Sitting in our marriage consultation in the City Hall, the registrar looked at my partner and, winking, quipped, 'now, I assume you are taking her name.' My partner nodded and said, 'yes I am.' There was a pause as the joke withered mid-air and floated to the ground. The registrar looked at me. 'Oh, right. That's usually a joke, but obviously … not.' He scribbled something on his page and then glanced up one more time, as if to confirm. 'So you are actually taking her name.'
The only thing I have ever really thought about, when it comes to marriage, is that should I ever get married, I will keep my name. My reasons are simple – it's my name, I feel quite closely connected to it, and I'd like to keep it. Some women think like me, some don't – in fact, most of the women I know who are married have taken their husbands' names – and that's just the way it goes. To be honest, I never gave a lot of thought to getting married because it wasn't particularly a priority, nor something I felt strongly about either way. I never foresaw actually implementing the keeping of my own name within a marriage.
Of course, now I am getting married. And I am still quite certain that I am going to keep my name. Fortunately for me and my wild ways of thinking, my husband-to-be is completely on board. And not just completely on board in the manner of, 'yes, you keep your name, I'll keep mine', completely on board in the same manner that is entirely expected of women. He wants us and our future children to have one family name, he knows I feel strongly about keeping mine, he is willing to take mine on, and that's that. Easy.
Sort of. Since his confirmation that he is not only more than happy to, but is absolutely, taking my name, there have been a series of reactions from various people, none surprising and none actually negative at all. The most deliriously happy of all, was my Grandfather. He celebrated the addition of a new male to the family name, after noting, deliciously ironically, that the longevity of one's name is always an issue in a family of so many girls (don't worry Pa, I'm on it). My ever-supportive mother, who kept her own surname professionally while married, was chiefly concerned it would impede future family tree research, and then asked me to ask him, several times, if he was absolutely sure what he was doing, and if he was absolutely sure he wouldn't regret it. To my girlfriends, who expressed both surprise and awe, not only that it was happening, but that it had happened with seemingly so little discussion, he has become a poster boy of male progression. One friend of mine has been locked in a battle over the surname issue with her boyfriend of six years for what feels like forever, and begged me to tell her what I did to change my partner's mind. And she isn't the only one who has asked me what I did to make him change. I didn't do anything. He wants to take my name, he wants my family name to be our family name. But I began to feel like perhaps I had done something to lure, or force him into thinking like I think, like I had trapped him in a socially progressive, feminist decision he didn't want to make.
Indeed, among the the surprise, the 'is he sure?' ad nauseam, the high fives, Pa's delirium, the 'oh my God, that's amazing, my boyfriend would never agree to that', only one reaction has actually surprised me; my own. Having been, for as long as I could remember ever having an opinion on the issue, so steadfast and unchanging in my desire to retain my name, faced with my future husband saying, 'I'll take yours', I suddenly went a little wobbly.
Wobbly and then weirdly guilty. I felt like I was disrupting something big, causing needless trouble. I felt his Dad would be disappointed, I felt people would assume I was making a silly little stand and dragging my poor partner along with me, a notion that in itself that completely removes any decision-making ability and critical thinking from my extremely intelligent partner. I asked him, repeatedly, if he was sure. If he 'knew what he was doing.' Each time I did, he would look at me strangely, as if asking a question like that was ridiculous. Of course he knew what he was doing; he was taking my name, so when our daughter was born, we would all have the same one. He had thought about it long and hard, we had discussed it. He had even set up a new email account. But are you sure, I asked, over and over again.
After a while, though, I reminded myself of something; he is just doing what women have been doing for a long, long time. He is just doing what every single female I know (bar one or two) who are married, have done. He is just doing what everyone assumed I would do, and I cannot imagine, were my answer to be 'yes', anyone following up their, 'and I am guessing you're taking his name' with 'but are you sure you want to do it? Are you sure you won't regret it?' Because there is no assumption of regret when a woman gives up her surname and takes on that of her husband's. If anything, it is a celebratory moment, highly significant, something that marks, like the father walking his daughter down the aisle, the passing from one family to another. For many, that moment of putting 'Mrs' in front of a social media moniker, or the name change on Facebook, is an almost triumphant one.
I understand that there are reasons for giving up a name that go beyond simple social expectation. A lot of women say they don't like their name, or feel no connection to it, or resent its connection to an absent or disliked parent. Many women simply don't care either way, and it's the easier, done thing to take their husbands'. Some women care a little bit, but when it comes to the discussion with their husband-to-be, it becomes apparent he cares more. Some women like the tradition, or the symbolism, and each to their own. I also understand that to many women, it simply isn't a big deal.
And it isn't a big deal to my partner, either. The other day, someone – a woman – celebrated his decision afresh. Later that night, when we were talking about it, I asked him how he felt about people's reactions. He said, 'I feel like a hero and I am not sure what I have done.'