Sometimes changing your name is more complicated than you think it will be—and I’m not talking about lines at the Social Security Office
One night a few years ago, when my husband was still my boyfriend and I was still a first-year graduate student, I was having dinner with a few grad buddies, both married women. We got on the topic of changing one’s name with marriage. One woman said that she’d wanted to keep her entire name and add her husband’s last name, but when she was filling out the paperwork, there were only three slots for her name, so she just stuck to her original three, and the decision was made like that. My other friend, who was a bit older when she got married, said she didn’t know her husband’s family that well. “I just didn’t know what it meant to be a Thompson. So I kept Kelley. I know what it means to be a Kelley.”
I liked that reasoning. Although I’ve never been much for pack mentality, I know what it means to be a Hood. The three Hoods I know, myself included, are cut from the same fabric, more or less. From our bookish tastes to our small frames, we share something that’s difficult to quantify—or adequately qualify, an identity that’s an I’ll know it when I see it kind of identity. But there are also practical reasons for keeping one’s maiden name.
Several of the women I met at grad school had kept their maiden name after marriage because they had already published under their original name. If they had taken their husband’s name, they would once again be a stranger in their academic field. When I changed my name, I still wanted to include Hood in my social media and writing platforms. I wanted Peaceful Dumpling readers to recognize me!
Despite the fact that I feel like a Hood, I always knew that I wanted to take my husband’s name, even before I knew who my husband was going to be! Perhaps this was partly due to conditioning from a heteronormative tradition in which women just take their husbands’ names. End of story. (Of course, this tradition is now getting rewritten by couples doing progressive and creative things with their names.) But I’m also romantic—sappily so—and I simply liked the idea of having my husband’s name. Sure, taking your husband’s name may symbolize important values—like embracing unity and forging a future together as one—but these didn’t really occur to me. Like I said, I was just drawn to the idea, and it felt right.
But changing my name had some unexpected emotional consequences.
We sometimes think of language as a one-way street: Language expresses the meaning we want to communicate. But in reality language is usually a two-way street: Language can also create, or at least shape, meaning, and this often happens without our awareness.
And so it was with my new name. Going into the process, I thought: I will feel great and full of love whenever I see my new name! Yay marital bliss! My new name had its own meaning to bring to the table, however. Suddenly, my name was something I didn’t recognize until after a split second—which is a long time to not recognize your own name! I would see an email from “Mary Luttrell” in my husband’s inbox (probably a cat video I’d sent him while we were sitting two feet apart from one another), and I would be momentarily jarred. That’s me? Oh yeah…
My new name also carries its own baggage, just as any language does when put into a context. My name began to represent the dynamic quality of my life—a quality I both welcome in principle and try to forget as I’m lying in bed. I’m no longer living with my parents, and I’m no longer living in Oregon (my spirit home, if you will). My career is growing—but to what end, I’m not exactly sure. (Is there an end?) Somehow my new name came to mean uncertainty and change—and even a farewell to the past, which is hard for this nostalgic soul. But my name also reminds me that I have someone by my side who’s experiencing these same powerful currents.
It wasn’t until after I changed my name that imagined what it would be like if my husband changed his name. As I thought about his deep connection to his name—all of the genealogical studies he and his father did, their visits to England to see the Luttrell salter—it nearly knocked the wind out of me to imagine him having to change his name. Only then did I understand what I had done and what I was going through.
Although I grew up with the notion that my maiden name was intended to be disposable, a semi-permanent fixture until I reached some new level of life, I am quite connected to it, probably because I’m so close with the two other Hoods in my life. For this reason, I’m happy that I kept Hood as my middle name. I like to think that it’s even closer to me than it was before, a single-syllable comforter of sorts.
I’m now left to wonder how my new name will evolve in meaning as the years go by. Just as with any word of importance, the shift will probably happen as we sleep, between calendars and haircuts, movie nights at home and all the adventures that await.
More personal essays on Voices: New York State of Mind – How the City Changed Me
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Photo: Elizabeth Scott Photography