What’s in a name? Plenty.

Picking up my standard prescription refill at the pharmacy, the new technician asked for my name. I replied, “Last name ‘J-O-N-E-S-hyphen-S-M-I-T-H’, first name ‘S-T-E-F-A-N-I-E’.” The tech clicked the corresponding letters on the keyboard, then paused while the online system retrieved my information. Looking at the monitor, then at me, the tech asked, “Um, do you live on either Zenbrook Lane, or Cucaburrough Court?” I laughed, then answered, “Well, before I was married I lived on Cucaburrough Court, but I’ve been with my husband for about 13 years, so…” my voiced trailed off while my smile persisted. The tech grinned back at me. “No worries,” she said, “I can fix our system. We’ll just get rid of Stefanie Jones. After all, she doesn’t exist any more.”

My smile quickly left my face, and I felt as though the tech had just punched me in the stomach. While she meant no offense by her comment, her words stung me nonetheless. Her two brief sentences implied that my life as a single woman was null and void once I said, “I take you to be my husband”; that the act of professing my love for another meant that I had to kill a part of myself. Accepting the bag of medicine from the pharmacy tech, I felt myself experiencing a minor existential crisis as I stood amid bottles of vitamins and boxes of pregnancy tests.

If a part of me ceased to exist when I changed my marital status, what was to become of me when I changed my living status? Once I drew my last breath, did that mean that every act that preceded it simply vanished forever? With a few simple keystrokes a store employee deleted a part of me; what other simple actions could other complete strangers take to erase the whole of me?

And what about the implication that once I allowed my name to reflect a partnership with another human (in my case, a man – but the same applies to any committed relationship), I became less of a human? While my husband could retain rights to his full past, the first 26 years of my life had to be set aside in order to accommodate the most recent 13? When I applied for our marriage license over a decade ago, I intentionally chose to hyphenate my name, because I couldn’t bear to ignore my childhood and my family of origin for the remainder of my life. Those Jones people had a significant part in helping me become the person that I am; to set them aside in favor of the Smiths felt genuinely painful to me. If my husband wouldn’t agree to co-adopt a brand new name with me (neither Jones nor Smith, but something completely new – like Adams, or Banes, or Carras….[which he told me he was simply not going to do {which was his choice to make, and which I respected <after a brief period of pouting>}]), then I would create a blended name for myself. A coming together of past and present, a continuation of my story as I progressed in my evolution of child to adult. Yet, clearly not everyone saw things this way. For some, the arrival of Jones-Smith meant the departure of Jones alone…but I’m not ready to simply turn my back on that young self that still lives inside of my current being.

Like I said, the experience was one of mini-existential angst. As I walked towards the exit of the store, I tried to shake the uneasiness I still felt in my core. Of course I won’t be forgotten the day after I die. Of course my actions of today will persist in some way into tomorrow. Of course my childhood, college years, and early 20s were valuable times worthy of honor and integration. Of course the letters that comprise my name don’t define the human that I am.

Still, I’m glad that all of my official documents reflect all of my given names, as well as all of my chosen ones. Both are deeply precious to me – even if they are ‘just’ letters on a page.

baby name bracelet

Stef

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About Stef

A "serious" gal who is trying to remember to lighten up and smile.
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10 Responses to What’s in a name? Plenty.

  1. I totally understand how you felt/feel. I think it’s a dilemma for many woman. For the reasons you write about, I did not change my name when I married. I offered to my husband that I’d hyphenate my name with his if he did the same with mine. Guess what? He was horrified at the idea. Imagine! So he understands clearly why I did not change mine. After all that is said, was I shocked that my daughter and my daughter-in-law chose to change their names when they married? YES! 🙂

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    • Stef says:

      Thank you for sharing your story with me. My husband was also none-too-keen on changing his name…. but I wanted us to have at least *some* sense of unity in our married life, so that’s why I decided to hyphenate. If you and your husband both kept your “original” names, how did you decide what name(s) to give your children? This was one thing I puzzled over in my earlier years – I’d love to hear how you navigated it!

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      • narami says:

        I think I should comment on this in my own post because I can get deep into it, but I just wanted to get out that thanks God nobody changes their names when you marry in Puerto Rico!!
        Everyone uses their first two last names (the one from their father and the one from their mother) from the moment they are born until they kick the bucket.
        Women would go crazy if they were expected to do otherwise.
        (exceptions: married women pertain their husbands most of the time. This is how it it’s used here:
        Maria Rivera Gonzalez DE (OF) Gutierrez. Which I hate even more.)

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      • Because of that whole ‘navigation’ issue, both of our children have my husband’s last name, Just so much easier for the kids.

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      • Stef says:

        Narami, I have a few questions for you about the double-last-name situation. So if my last name is actually 2 last names (one of my mom and one of my dad), when I have children, which of the 2 last names will they get from me, and which will they get from my husband? (Clearly the child doesn’t get both last names from each parent – otherwise names would be exponentially long!)

        I actually do like the “de” (of) reference for a woman to her husband – so long as the husband does it, too. (Which I doubt is the case, but which I would aspire to see occur.) I love the idea that every person gets to retain his/her individuality, but at the same time acknowledges that once they are married, they are a true partner to the other person in the relationship.

        Ah, people…. we are complicated creatures, non?

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    • Stef says:

      So since your children have your husband’s last name, do you feel “disconnected” from the family at all? Do the kids think it’s weird that you are the only one in the family that doesn’t have the last name everyone else has? I pondered this avenue as well when I was considering what name to take…. I’d love to hear how it has been for you.

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  2. I understand what you mean and about the name being a significant part of your identity. I have the opposite problem. I have recently been divorced after 27 years of marriage. After about a year I wanted to change my name but I did not want to go back to my maiden surname as i felt I had grown since then. I thought about alternatives of a completely new name for a year and eventually, when nothing fitted, I simply dropped my surname and formally moved my middle name to my surname. So I have two female names. You would be amazed at the number of people who what my last name is when I have just given it to them.
    Still I love it because my middle name (now my surname) represents the part of me who had been hidden all my life and is now beginning to blossom.
    Great post

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    • Stef says:

      Wow, I never considered that side of things…. I can imagine how deciding what to call yourself after a marriage ends is another complicated challenge. I like how you addressed it – and loved your statement about how your middle name gets to come to the foreground, and in so doing, the representative part(s) of yourself that were once hidden are now being visible. Great reply! 🙂

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  3. Touch2Touch says:

    Perhaps you already know that in Japan, when a woman marries, she is “written out’ of her own family’s registry and “written into” her husband’s. Talk about finality!

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    • Stef says:

      Judith, I didn’t know that – wow. I’m not sure how I feel about that…. I’m not exactly ‘shocked’ – but am also not an immediate fan of that practice. Hmm….

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