On Keeping My Last Name

BY MEG THOMPSON

Before she was married, Lindsey used to dream about changing her name, signing Lindsey X on the letters she wrote. When she married, she dropped her last name and took on her new identity with a Jackie O-like grace. Now, she could finally get started on being someone else. Her birth name had been a weight, a reminder, hitched to her.    

She handed me a pen and a piece of paper. “Here,” she said. “Write out your new last name so I’ll know how to spell it.”       

“I didn’t change it,” I told her, my best friend for 14 years. How do I explain that I never even considered it? That it was never on the table? That if Todd had asked me to I would have felt like he didn’t know me?

“Come on,” she said. “Don’t be difficult.”

As a child I went through a brief phase where I insisted I be called by my full name, Megan Kae Thompson, and I wouldn’t answer otherwise. I love my name, all of it, and I always have.


I’m usually met with blank stares, a slow series of nods, maybe a vague sentence, like, “I heard of another woman who did that...”


Recently, after filling out some paperwork, Todd and I waved good-bye to the men at the license bureau.

“Thank you,” we chimed, and walked out the door.
“You’ll have to come back, though,” one of them called out to me.
“Why?”
“When you change your name.”

I nodded, smiled, and left. 

Recently as well, a young woman who serves with Todd at Chili’s told him she wants to register for my comp class in the Spring. When she told him she couldn’t find me online, Todd, also used to it, told her we have different last names. “Oh,” she said. “So when is she going to change it?”

Married for three years, I have lost count how many times people have mentioned this change I'm not planning on making.


Years ago, in a rare moment of honesty and self-expression, my mother told me that she wished she had never changed her name.


The poet Bob Hicok said that you shouldn’t tell people you write poetry because it’s similar to saying, “I have eczema.” People don’t know how to respond, which is why I don’t often tell people that I plan on keeping my name, as it is, forever. I’m usually met with blank stares, a slow series of nods, maybe a vague sentence, like, “I heard of another woman who did that...”

I have never felt like I fit in. I know everyone says that, like beautiful women who want to sound down-to-earth, but I really never have. I thought when I got married it would get better. "See," I would say, "I did something normal. I took part in the institution of marriage."

A 2009 survey out of Indiana University showed that 71 percent of respondents believed a woman should change her name. Half thought that the practice should be legally required. I wasn’t surprised to find out how few women keep their name today (8 percent) but I was surprised that this number has been in steady decline since the movement popularized in the 1970s. It peaked in the 90s at 23 percent. In the early 2000s, it was 18 percent.

Some theorize this is due to a renewed appreciation for romance. I predict the number will continue to go down, and I blame Sarah Palin almost entirely.


I imagine them sitting in their gowns in front of a glowing screen, deleting part of who they used to be. I feel a twinge every time, a fluttering feeling of guilt in the middle of my chest. The guilt comes from judging them for making a personal choice. True feminism, after all, should involve choices, shouldn’t it?


Years ago, in a rare moment of honesty and self-expression, my mother told me that she wished she had never changed her name. I tried to control my surprise. Born in 1950, she wasn’t even allowed to run the full court when she played high school basketball. I’m not sure if she could open a credit card in her name, let alone keep it when she married in 1972.

I don’t know how my mother ended up raising four feminists. She yearns for grandchildren, of which she currently has none. A beguiling blend of strict adherence to gender roles and also adamant dismissal of them, she does every bit of cleaning and cooking in her house, yet also wrestles sheep to the ground. I’ve never even seen our dad make anything except coffee, and I don’t think he knows the difference between the washer and the dryer. If I saw him pick up a broom, I’d wonder if he’d had an undiagnosed stroke. She controls all the finances and my dad has to ask her to write checks for him. I’m pretty certain he only has a wallet so he can go to McDonald’s on his own. When I was 17, I told her I was going to prom with a group of friends. She rolled her eyes. “Does this mean we have to buy a dress?” she asked. Little tolerance for emotion, I’ve never seen her cry. If she ever has, she’s destroyed the evidence before anyone finds it.


If Todd and I make it that far, will it matter who has what last name?


