Why I Refused to Change My Name When I Got Married

From Redbook

On my wedding day, my new father-in-law offered an emotional toast that ended with a little joke: "No matter what last name she uses, we're so happy to call Sharon a member of our family."

The remark made the crowd whoop and applaud. Word had spread that I wouldn't be changing my name.

"But how will anyone know you're married?" my stepmother had asked at the rehearsal dinner.

"I'll tell them," I answered. "Or they can just check out my ring."

I couldn't believe that my stepmother–or anybody else who knew me–would expect me to go the traditional route. After all, I was 34-year-old feminist with an independent streak. Sure, the idea of accepting my husband's name held some fleeting romantic appeal, and there were definite practical advantages to losing a last name that nobody could understand or spell on the first try (Van Epps), but I knew that if I changed my name, I just wouldn't feel like me anymore.

Thankfully, John, my husband-to-be, understood. When I broke the news to him, he just shrugged.

"I figured," he said. John's nonchalance was just one more sign that I'd found the perfect man for me. I didn't even have to explain the deeper emotions driving my decision.

I'd been born into turmoil. My parents' marriage was already over when my mother found out she was pregnant, and on the day I was born, my father was 2,000 miles away making a fresh start. He and my mother had wounded each other too deeply to contemplate co-parenting, which wasn't even a concept at the time; the world expected less of fathers back then, and offered them little support. My mother was left to juggle baby care on her own, with substantial help from her parents. My father remarried, and kept in sporadic touch.

Shortly after my third birthday, my paternal grandfather drove his Cadillac from New York to Arizona to see me. I don't know if the visit was his idea of if my mother's parents invited him–all I know is that my maternal grandparents welcomed him into their home, and my mother made herself scarce. Before that day, I'd never even met my father or anyone from his side of the family.

"What's your name?" I asked this strange man.

"George Van Epps," he said.

"My name is Van Epps too," I replied.

From that moment on, George Van Epps was Grandpa and my best buddy. He made sure that I felt proud of, and entitled to, my ancestry. He traced the Van Epps line back to the 1620s and secured my membership in the Dutch Settlers of Albany Society. He returned to Arizona each winter after that with his wife, my grandmother, in tow, and arranged for me visit New York every summer.

Grandpa dragged me along to steak and martini lunches with his business cronies, explaining, "If your name is Van Epps, you eat your steak rare." He threw huge Van Epps family reunions in his backyard during my annual visits so that I could get to know all my great uncles and second cousins. Most importantly, my grandfather worked to build a bridge between my father and me, helping us forge a relationship.

My grandfather died when I was 12, a loss I still feel, but at least by the time of his death I'd been firmly established as a member of his family. My visits east soon revolved around my dad, my stepmom, and their children, my little brother and sister. I loved my father, but it was my grandfather who'd given me my name, and my grandfather's name that I chose to keep.

The day John and I got married, I placed my grandfather's Bible on the altar, along with a letter from my mother, who'd also passed years before. I'd never had a Hallmark Card kind of family. I'd never allowed myself to indulge in dreams of a perfect wedding day, and yet, somehow my undreamed dreams came true.

John and I exchanged our vows in a garden under a sunny sky. There I stood, a feminist in a fluffy white dress–a child of divorce, a girl with a broken and blended past–surrounded by family old and new, past and present. In that moment, I felt all of these dear ones lifting John and me, holding us up to the light, sending us forth. In that moment, names didn't matter. We were now husband and wife, and in that moment, there was only one name for what I felt: Love.