There are a thousand reasons why being married is a wonderful, joyous thing—namely agreeing with another human being that you want to spend forever together. There are also downsides, like negotiating family dynamics and deciding who is going to cook dinner. And right in-between the glorious and the difficult are the weird little things that happen, the things that make you sit up and think about the history and societal expectations of marriage.
For me, nothing is a better example of this than the question, “Did you take your husband’s last name?” Or the abbreviated version, “Did you take his name?” a question that elevates the word “his” to deity-like levels. And, lo, woman shall take His name.
For many women, the answer to this question is “Yes” and I don’t know what sort of reactions they get. I went with the answer of “No” and the responses I have heard are interesting. I’ve been given surprised, almost-shocked, sometimes pained, looks. I had someone once ask me if that was legal. Most of the time though, I see people, men and women alike, fight off a flash of bewilderment and ask, “Why?”
It’s an interesting question because it insinuates that I must have some Big Reason for it. As if I must be the last in an extinct genealogy of names. At first, I’d get defensive about this question and would try to come up with a Big Reason. My great, great grandfather brought the name over from Europe on a boat that sank in the middle of the Atlantic. He was the sole survivor! (None of that is true.) Over time, however, I realized that no one is asking “Why?” to call me out, no one expects an epic monologue about my family history. I think I get the question “Why?” because people are curious, because it’s still the road less taken.
And so, I wanted to put on paper the reasons why I kept my last name—not because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s a thing to choose to do. There are good reasons for any choice a couple makes when it comes to a family name. And yet, it still seems to be a foregone conclusion that a woman will take her husband’s last name. But it shouldn’t be like that. It should be a conversation, a hashing out of what family means and, more than anything, a choice that women make without the burden of assumption.
So to join the conversation, here are my reasons, the things that helped me make my decision, the answers I give to the “Why” question:
“My last name gave me emotional baggage.”
Look, my last name is “Dooseman.” Clearly teasing came with it. From “Duck Duck Goose” turning into “Duck Duck Doose” in elementary school to being called Douche-man by dudes in high school to all the things you can imagine with the term “Dropping a deuce.” I’ve hated (I mean, hated, hated, hated) my name at certain points in my life and have wished more than anything that I had a name that was cooler and prettier and more feminine. Preferably French.
So this might seem like a reason that I would have dropped my last name when I got married. But it’s the odd scars from childhood that shape a certain part of who we are. For every time I was the “Doose” to a “Duck Duck,” I learned to laugh at myself. For every time I was called “Douche-man,” I made a mental note that some dudes are not very funny. For every time my name was slotted into “Dropping a deuce,” I realized that gross humor is super hilarious. In other words, having a wacky last name gave me a wacky sense of humor. It knocked most of the precious out of me and gave me something close to home to laugh at. Why would I get rid of that? That’s something to celebrate.
“I didn’t ask my husband to take my last name.”
This response always gets an eyebrow raise, like, “Yes, well, of course. Why would you even think of asking him to do that?” And that’s exactly the point. Why should he take my last name? And why should I take his? It’s the same question—except for one gender it’s expected and for another it seems ridiculous. So, there’s that.
“It’s the name I learned to write as a kid.”
I give this answer as an emotional sucker-punch. Alternate versions include: it’s the name on my college diploma; it’s the name that appeared on my first driver’s license; it’s the name I learned to recite in case I was in trouble. All of this is a shorthand way to say, I have an emotional history with my name and it’s not something simple to leave behind.
“I have amazing nicknames.”
Case in point: The Doose, Doosie, Dooser and Doosie Doo.
Now, this response is kind of a joke, but also kind of not. I mean, those nicknames are badass and they would lose their punch if “Dooseman” wasn’t my last name. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good nickname.
“Kids will figure it out.”
This answer is mainly used as a way to thwart a response I sometimes receive in these conversations, “Won’t that confuse your children?” That’s a funny question to me because I believe that, like choosing a last name, having children is a decision to be made and no one should blindly assume a woman is planning on it.
But, I digress. . .
The truth is, the main thing that unites a family isn’t a last name. Love, values, shared memories—these are the things that bond us together. I’m not concerned that having two last names is somehow going to mess with a child’s inherent understanding of love. Also, children learn their parents’ names as “Mom” and “Dad.” So, by the time they learn our proper names, I’m pretty sure they’re going to understand we’re a family.
“My husband and I decided what worked best for us.”
I say this to show that both spouses play a big role in the decision. I think people sometimes assume that I forced my husband to be cool with my choice. I’ve gotten follow-up questions of “Oh, was he okay with that?” And the answer to this is an unequivocal, “Yes.” We talked about it and when I said that I would keep “Dooseman,” his response was something along the lines of, “Cool.” He didn’t try to pressure, guilt or convince me. He just went into the conversation understanding that it was a choice to be made.
When I tell people that’s how our conversation went, I see them loosen up a bit. They realize that it’s not a chip on my husband’s shoulder, that I didn’t slip a vial of liquid feminism in his coffee. I think the hard thing is for men and women to approach that conversation without the expectation of what should be done. I’ve heard women say, “My husband never would be cool with that.” But it shouldn’t be a matter of men being cool with that—it’s a matter of both people coming up with an answer that they feel good about, that they choose to live with the rest of their lives. The time has come to drop the expectation of what a family name is and to decide what works best for you as a family.
“The year is 2015.”
Now I don’t want to get on tooooooo high a soapbox here, but. . .
Women are not bound by tradition. Women are not required to participate in ritual. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it must be done like that forever. The year is 2015. Women are presidents. Women are chefs. Women are scientists. Women are comedians. Women are intellectuals. Women are CEOs. Women are equal to men—and, thus, they deserve the same choice as men when it comes to deciding a family name.
“It’s my name.”
This is the answer I give the most often. I didn’t take my husband’s last name because I already had a last name. I’ve had successes with it and I’ve had failures. I’ve seen it in print. I’ve heard it mispronounced. It’s made me complicated. It’s made me silly. I want to achieve big things with it. I want to publish a novel with it. I had it on Day One and I want to have it on Day The End.
And as I write this, I’m realizing that maybe that is the Big Reason. Maybe “It’s my name” is, actually, a huge reason. It’s part of my identity—and, for me, there is no reason bigger than that.