Monday, February 4, 2013

just call me "stands with a book"

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?"

Probably. 

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!

16 comments:

  1. "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."

    Maybe not. Maybe this is the opportunity to say "When I was at this point in my life, I didn't know I had this choice...but you do. I just want you to know that you don't have to compromise. You don't have to make the choices I made, you can forge your own path. And I will be here to cheer you on." Sometimes I think we parents short change ourselves and forget that owning up to our own shortcomings and admitting that we could have done it better is one of the best lessons we can teach our kids!

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    1. it's true. we don't have to be perfect. :)

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  2. We decided to give our daughter both my husband and my surnames, no hyphen. I kept my birth surname and so did my husband... We decided to wait until we had kids to make the decision for their names. We're leaving it on their plate to decide what to do with their names when they are adults, as we did. It is kind of freeing in that regard, to trust that we'll teach our kids to figure their own way like we did.

    I should note that I am 26 and married only three and a half years, so the generational context is different.

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    1. Hi Christine, thanks for coming by, and for commenting. It sounds like you have a good plan!

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  3. We decided, our daughter doesn't belong to us, just like I don't belong to him. We are each individuals. We care less about an identity that comes from a name, than the individual freedom. Recognizing the possessiveness of the current tradition, we just decided to gift our daughter with her own name (our last names are her middle name). The roles of the patriarchy are changing, woot!

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    1. Woot is right! :) Love your way of thinking about it!

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  4. I don't understand the hesitation around hyphenation. it's okay, really. Some people that I know have decided to use one or the other, some have kept both. And you know what-I have seen two hyphen names marry each other and work out what to do like grown ups. Your name is up to you, but I really really wish we would stop treating that as a non-starter. For real-You can use it, and people will learn it and your kids won't hate you.

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    1. I think that is exactly the point, right? - that hyphenation (or anything else) shouldn't be a nonstarter. we can think creatively and come up with our own solutions. for many people, that will be hyphenation, but for those who don't like that option, we can continue to invent outside the box - asking ourselves why we need family names (or don't).

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  5. I have a friend who combined her and her husbands name MacDonald +Ramos became MacRamos. It is a Ernest way to show that not only do families compromise all parents, but multiple ethnicities! Their 2 kids have started a new family line, fully a part of both families and unique in their own name!

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    1. love that option! We actually talked about that (to create "Werton" out of Werrlein and Tonkin) but it was after the fact, so the paperwork aspect seemed too much of a hassle after already having changed my name the year before. Very cool to hear of someone else doing it.

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  6. I find this to be an important topic of discussion and one that I know I will want to have with my future children (especially daughters). I wanted to throw my narrative out into the ring and explain why I, even as a self-identified progressive feminist, changed my last name to my partner's when we got "domestically partnered." I loved my last name and its uniqueness, and as a young adult I never intended to change it. But as I began the long process of emotionally recovery from a childhood of abuse and neglect, I changed my last name as a way to create boundaries and space from harmful family members. And in taking my partner's name, it felt wonderful and strengthening to create what felt like a new family unit with people who truly supported me and loved me unconditionally.

    All that is to say, I absolutely respect the thoughts and decisions of the people who have already commented. I hope my future children know that they also understand the history of heterosexual marriage, and that they have a choice, for whatever reason, to change their names.

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    1. thank you so much for sharing your story. I think it adds some very important nuance to this discussion - showing how some people might take their partner's name as a way of creating identity and/or asserting self. just goes to show, we all have our own story and require the autonomy to make our own choices.

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  7. I have been thinking about this as a person who kept her name and now regrets not having one single family name. Our sons have my last name and use their father's last name as a middle name. All the reasons don't seem all that important now. I just wish we could have a sign on the door that said "The Smiths" and have it include all of us.

    As a younger person it felt impossible to think of changing my name and "give up my identity". Now I feel like my family is my strongest identifier but I've kept part of it at arms length.

    We all have to figure out what makes sense for our relationships and not worry so much about the history. If we based our decisions on history, no woman in her right mind would ever get married or have children at all. We're all paving new roads. They'll be good ones if they're built for us and not other people.

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    1. Hi Eltee,
      I have been so interested to see all of the different responses to this post! It's such a personal thing. I also think it's interesting that you and I made opposite choices and both ended up with some regrets. I wonder how we would each feel if we'd made the opposite choice! You are so right that we are all paving a new path--and it's complicated. I do have to say that for me, knowing the history is part of my own process in doing that, but I can understand that might not be helpful for everyone. thanks for coming by! :)

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  8. Wow, Deb, "Stands With A Book", spectacular article and wonderful responses, personal experiences and options. Just found it through a link I believe from Feministe. Will bookmark and follow for more of same thoughtful and creative writing. (I hope)

    Now 72, I kept my birth name, when I married because 1) I loved it, his was too long and cumbersome, and 2) some inkling of feminism within me, though the word didn't exist for me at that time (the horror of mis-education, though supposedly a "good" one). Growing up with alcohol parents, it was an alone time at home, and I was not lonely, having my pals, "my books", and I also rarely was seen without a book in hand, still to this day, several out and reading at all times. Love "Stands With A Book", so clever and creative.

    Appears I am not able to comment with a "name".....very old laptop and browser, incapable of upgrading.....don't like to post anonymously, but wanted to say how much I loved this blog and will continue reading.

    I did change officially change/start using my husband's name after 6 years of marriage, when the VA would not approve a home loan using my birth name, even though we had a legal marriage license.....Changed it back to birth name years later, though advised it would hurt my kids (they thought it was fine and no harm done according to them).

    "Times, they are a changin", thank goodness, and when I got my first Ms. Magazine, years later, finally, validation, that I was not as practically everyone I knew/worked with thought I was, a lot crazy.....twas them, not me, in my mind.....Now, I know, nothing to do with "crazy", just that we had different experiences, understandings, analysis of our world and his/herstory, and our paths in life.

    So glad to see great an expressive, positive, informative and personal story in this article on "naming", and comments with different stories, without name-calling, demeaning, degrading, personal attacks on anyone who has different experiences, opinions, options, paths. That is real progress in my book. Thanks to you, "Stands With A Book" and all commenters.

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    1. Thank you so much for your nice comments. Your story is fascinating - the way you encountered institutional pressure to take your husband's name. A friend of mine, also in VA years ago, marveled after her divorce about how easy it was to change her name when she got married but how hard it was to change it back after they divorced. I'm glad it all seems to have worked itself out for you!

      You are right about the commenters. I have been very lucky so far to have such positive commenters. I appreciate that so much! :)

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