There’s a little box you can check at the end of the divorce petition: “wife requests to be known as her former name.” You check the box, fill in your “former” name, and just like that, as soon as your divorce is final, poof, your married name is no more.
Well, there’s the poof, and then there’s the endless calls you have to make, letters you have to write, and proof you have to provide to the DMV, the bank, your creditors, and everyone else under the sun who insists they know who you are.
The first time I saw that little box, I didn’t think I’d check it. Not only because of the hassle involved with altering my identity before various bureaucracies, but also because I’ve had this name for going on 12 years now. It’s the name on my MFA and my business cards, the name by which everyone who has known me as an adult, knows me. And most importantly, because it’s Poppy and Ace’s name.
But the more I’ve thought about the little box, the more I think I will check it.
When I got married, I didn’t have a second thought about whether I’d take Lou’s name; of course I would. That’s what you do, it was traditional, and I was nothing if not traditional! It was an outward and obvious symbol of the new unit we were forming, which would grow into our family. It was like a uniform or a habit; something to show the world who I was.
But even though I’ve had this name for almost 12 years, it’s never fully felt like my own name. Not really. I’ve signed it a million times, and I’ve never been happy with my signature. I’ve spoken it over and over again, and the syllables of my first name never flow into the syllables of my last name. That’s because it’s not my last name; it’s Lou’s. When my parents chose my first name, they meant it to go with the last name I would be born with. Those syllables blended nicely; when I changed my name, they no longer did.
For another thing, let’s be real. It’s kind of weird dating other dudes while I still have Lou’s name. The Fella once told me he likes to address people as “Ms” whoever. But he felt weird addressing me that way; he would basically be saying “Ms Lou’s Wife.” And who wants to date someone’s wife? (Or, to be completely semantically accurate, who wants to be reminded he’s dating someone who is technically still someone’s wife?)
Lou identifies strongly with his name, and not just his surname. I’ve noticed that people who have Lou’s first name (which is not, incidentally, Lou) like to name businesses after themselves. Lou is the same way and has had two official small businesses named after him, and countless ideas and projects he gave his name. And his last name is common enough that certain appliances share it, and he likes picking up antiques that bear his name.
But whenever I’ve seen Lou’s last name printed on a dusty record players or deadly-looking vintage fans, my thought has been, “Oh, it’s Lou’s name! I should show Lou!” Not, “Cool, there’s my name!”
And Lou ought to identify with his name. Your name is, in the most basic sense, your identity.
As an English major, and as a Sunday school attendee, I have learned very well the power and importance of naming. Literature and the Bible are filled with names that mean something. Some names’ meanings are solidified based on the person who first had that name, or from someone infamous who held the name–ain’t nobody with good sense naming their kid Adolf nowadays. Common surnames come from bygone occupations: Smith, Farmer, Carpenter, Weaver. Children are named for relatives or saints. Confirmands choose a saint’s name to represent the qualities they aspire to adopt along with the confirmation of their baptismal promises. Popes and nuns take on new names as they take on entirely new identities in religious life.
God gave Adam dominion over all the animals, so Adam named them all. And throughout the Bible, as people enter into covenants with God, they are given new names: Abram became Abraham, and his wife Sarai became Sarah. Jacob became Israel. Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter, meaning “rock,” and said, “upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). The entire papacy is based on this renaming and reidentity.
To name something is to own it, and names are powerful. This is why God cannot be named: none may have dominion over God.
It is why God identifies himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14 as “I AM WHO AM,” or “YHWH.” It’s a name but not a name; God is more powerful than any name.
It is why, according to traditional Jewish law, the Hebrew name of God may not be destroyed. Some Jews will not write or speak the name of the Creator, even in English, to avoid defacing it; you may see it written as “G-d.”
It is why in the final act of the Crucible, John Proctor, though broken and finally willing to confess falsely to witchcraft to save his neck, ultimately cannot sign the faulty confession. When pressed to explain why, Proctor, “with a cry of his whole soul,” shouts, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! […] How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
It is why the most badass line in all of television history comes from the mouth of Walter White in the Breaking Bad episode titled for the line: “Say My Name.” Walt, known as Heisenburg, has just reversed the course of a negotiation with a bunch of drug dealers, subduing them with the threat of his mere identity. “You know. You all know exactly who I am. Say my name.”
Before I was married, I didn’t have a particularly strong opinion about my original name. It’s a cool name, with cool initials. I really liked the signature I started using in college. But I have come to identify with my maiden name more as I have come to realize how I do not identify with Lou’s name. My original name is cool! It does have cool initials! And besides that, my family of origin is cool. I’m proud to be named among them. I’m proud when my original surname is adjectiveized to describe certain qualities of my children. That’s the me in them. This name I have now, Lou’s name, just isn’t who I am.
I’m not prepared to argue that taking on your husband’s name is somehow antifeminist or shows that he owns you. It certainly may have meant that at various times in history, and it may mean that to some individuals today. Still, because names are powerful, I can see why taking your husband’s name is a valid choice. I mean, yeah, becoming someone’s wife is a change in identity. But expressing that by changing your name should be a choice, not an expectation.
My married name is not who I am. However, I am still the person who earned my MFA. I am still the person who holds my current job. I am still the mother of Poppy and Ace. Going back to my original name won’t change those things. Having a different name from my children will not change by one fraction the love and devotion I have for them.
And looking to the future, if I ever remarry, I don’t think I will take my new husband’s name, either. Not because I don’t think my commitment to any future husband won’t be meaningful and transformative–it would have to be, or it wouldn’t be worth getting married again. No, I think I would like to forever keep my original name because it is who I am. It is my label, the shorthand for my identity.
Gradually losing focus on my identity over the years was part of what made my marriage fall apart. And there were moments last summer, when I found myself doing things and acting in ways I’m not proud of, that I asked, “Who am I?” I asked myself, and I asked close friends and acquaintances. I asked my therapist. Who am I? It’s a sick, unmoored feeling not being sure who you are.
Since separating, I have learned you can’t ask anyone else who you are. Others may be more than willing to tell you, but unless you figure it out for yourself, you will never truly know your own identity. And I’ve made a lot of discoveries about my identity since last summer. I’ve come a long way, and I know I can go much farther. And reassuming my own name, the most basic symbol of my identity, is an outward and obvious sign of that. Of knowing who I am and not letting anyone shape me into someone else. Now and in the future.