Maybe, as Lindsey pointed out, I am just being difficult. However, people are adapting. Now, when Todd’s grandma Jean sends us mail, she writes:

Todd + Meg
“Family”

on the pale yellow envelopes she uses for cards. I hate to think of her, sitting at her kitchen table, halting her perfect, school house cursive because she doesn’t know how to title us. At 90 years old, this is her telling me that she cares, that she is trying.

Jean’s husband, Raymond, is dying. It is a death not only slow, but cruel, as his mind withers in strange, nightmarish bursts. He keeps a stack of high school yearbooks by his chair so he can flip through them after he reads the obits in the daily paper, reminding himself if he knew anyone who died. Jean, on the other hand, still mows her own lawn, bowls with her league on a weekly basis, and makes noodles from scratch. She is the one who is in control, from deciding how much chocolate Raymond can have to putting alarms on the doors when he started walking around, hallucinating, at night.

If Todd and I make it that far, will it matter who has what last name? What if you don’t even remember it? A couple that went to school with Jean and Raymond is going through a similar situation, except in their case it is the woman with Alzheimer’s. One day she looked up at her husband and asked “Who am I?” Jean told us that the husband was very calm, that he just held her hands and said her name. 


Some people said they wanted to have the same last name as their children, they wanted to be a little pack, a unit. I liked that phrase, and understood the desire. Todd and I will never be able to have one of those stones with our shared name etched into it, resting in the mulch.


Whenever a slew of wedding pictures pop up on my Facebook newsfeed, I wait and see how long before that old last name gets sloughed off. Amazed how quickly some of my female friends make the change, I imagine them sitting in their gowns in front of a glowing screen, deleting part of who they used to be. I feel a twinge every time, a fluttering feeling of guilt in the middle of my chest. The guilt comes from judging them for making a personal choice. True feminism, after all, should involve choices, shouldn’t it?

I performed an informal Facebook poll asking for opinions regarding the name changing process. Some people said they wanted to have the same last name as their children, they wanted to be a little pack, a unit. I liked that phrase, and understood the desire. Todd and I will never be able to have one of those stones with our shared name etched into it, resting in the mulch. Others said their husband’s name was easier to pronounce, spell, or held a more desirable location in the alphabet.

No one said, though, that they just wanted to do it, or that they liked the romance of it. No one said it made them feel warm and happy and loved. No one said it made them feel owned, and maybe ownership isn’t all that bad, because with it comes protection, not having to worry anymore. No one said they felt like they had accomplished something, or, perhaps, won. I know there are women who think like this. I am sure of it, and that’s because sometimes I catch myself thinking like that. There is a smugness to married women, different from that of married men, and Facebook is making it worse. When they get engaged, the sequence is as follows:

            1.) A disembodied hand photograph, fingers spread as if prepping for a game of stabscotch, sporting an engagement ring.

            2.) Photograph of the couple kissing in an orchard holding a faux-antique wooden sign that reads either She said yes! or Happily ever after starts here.

            3.) A series of status updates about finding a caterer, photographer, DJ, etc., designed to appear elegantly frazzled, though the subtext is clear: I’m getting married, bitches.


When we first got married, we would get mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Todd Warhola.” Not only did everyone assume I was now an official Warhola, I apparently changed my first name as well. This is what I cannot handle: the idea of myself disappearing, being absorbed, like a glass of water left in the sun.


I admire the women who don’t care, the ones who focus on bigger issues, pointing out that marriage, overall, has evolved over the years. Taking your husband’s name doesn’t mean the same as it once did; it's not about becoming a man's property so much anymore. The institution of marriage goes back a long time, and it wasn’t until recent years that a focus on equality entered the conversation about marriage. For most of human history, marriage wasn’t about love so much as land or business. 

Todd thinks every part of this debate is stupid, and in a way, I agree with him. When it comes down to it, it’s just a name. What does it really matter if I change it or not? A post-modernist to the core, Todd believes that names and words don’t have meaning, but that’s not really the issue. When we first got married, we would get mail addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Todd Warhola.” Not only did everyone assume I was now an official Warhola, I apparently changed my first name as well. This is what I cannot handle: the idea of myself disappearing, being absorbed, like a glass of water left in the sun.