paperwork is set up for it. But it’s
also been several decades now since it was possible for most
of us liberated women to blissfully go that route without
thinking of its history: woman as possession, moving from
father to husband, wearing a label of ownership that’s never
really hers. Even if that’s not what it means now, it can
be hard not to cringe. But don’t start the guilt-trip machine
yet. Like any other questionable tradition, from housewifedom
to monogamy, if taking your husband’s name is a choice,
made in an atmosphere where you know you have other choices
and no one’s going to stop you from picking them, then there’s
nothing wrong with it.
You may just not like the name you were born with—for its
spelling or its sound or its meaning—and love his. You may
feel distant from your birth family, or at least the part
of it that gave you your name, or be very close to his. You
could want a connection to an ethnic heritage you both share
but is only represented in his name. There could be plenty
of reasons out there—only you can decide what feels right
for you. If that’s what you choose, hold your head up high
and don’t let a single disapproving feminist cluck register.
Now, to veer from the most common approach to the least, listen
carefully: That last paragraph can apply to you guys too.
Why should you be stuck with a name you don’t like if your
wife-to-be’s last name paired with your first makes you sound
like movie star? Or why should you have to pass the name of
your no-good father on to your kids?
It’s not easy to do: As of 2002, only Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa,
Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, and North Dakota had a
provision for it in the legal marriage process, as there is
for women, as opposed to the monthslong (and far more expensive)
generalized name change process. The feminist movement forgot
to include men’s right to change their names as they were
fighting for the right to keep their own. And while it’s increasing
in frequency, it’s still not so common. But don’t let any
of this stop you. Haven’t you always wanted to casually refer
to “my bachelor name”? For same-gender couples, of
course, this decision comes less weighted in one direction
or the other, unless you’ve got a heavy-duty butch-femme thing
goin’ on. Taking one another’s name is less common in queer
couples, and does carry the risk that you will be mistaken
for siblings, but for all the reasons above, don’t rule it
you’re not planning on kids, this is definitely the path of
least resistance. Legal name changes are a royal pain in the
arse, especially if you’re trying it outside the confines
of a state-sanctioned marriage process. But the confusion,
the administrivia, the “well, try under this name,” the having
to check the “Has your name changed?” box on forms for years
. . . it’s enough to make anyone want to stick with the name
that your psyche and all your friends know you by.
As more and more people opt for this route, the problem of
people not believing you’re married because your names don’t
match is growing less likely every day. You still might have
a bit of a hassle at fundamentalist-owned hotels that allow
only married couples to share beds, but perhaps that’s how
it ought to be. On the upside, you can tell telemarketers
who haven’t gotten with the neutral “head of household” program
and ask for Mrs./Mr. [your spouse’s last name] that there’s
no such person here.
But if and when you start considering little bundles of joy,
make sure you’ve clipped this article out and filed it away
under “decisions we put off,” because before you give those
kids a last name, you’re going to have to go through this
list of options all over again.
the egalitarian joining of two names into one with a hyphen,
has been around since at least the 1970s, but if you ask database
managers, you’d think it was a totally newfangled idea that
was designed to offend them. As if a hyphen weren’t an ASCII
character like the rest of the alphabet. I grew up hyphenated,
and for many years I had two credit records, one under Axel-Lute
and one under Lute, with the amusing note on the bottom of
each, “Suspicious! Same SSN as another record!”
However, all the “Yes, it’s one name,” and apostrophes instead
of hyphens aside, this is an option that works out pretty
well—if you started out with the right names. My parents say
they were often asked, somewhat belligerently, “Well, what
if you’d had really long names?” Their response: We would’ve
done something else. Of course not all potential hyphenators
are that judicious—there are some truly, um, unwieldy creations
out there. I know, because in elementary school there were
many lengthy playground discussions about what would happen
if I married each of them.
Which is, of course, the other thing about hyphenation. It’s
not something you can make a tradition of down the generations.
But, hey, your kids are creative, right?
a New One
want to pick one of your given names, hyphenation’s out of
the question for some reason, but want a family name that
you can put on a little sign in front yard? Then you’ve got
some work to do.
The challenge of creating/ picking a name from whole cloth
is simple to outline: You want a name that is meaningful to
you in someway, without screaming pretentiously, “I picked
this myself, can’t you tell?!” For those comfortable
in the hippie cultural milieu, names like Treefrog and Wolfdancer
will be perfectly acceptable. But for those who dislike appropriating
Native American culture, don’t have a totem animal, or just
want a name that “sounds like a name” in whatever circles
they move in, the quest is that much trickier.
There are some tricks out there. Some people blend their existing
names—this has the feeling of hyphenation without any of its
administrative downsides. Leavitt and Rosenberg can become
Rosenlev. Conner and O’Donnell becomes O’Connell. But much
like hyphenation only more so, it’s only going to work if
your names are right for it.
For the historically minded, mining your family trees for
names that resonate with you, especially ones that died out,
can be a source of inspiration. If you find short ones, you
can even hyphenate one from each of your families.
Common interests or concepts that hold meaning for both of
you are perhaps the most common fertile ground. A minister
once told me of a couple she married who were very into Zen
meditation—they chose the name Bell. You can also combine
word roots or use words from other languages if there are
no English words that sound appropriate to what you want.
If you feel a connection to the place you live, you can also
consider terms from its history or associated with its geography—this
was one of the original ways last names came in to being (William
“from over by the stream,” Mary “of the green field”).
If you’re particularly interested in names that are already
names, skim genealogy websites or books—you may find a common
name has a meaning that resonates with you. A neat addition
is to seek out an older baby-names book—if you go back several
decades, many of the boys’ first names sound like last names
to today’s ears. (Well, at least to my ears.)
Run each possibility through a few tests: How does it sound
with your first names? Is it easily misspelled? Does it have
a less-pleasant meaning you haven’t thought of? How will you
feel explaining your choice to 50-gazillion people at your
wedding reception? Will you have to explain it every time
someone hears it, and will you care? If it has a meaning in
a language or culture that isn’t yours, how would you feel
telling someone of that culture that you’d chosen it for your
name? And, of course, the age old: Will your children hate
you for it . . . and will you care?
Allow as much time as you possibly can for this process—you
may settle on the perfect name immediately, but you probably
won’t, and you’ll want to give yourselves the chance to stumble
over something in daily life that you wouldn’t have come up
with with pen in hand and a brainstorm list in front of you.
In any case, don’t leave this choice until a week before the
wedding day. You’re going to spend at least as much time with
your name as with your spouse. Make sure you’re comfortable
with the company.