If I could’ve run straight to the DMV from the altar at my wedding, I probably would have. I was that eager to change my name. I stood in line at the Social Security office, marriage certificate in hand, thrilled to prove my devotion to my new husband and my commitment to our future. I was now Mrs. Goldschneider, a title I’m still incredibly proud of 13 years later. But I’m not sure why I didn’t think I could be all those things — loyal partner, devoted wife — without giving up my name.
At my 20-year high school reunion, an old classmate started a conversation by asking if I used to be Jackie Mark. “Yes,” I replied. “Who were you?” I suddenly felt like the old me didn’t evolve, but had ended. The awkward teen hadn’t flourished into the woman I now was. The awkward teen was someone else, and I started over as a new person. I didn’t just change my name, I changed my identity.
I miss my old name, and it has nothing to do with my love for my husband, our four children, or being a wife. But sometimes I’m angry at how easily I gave up a name that represented my entire childhood — a name that connected me to my parents, grandparents, siblings, and all the people who knew me for 30 years before I became Evan’s wife. A name that I loved, and gave up without even giving myself a choice.
This isn’t about feminism. Though I pride myself on being a strong woman, I gladly gave up my career as an attorney to raise children, sit in car pool lines, and paint Easter eggs in my kids’ classrooms. I hit three supermarkets a day to find the right cereal and fold laundry like a rock star, all without any resentment. But those are decisions I made because I wanted to, and they felt right.
But giving up my name wasn’t something I truly chose. No one forced me to change my name, but I was conditioned to believe it’s something a wife just does — so her husband doesn’t feel slighted, and her kids don’t get confused — based on traditions that go against everything I believe in. Beyond proving my commitment, I was afraid to have a different last name than my future children, who, of course, would all be Goldschneiders.
According to family and marital psychotherapist Kimberly Agresta, co-founder of New Jersey’s Agresta Psychotherapy Group, throughout history, women were viewed as property, and were thereby given their father's surname until they were "given away" once they married. Women then took their husband's surname, since, as "property," they were transferred from father to husband. And even though those notions are outdated, the naming convention continues today. “Despite the fact that women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of American households, 80% of women willingly take their husband’s surname,” Agresta says.
Almost all of my friends took their husbands' names when they got married, and I didn’t want my husband to feel diminished by my not doing so. I worried how it would look if I kept my name, like I had one foot out the door, which, Agresta explains, is a common reason why women change their name. “But why is it the woman who is put in the position of having to change her name and give up her already established identity?" she says. "Why is it that if a woman keeps her name it somehow ‘weakens’ her husband, but when a man keeps his the reverse is not true?”
So what now? Over 13 years I’ve built a new life as Mrs. Goldschneider. I’m not changing my name back now. But I want my daughter to feel free to make a choice that I didn’t feel free to make, and to pause before giving up a name that has defined her entire pre-marital life, no matter what she ultimately chooses to do. How can I explain to her that your name has no bearing on your love for your partner or connection to your children? Agresta feels there’s no generalized way to counsel a woman about that, since such advice would be tailored to address where those concerns and fears stem from.
So I'll tell my daughter what I’ve learned on my own, over 11 years of being a mother: That love for your child has nothing to do with the name you sign on a document. It’s so far beyond any legal designations. You’ll still be Mommy, regardless of what the world calls you, and your kids will love you the same, no matter your surname.
I’ll tell her to marry someone who makes her feel empowered, and who’s secure enough to break tradition when it’s important to her. Looking back, I’m confident that my husband would’ve fully supported my decision to keep my name, if I’d had the guts to give myself that option.
And I’ll tell all my children to have the courage to at least consider all possibilities, to live life by their own terms, and to make sure that people know them as strong and brave, no matter what their name ends up being.
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