Names and all that baggage

I started a new job in May. A few weeks after I started, a nice gentleman from the properties department stopped by and gave me a nameplate featuring my first name and my husband’s last name. And I kind of wigged out. It didn’t feel entirely reasonable; all my paperwork for the hiring and payroll etc. had featured exactly that name. And it is my legal name, if you’re going by first and last (I have three more in the middle). They didn’t do anything wrong.

It’s even more complicated, and comes up more often, in this particular work environment. My workplace is managed by a university, and I happen to have been a student at that university once upon a time — and long before my name change. So I have a record here, and a preexisting email address and login and payroll code etc., and all those things were just reactivated when I was hired. So in some places I’m my premarital self, and in others I’m my postmarital self.

What I’m not, in any of those situations, is what I have chosen to call myself.

I don’t make decisions easily, and changing my name wasn’t an exception. I grew up in the era of hyphenation, when many of my friends had last names too long to fit on standardized test forms. It was also an era in which divorce became normalized, so when someone’s mother had a different last name you never really knew if that was a feminist choice or a divorce thing. It seemed like an issue. It was a complication. And at the time of my marriage, we were still very undecided about having kids. But I knew that if I were to have children, I’d like to have the same last name they had. And I know that in our culture that’s nearly always the father’s name.

When we got married, my husband exhibited what I think is a very common lack of concern about this issue. As an American male, he grew up thinking of his name as a permanent thing. I think it’s a huge psychological difference, growing up wondering if you’ll change your name or never considering that an option, and that’s where the feminism comes in. I had that worry; he didn’t. He also had absolutely no need for me to change my name. He didn’t care. It wasn’t an issue on his radar.

And in fact, that was what bothered me the most: it seemed like this should be a family issue. I wanted our name to be a family name, something we both had, something that indicated our new tribe together. Something our kids, should they occur, would have too. I really felt most drawn to the very unusual idea of picking a new name for both of us. But my husband wasn’t interested. Again, he’d grown up never considering the flexibility of his name. It just wasn’t a thing. While he was willing to have some conversations, he wasn’t going to be doing anything too crazy.

So we ended up at the Social Security office, minutes away from the formal name-change meeting, and I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. My parents had gifted me with four names to begin with. Which one(s) did I want to eliminate? The patriarchal marker given to me by my father? The one preceding it, which was the patriarchal marker of my mother’s father? Or one of the two given names my parents had chosen for me with love? Whose name was least important? How could I make that decision? I was pretty close to a meltdown.

Finally I decided to make no decision. I just slapped one more name on the list. Four names is annoying; how much more annoying could five be? The Social Security guy kind of rolled his eyes at me, but he gave me a new card with five names on it.

You can’t go through the real world with five names, though. Try it. Every form you encounter ever has a blank for a “middle initial,” meaning that every form ever is for me an opportunity for a huge OMG MUST PICK ONE NAME panic attack. I worry sometimes about the legal issues that might be generated by my various combination of names. I’ve had DMV employees tell me it’s illegal to have more than three, so my driver’s license has one combination. The pharmacist chose to hyphenate my old name and my new one, so the name on my bottles of pills is yet another name. I was turned down for a credit card twice last year because they were doing a credit check using my maiden and married names mashed together as a single word (I have no idea why they did this). It’s a mess.

So I made a decision. In the grand tradition of the woman whose failed presidential campaign introduced me to the feminist blogosphere (a subject for another post another day), I decided to do a Hillary Rodham Clinton. I changed my name, but I am not losing who I was. And I’m choosing to ask you to use all three, which is where the choice and identity come in. I’m not going to make a fuss with credit card companies, etc. I’ll pick my battles. But where I can, this is what I’ve chosen.

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And that’s where I was when my new employers handed me a desk plate assigning me two names.

I didn’t hesitate too long to complain. In point of fact I’d imagine there are all sorts of reasons why they shouldn’t order name plates before consulting their employees. I might prefer to be called by a middle name or a nickname. The plate is there so people strolling by know what to call me; I ought to have some input into that. So I asked, and they were very apologetic and ordered me a new plate quickly, and it was all very pleasant.

But it made me think about it all again.

There’s another part to the story about the Social Security office. After I decided in a panic to keep all my names and the gentleman behind the desk rolled his eyes, my husband pushed his name-change form across the desk. He’s a traditionalist, yes, but one of my arguments had spoken to him, and he agreed that to some extent our names indicated our new tribe. So he wanted to take my maiden name as a second middle name. It’s a small change; as I noted above, having four names is more annoying than not and you always have to pick one middle initial — and he picks the one his parents gave him. But my name is there, lurking on his legal documents, and has even been included on his most recent academic diplomas. It was an important gesture to me and I deeply appreciated it.

And the Social Security guy laughed.

He said, “Seriously?” and he laughed.

Fundamentally, there is this truth: the fact that I — and hundreds of other women — have written angsty essays about what we chose and why we chose it and why we are happy or unhappy with our decision indicates that there is still a problem. Because you don’t see hundreds of men having this crisis. The allies who choose to change their names are awesome and their point is appreciated, but even they didn’t have this crisis. This crisis is still squarely on the shoulders of women, and as such, it is still very much a feminist issue.

I just don’t know what the answer is.

So in the meantime, I’m going with straddling the fence, and hoping it generates some conversation.

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