I read something interesting this weekend: Women keeping their maiden names is on the rise. A new report by the New York Times‘ Upshot Blog indicates that 30% of women nowadays, are keeping their maiden names after they get married. This is a big increase from the 14% of the ’80s, or the 18% of the ’90s. All of this made me think of my own decision to keep my last name.
I hated my last name growing up. Steinkellner was clunky and unwieldy, constantly being misspelled and mispronounced, and I thought it made me sound like a cross between a German Halloween monster and a Bavarian cyborg. I daydreamed about changing my last name when I turned 18. I went through my family tree on both sides and picked out possible alternatives from both sides. I could go with my paternal grandmother’s Irish maiden name and be Kit McCanna. Or I could go off of my maternal great-great grandparents and be Katherine Dubois.. Yes, Katherine Dubois sounded like I wrote romance novels with ESPECIALLY gross sex scenes and Kit McCanna sounded like I was a character from Oregon Trail who died of something lame like a snake bite before ever making it to Chimney Rock, but both these alternatives were preferable to Kit Steinkellner, which made me sound like I had metal bolts sticking out of my neck. By hook or by crook, once I was a legal adult I would get myself a better last name.
Then I turned 18 and changing my name just because I had become a legal adult all of a sudden felt aggressive and melodramatic. How would I explain to my family that I was changing my last name because…. I didn’t really like it? I often use the litmus test of “How stupid will I sound later explaining this decision?” And I felt like I would just sound like the dumbest of people telling people I changed my last name because the one I was born with wasn’t “pretty enough” or whatever.
So I came up with a new plan. I would change my last name when I got married. I couldn’t POSSIBLY find a lifemate with a more clunky and unwieldy and difficult-to-spell-and-pronounce last name than my own. And no one would blink an eye if I changed my last name because of marriage, most people would be EXPECTING me to do that. So that was the new plan and I was sticking to it.
I got married almost a year ago now. I still remember about this time last year waiting in the hundred-year-long line you have to wait in to fill out your marriage license with a government person and when we finally got to the front of the line and filled out the form there was a space where you could put what you were changing your last name to, AKA what name would now appear on your driver’s license/tax forms/Facebook page/et all. I wrote Steinkellner in that space because I had decided after years of vowing to change it that I was keeping my last name.
My now-husband’s surname is Aspell, a simple and straightforward Anglo-Saxon last name, the kind of name I dreamed would follow my first as a little girl. The problem was, I wasn’t a little girl. I had carried my last name through two and a half decades of my life and had grown attached to it. It was who I was. My last name had carried me through so many good times and bad times, so much success and failure, so many lessons learned. We shared too much history, my surname and I, and too much of that history was good history. Even if I thought other last names were prettier and easier, they wouldn’t feel like mine. And if I gave up Steinkellner, I wouldn’t share a last name with my mom, dad, brother, and sister. I think the thought of this broke my heart most of all. I get the symbolic awesomeness of sharing a last name with your husband, but I share lots of symbolic awesomeness with my husband, and I couldn’t bear to part with sharing this particular symbolic awesomeness with my family.
When I was younger, I thought growing up meant becoming this more glamorous and awesome version of yourself, discarding everything that was awkward and weird about you so you could make room for all the fancy-pants grownupness to come. I had things a little backwards. Growing up, as I understand it now, is about discovering how so many of those awkward and weird things actually ARE glamorous and awesome. The things you were most ashamed of have the potential to transform into the things you are most proud of. It’s the magic trick of becoming yourself.