Even as a teenager, I resented the idea that, in our culture, a woman traditionally takes their husband's name when she gets married. Really, I had no intention of letting that happen.
So why did I do it?
A number of reasons, I think. It helped that Steve didn't expect me to change my name for traditional reasons; he just hoped I would for practical reasons. Neither of us wanted our names to differ from the rest of the family, and neither of us was keen to chew on the mouthful "Tonkin-Werrlein" for the rest of our lives. And if we both kept our names, what would we call our children?
Sure, I could have asked Steve to change his name, but he'd already compromised on the kids' religious upbringing. Since he'd agreed to let his Catholicism go, it seemed fair that if anyone let their name go, it should be me.
Also, Steve's father had been given his name by someone who took him in as a child. I could feel the pressure to carry on the Werrlein name as a tribute to that person because, wouldn't you know it, Steve was the sole remaining male heir.
It all seemed very reasonable to me in the planning.
When it came time to actually do it, however, changing my name felt much weirder than I expected. While happily married, the idea that I should suddenly answer to "Mrs. Werrlein" affronted me. The sound of it felt like a complete erasure of my original identity. Years later, I would revel in the fact that earning a Ph.D. confused the older generation who insisted on writing "Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Werrlein" on our Christmas cards. I suggested "Dr. and Mr. Debra Werrlein" but that didn't really fly with anyone except Steve, who thought it was sort of cool.
After a year of reminding people to call me "Deb" rather than "Mrs.," Steve and I went to a large Werrlein family reunion where we discovered a previously unknown family of Werrleins: with FOUR boys!
So much for my having martyred myself to save the family line! Remember Kerri Strug? In 1996, she vaulted on a broken ankle to win Olympic gold for a team that would have secured one anyway. Likewise, I had fallen on my sword to save a family that didn't need saving.
Even more disconcerting, however, when I told one of the older aunties at the reunion that I was working on my master's degree in English, she responded good naturedly, "Ah, well that doesn't surprise me. The Werrleins have always been big readers." Ugh. Since teaching myself to read in kindergarten, I'd never gone anywhere without a book. Reading was my thing. Other people had Izod sweaters or belly button rings or purple hair. I had books.
That was the moment when I knew I'd made a mistake. I was not really a Werrlein, but by then, I didn't know if I was a Tonkin any more either. The experience of changing my name had shown me that my birth name was simply my father's name (the name my mother had adopted), and her birth name was simply her father's name (the name my grandmother had adopted). As a woman, I felt suddenly nameless, adrift in a sea of patriarchal tradition that sought to drown out my identity by design.
What was I to do? Eschew all previous names and call myself "Stands With a Book?" Or perhaps "Confused About Names?"
To truly solve my problem, I needed a radical change (change that completely dismantles the old system and invents something new) instead of reform (change made within the structure of an existing system or framework). Strategies like hyphenating names, or having one parent's name differ from the kids' felt unfair and cumbersome to Steve and I (think hyphenation in the second or third generation) because we were trying to change the patriarchal surname into something equitable when patriarchy is, by definition, inequitable. I got muddled in this confusion and lost my way. I thought I could change my name without engaging the history of why marriage asked me to do so, but I could tell by how it made me feel when I did it, that I was wrong.
The institution of marriage originally served as a way of uniting families for political and economic purposes. The woman was simply the line thrown from one ship to another to tie them together. By trading her, the families transformed the burden (daughter) of one family's father into the property (wife) of another family's husband. The woman's name changed accordingly. Marital ownership of women, together with the patriarchal surname, allowed a man to create future generations of heirs while also allowing him to trace the transfer of his property through those generations.
If we want to think of marriage as a mutually beneficial partnership instead of as an institution designed to facilitate a man's wealth and power, then we need a language of partnership, not patriarchy. We've made strides in this area. Many have substituted "Ms." for "Mrs." or "Miss," titles which indicate a woman's sexual status as well as her availability for trade. Others have substituted "birth name" for "maiden name." Personally, I cringe at the use of "maiden." For me, it invokes words like "virgin," and "hymen" and "pure;" all of which speak "property" to me. It seems a minor thing, but language shapes our world, and vice versa.
I don't doubt we will continue to see changes in the language around marriage and naming now that gay marriage has gained so much acceptance. I'm also sure, however, that LGBT couples will not be the only ones breaking new ground. I have a friend who, after one marriage and divorce, decided not to change her name upon remarrying. This created difficulty when she and her new husband had a baby. After much deliberation, they agreed to move outside established traditions and give their daughter her own last name--a name they chose/invented together--a name that suits her, that came from her, and that belongs to her.
They looked to the child instead of to the father for a name. Does that seem crazy to you?
If we want to change a thing, we must be willing to experiment, take risks, and feel uncomfortable.
I so admire their courage, as well as their powers of negotiation (I think it took a lot of soul searching, and waiting, and listening for them to come to this agreement).
When I got married nearly twenty years ago, I hadn't yet considered all of this. I also didn't realize how uncomfortable my new name would be until I took it. My primary regret, however, is that I didn't set a different example for my kids. I think it's important they understand that the tradition of marriage originated as a means of trading in women. Love, and eventually partnership, came in time. These things have changed marriage and should change its tenets accordingly. Consequently, I hope my kids will see the traditions around marriage as in flux and subject to their invention.
Unfortunately, telling them all that after having changed my own name is like telling them, "you should never smoke, kid" while puffing away on a Camel Light.
Alas, perhaps I should just do it, and ask them to call me "Stands With A Book" after all!