I got married—the first time—when I was a tender young whelp in grad school. I was very young. (And also very stupid, but that’s a topic for another post entirely.)
My advisor sat me down one day and asked me if I was planning to change my name. I was; I had no real attachment to my birth surname, and I knew I wanted to have children, and I wanted to have the same last name as my kids (it just seemed easier). To my surprise, my advisor counseled me (quite strongly) to reconsider. I’d already been published! I should keep my current name to avoid confusion! Not only that, he said, but if I changed my name I would regret it if I later got divorced, and that would make a real mess of my professional “paper trail” if I then decided to change back.
Like most of college professors, he was… smart, but a little odd. I remember laughing at him, because, Silly, I’m not going to get divorced! (Ah, youth!) I got married. I changed my name. Years passed. I had one child, then another. Everyone in our family had the same last name. Everything was fine.
And then we got divorced.
I didn’t change my name back; I felt like I’d lived my entire adult life with my (now)ex-husband’s last name, and I had a lot more on my mind than what name I was going by. It just didn’t seem important, right away.
My freelancing career began when I was a divorced, single mom to two young kids, living in a somewhat remote area. Had I put my legal name on the writing I was doing, I wouldn’t have been hard for any weirdo to locate. The idea creeped me out. So I made a decision to write under a family name which was not my legal name, although later I did incorporate my business under this name, so it’s perfectly legitimate in the legal sense. It is not, however, technically my name.
When the time came for my new husband and me to marry, he broached the name issue with some trepidation. He’s a liberated guy; he made it clear that while he would be very honored if I wanted to share his last name, he had no expectation that I would do so. It was just… you know… he would kind of rather I didn’t still have my ex-husband’s last name. Maybe I’d like to legally change my name to my writing name? Or back to my maiden name?
I thought about this one for a long time. Changing my name legally to my writing name presented the same issue I’d been concerned about years ago: namely, that anyone could look me up, which I’ll grant you is maybe a paranoid concern, but there you have it. Going back to my maiden name meant three different last names in one household, which just seemed complicated. Taking my new husband’s last name seemed like the simplest path, particularly because it didn’t change anything for me professionally; I continue to work under the same name, it’s just that I have a different name on my driver’s license.
Recently we went to a dinner party where there were a number of young women just embarking on their careers, and the conversation turned to buying Internet domains with your name. A few of the men present remarked that their names are so common, they’ve been unable to get the domain they wanted because someone else already owns it. A young woman with a very unusual name said something about how she could probably snag her name, but she’s probably going to get married soon and her boyfriend’s last name is a lot more common and she’ll probably change her name.
I surprised myself by piping up. “Don’t change your name,” I told her. She looked at me in surprise, and I thought about my long-ago advisor telling me not to change my name because I might get divorced. I remembered thinking he didn’t know anything. “Having a really unique name like you do is great for brand recognition,” I continued. “I mean, change your name if you want, for your personal stuff, but I would keep your name for your professional life. It’s really recognizable. Plus once you get married you have the advantage of being a little bit harder to stalk because your legal name is different.” We all had a laugh and she allowed as to how that had given her something to think about, and then the conversation moved on.
The patriarchal naming conventions in our society are an issue all their own, of course, but it pays to give some serious thought to 1) whether you’re comfortable being published under the same name that, say, appears on your mortgage, and 2) what’s important to you when it comes to sharing a surname with your family (and that means family of origin, a partner, and/or your kids). In my case, it was somewhat accidental and backwards, the way I ended up with a “writing name,” but it really suits the level of privacy I crave.
We’re always talking about personal branding, but I don’t see a lot of conversation about personal naming, particularly for women (who are often “expected” to change their names). How did or will you handle this? If you’re just starting out, is this something you’ve thought about?
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