Romantic love is a luxury of modern times. In the “old days,” marriage was not about love, it was about property exchanges and gain for the men involved in the transaction–the father and the groom. If you happened to also fall in love with your betrothed, you were extremely lucky. In most–but admittedly not all–cases a woman had very little say in who she would marry. Marriage was an invention to legitimize children and determine inheritance. It is only in the modern age that marriage has been strictly about love. To pretend that marriage was a divine transaction given to us by some greater power based on romantic love is to revise history in the context of modern society. Even the Old Testament has stories about women being traded or married off specifically for the advancement or benefit of the male parties.
The reason a woman changed her last name in those days is because she became by law the property of her husband. She left the household of her father–whose property she was deemed previously–and switch owners to her betrothed. As such, she received the last name of her husband to testify to this ownership.
All this said, I have a lot of trouble accepting a tradition that is really handed down to us from a much darker time for womankind. I realize another thing we’ve rewritten through time is what it means to change your last name, which is why I did it the first time I got married, and that is it symbolizes the two in love becoming one–a team. I accept this as a better interpretation of the tradition. But why does it always have to be the woman who changes her name? Why can’t men step up and offer to take the woman’s name?
Oh, to ask a man to do this illicits such furious fights. Stammerings of, “But, but, but this is my identity!!” (I’ve only had one boyfriend who offered to take my name if we got married. And I’m not sure if he was joking or not.)
Bingo. And you think I want to lose my identity, the name I’ve kept for 34 years (minus the few years I had my late husband’s last name until I changed it back in 2005)? I’ve been an E longer than I’ve been an F; I am comfortable with myself as an E. I’m proud to be an E because the E’s loved me and supported me throughout all the tumultuous days of my grieving. Where were the F’s in all this struggle? They were busy fighting over who knew Mike more and who deserved what he left behind more than his wife who he only knew for a pittance of three years.
I believe that your blood family is the only family who truly loves you, even if they don’t always show it. In my husband’s death, I learned the value of family and I appreciate my own much more than I ever did. I was stupid to believe that my in-laws could possibly love me as much as the mother who bore me for nine months and the father who worked to put food in our mouths throughout my childhood. I earned my last name. I earned it through pain and tears and grieving. The Es will have my back forever, whether they like it or not, because they are stuck with me. In-laws and other people have the option to move about freely–their only connection to you is through their own child so when that’s gone, they have the ability to break the bonds of the so-called marriage family.
It’s not just the anger, though, from being rejected by my in-laws that spurs my desire to hang onto my last name. I went through a metamorphosis of sorts when my husband died. In those years that I clung to his last name as though keeping it would somehow bring him back, I struggled with a very real crisis of identity. Who was this Heidi F person? Suddenly the F name just sounded so foreign. I had to explain myself to people who had known me as Heidi E but had missed the whole short episode of marriage that I had. It seemed to come up all the time. A big bomb dropper: “Well, yeah, I got married. But he died.” Not something you want to bring up in pleasant conversation.
As the Fs went further and further away, I was alone in an island of F-dom. I had changed my name for the love of my husband, but now he was gone. The team that was F to me was no longer a team, just a single player alone, staring at the empty soccer field of life on which the team once did battle. But E; E meant something to me. It was the name I wanted to publish under. It was the name I first learned to say and spell in kindergarten. It was ME–who I was, who I am, who I’d grow into. I changed my name back and vowed to never change it again.
But why is it that men can’t seem to see the connection between the identity attached to their own name and the one attached to a woman’s? Was I supposed to grow up expecting that my last name was not permanent? That I was supposed to “lose myself” as an individual proverbially in my marriage? If you truly believe that marriage is about creating a team, and that team has to extend to the changing of last names, then why not both people make up a name they can share together? Isn’t that a better symbol of the new symbiotic entity created in the marriage? Or take each other’s last names and hyphenate as I’ve seen friends do. (Often homosexual couples will also do this to symbolize their union.)
Why do so many men in our society have such a problem with changing their last names, but they expected it unquestioningly from their spouses? How fair is that?
Traditions need to be questioned. I’ve always questioned traditions because they don’t always make sense. It’s not enough for me to do something just because tradition dictates–I need to know the why, where, and how about the tradition. Sometimes it seems to me that we continue to participate in a tradition simply because “that’s the way it’s always been.” That’s not a good enough reason for me. Sometimes traditions, such as the woman changing her last name, are grounded in a negative historical context. I think we should discontinue practicing a tradition when we don’t agree with the basis on which it was founded. This is the modern era, afterall, and women are independant, capable of achieving their own places to live, their own sources of income, and chosing whom to marry. Traditions should bend to accommodate the change of times.
Whether or not to change your last name is purely up to the woman and/or the couple involved. I’m not advocating forcing my break with tradition on everyone else; some women aren’t attached to their names at all and feel totally okay about a name change. I’m just trying to justify here why I think it’s okay for women to decide not to change their name or, at the very least, why I would chose to not change my name should I ever get married again. I like myself as Heidi E. I’ve established a career under my current last name. It was the name my parents chose for me. I want to keep it. I don’t plan to have any children, so there’s no quandary here over whose last name the children get. (Though, I’ve always said that if I did have kids, they could take the father’s last name for ease of use; I don’t particularly care about passing my last name down to future generations. That’s my brother’s job anyway.)