The Last Name (Eric’s Story)

In August of 2009, we got married. There’s nothing particularly unusual about a couple of twenty-somethings tying the knot—though we were high school sweethearts, which is not as common as it once was. What was, and is still, uncommon is that I, as the husband of our heterosexual union, changed my surname to hers. We weren’t doing the unconventional simply for unconventionality, but by all accounts changing my last name as the husband is an extremely rare thing to do.

According to online wedding experts The Knot, in an interview with The Daily Beast, “90% of brides take their spouse’s last name, with the other ten percent keeping their own name. [A man taking his bride’s last name] is really not something that we’re seeing”.  Apparently it happens so infrequently it doesn’t even appear statistically.

Men taking their wives’ surname upon marriage only really received a national spotlight when Zoe Saldana told In Style in June that her husband, Marco Perego, was becoming Marco Saldana . A lot of surprise and prattle ensued. Some wondered if taking her well-known last name was merely a stroke of PR genius for whatever future career aspirations Marco has. Since neither my wife nor I are celebrities, that wasn’t a contributing factor in our decision.

Through our nearly six years of marriage together, my last name as it was through the first several years of my life feels more and more like a distant memory. I was never strongly attached to it. My immediate family while I was growing up, like many, was imperfect—broken and scarred. My parents divorced as I was beginning high school, and my relationship with my father, whose surname I originally carried, is still estranged today. So when the time came for Amy and I to determine what we would do about surnames, my apathy for my own made it easier to consider relinquishing it in favor of hers.

It was important to us that we had the same last name, whatever it would be. We felt that each of us keeping our respective surnames fell short of the kind of actual and symbolic unity we were striving for by getting married. As the eldest of three girls, with no other relatives her generation on that side of the family, Amy’s family name would disappear altogether unless one or more of the daughters kept it. That was important to her, and because I love her immensely I was very open to the possibility of changing mine so she could keep hers. (I realize “I love her immensely” probably reads schmaltzy, but true love really happens. Don’t let it slip away if you’ve found it).

Hyphenation seemed like a mouthful with the two surnames we were working with, and we especially did not want to burden our children with that if we ever have them. With all of those considerations in mind, it seemed clear to both of us what we would do, and we were happy and excited about the decision. We felt like it was loving and equal—felt fitting for us—and not weird whatsoever despite being uncommon. We only started to hit turbulence as we shared what we had decided publicly.

The most poignant moment was during the wedding ceremony. At its conclusion, Amy and I were introduced together as “Mr. and Mrs. [Amy’s last name].” Several attendees laughed, knowing what my surname had been and thinking it was a deliberate joke. To be sure, the officiant was my father-in-law, who is hilarious and prone to jest. But what enabled the possibility of interpreting it as a joke was the ingrained impossibility that we could be “Mr. and Mrs. [Amy’s last name].” If we had been introduced with mine, everyone would have smiled and golf-clapped—perceiving things to have proceeded as expected. Many people were not thrilled to find out it wasn’t a joke. Our reception afterward was filled with explanation and debate.

Does that make them sexist or fundamentalist? No, not necessarily so. A great deal of the people who came to our wedding are kind and humble, and Amy and I are happy to see them when we all cross paths. But for them, at that ceremony, they became, at minimum, uncomfortable that the status quo was being upended before their very eyes. As a religious ceremony, there was likely some deeply held sense that women should most certainly take their husband’s last name upon marriage because that’s how God wants it to be. I don’t know of any biblical justification for such a view. People of antiquity didn’t even have last names as we do in modern society. But social constructs slowly creep into our worldviews, and eventually we make a rationalization from within that worldview why they fit.

A surname—a “last” name—is simply a social construct that we’ve all become accustomed to over time. As the National Endowment for the Humanities notes, surnames first came about in the European Middle Ages. It began as a loose, creative act of ascribing an adjective or combinations of adjectives and nouns like “stout,” “red/reed,” or “longbeard,” based on personal attributes . As such, one would hope the name-changing process would still be a flexible one. Unfortunately, for any man looking to take his wife’s surname, there are legal obstacles as much as there are the obstacles of others’ biases. In most states, a marriage license is sufficient for a name change for women, but only in a handful of states can a man use it to do the same. Most have to pay for the standard name-changing process anyone else does who is not marrying. To fill out our marriage license in Wisconsin, where Amy and I were married, I had to scratch out the section labeled “bride” so I could fill in the multiple boxes for “maiden name” (also scratched out—what’s the proper term for the male equivalent?) and the last name I was adopting. (Maybe it’s different in Wisconsin now. I hope so). As I successively changed every major legal document and form of identification—driver’s license, social security, medical and employment paperwork, etc.—I was met with varying degrees of confusion and hoops to jump through to complete them.

Lest this comes across as mansplaining, because I have no interest in sounding like another well-to-do white male whining about a negligible problem he faces, these relatively minor irritations were shadowed by my main disappointment and frustration: every step of this process is utterly skewed to corral women into taking their husband’s surname. It was a small thing for me as one person to go through some obstacles to do something slightly unconventional. It’s a whole other thing for the process itself to be systematically sexist and biased. Between legal documentation and public opinion, our majority perspective about what women need to do when they get married is based on a bygone gender ethic.

As I went through it all myself, I wondered how many women felt trapped or saddened by the thoroughgoing expectation that they would be the one who had to change, and how that surname symbolically conveyed the husband was the superior, head-of-household. Part of the delight of taking Amy’s last name, which I still feel, is that we chose to do it together. The very act of making the decision embodied the kind of respect and dialog that characterizes our relationship. We’ve encountered many people where a woman taking her husband’s name is an unquestioned assumption. For them, to do otherwise wouldn’t be outside the box—it would be unintelligible because the box is the whole universe of possibilities to be realized.

As a society, we can surely do better than this. Is it that difficult to have forms and processes in place for either spouse in a marriage to fluidly change his or her last name? Are our commonsense gender ethics so regressive that most of us do not understand choices outside of the norm as not only possible but also acceptable and praiseworthy? What will it take, once and for all, married or unmarried, to ensure that women have equal standing, voice, and ability as men?

As Amy and I approach our six-year anniversary, one of the most refreshing things about our marriage is meeting new people who have never known me by any other name. To them, I’ve always had the surname that I do. They don’t know otherwise. There’s no judgment or perception that our marriage is unusual. If the history of my name and what Amy and I chose to do does come up, most people who are twenty- or thirty-somethings—our age—are intrigued and applauding of such a reasoned, loving, egalitarian decision. That encourages me. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, we’ll all be a little more comfortable with any engaged couples making such a decision, and knock down one more barrier to full gender equality.