What’s in a name?

According to this article by Catherine Deveny in The Age today, I must be conservative, insecure or stupid. Why? Because I changed my name (at least to an extent) after I got married. Where’s the option for “D. None of the above”? Deveny was inspired to write the article after seeing Jana Rawlinson (nee Pittman) successfully compete in the World Titles hurdling.
There are a number of reasons why women change their surnames after marriage. When I asked a close friend if she intended to change her surname, she just looked at me for about 5 seconds. Then she said, “My current surname has six letters, but only one vowel. Do you know how much trouble I have with it? And no one in Australia can say it properly anyway.” So she opted for another six letter surname, but with three vowels and three consonants. Another friend had her father’s surname, but she didn’t have much time for him. She was happy to ditch her father’s surname for her husband’s, on the basis that she may as well take the surname of a man she respected. Perhaps in Rawlinson’s case, she wanted to change her name to change her image. Fairly or unfairly, she did suffer some really bad press, and I can understand that she might want to ditch her old name for that reason.

What about me? I must confess that I didn’t change my surname until my little girl was about 8 months old. And I only changed it for home (driver’s license,  Medicare card, banking details). So many women I know have done the same as I did. My mother didn’t change her surname until she had me, either. I don’t think it’s marriage which makes the difference, it’s children. My daughter has my husband’s surname. And me having a different surname sometimes leads people to conclude that I’m not her mother. Also, there’s probably a touch of obsessive compulsive disorder in there somewhere: my maiden name looked out of place on the Medicare card, in a way that it didn’t when there were only two names on it.

I haven’t ditched my maiden name altogether. I still use it for work and professionally. This is partly because I had published before I got married, so I didn’t want to lose any meagre reputation I might have built up. Sometimes I do wish I could get rid of my maiden name altogether (partly because there was another girl at high school and law school with almost the same name, right down to the middle initial, and people were always confusing the two of us, on paper at least). But then at other times I feel nostalgic and glad that I’ve held on to it. It has a long, although not altogether glorious, heritage. My forefather who gave me my surname was a 15 year old pickpocket who was deported to Australia on the Second Fleet. He allegedly stole a hanky.

The other option, the “sit-on-the-fence” option, is to adopt a double barreled surname, but I don’t really care for the combination of my husband’s and my names. Also, it might make it hard for our names to fit on licenses, certificates and the like. My sister dated a guy with a long double barreled surname for a while, and apparently his name didn’t fit on his graduation certificate. And what happens when a double barreled surname marries a double barreled surname? Do they become quadruple barreled? Or do they pick one name from each pair?

Does adopting my husband’s surname (at least to a degree) make me conservative, insecure or weak? I don’t think so. Strangely enough, I quite like my husband. And I’m proud to bear his name. Should I demand that he bear my surname instead? I think perhaps I did bow to societal convention a little. In some Asian countries, wives do not take their husband’s names (eg, Vietnam), so perhaps I wouldn’t have felt the same desire if I had grown up in that culture. But it does feel nice for the three of us to have the same name – like we are a little named unit.

I don’t think the name changing issue is that important. The more important issue raised by Deveny is why mothers are criticised if they go back to work, but fathers are not. I think her rant on surnames detracts from the valid point she makes.

I hate that bloody “supermum” title. No mother can have it all. If you go back to work full time, it’s inevitable that your relationship with your child will be affected. And if you are a full time mother, it’s inevitable that your career will be affected. I have no illusions about that. Currently, I’m trying to do both part time, which sometimes feels like juggling 50 balls in the air at once. I think I took on too many things this year, which is part of the reason I was depressed last month. I didn’t feel like a supermum, I felt like someone who was stretched to the limit.

When babies are first born, they are still totally reliant on their mothers. It’s like the umbilical cord is still present, it’s just invisible and the baby is now on the outside. The physical realities of pregnancy and motherhood mean that women do have to drop everything, for at least a time, and concentrate on bringing up baby. But when the baby gets older, parenting is a joint effort, and the focus shouldn’t just be on the mother. There are many different ways of organising your parenting. I know of families where the father stays at home, and of families where both parents work part-time in order to share the care of the children. I also know of families where the mother stays at home, and of families where both parents work full time or almost full time.

I have no idea how Jana Rawlinson managed to win a World Title hurdling medal with a young son. I wonder if she feels like she is juggling 50 balls at once? Good luck to her. But I also wish good luck to all the other parents out there who are juggling work and children and everything else…



Filed under childcare, children, feminism, jobs, motherhood, parenthood

14 responses to “What’s in a name?

  1. Interesting post. I didn’t change my name when I married, or when I had children, and every now and again my children get confused and call me by my husbands surname (although they have mine as their middle name).

    I do think a family unit with the same name feels nice, but only because it’s traditional. In Spain, nobody changes their name when they get married, and they don’t quite understand those who do. My preference was for girls in the family to get my name, and boys to get my husband’s. My husband didn’t agree, so it was lucky we had boys.

  2. I read that Age article also, I guess it was in the opinion section but I thought it was rather strident, judgemental and the ‘supermum’ argument was ridiculous.

    I agree that most women change their names for ‘practical’ reasons often to do with children(although perhaps it becomes practical because of traditional assumptions?) When I get married in February, I won’t be changing my name. I don’t think I would have anyway but one of the reasons I won’t is practical – my partner’s sister has the same first name as me. I would feel I had no independent identity left and it would cause confusion if we had the same first and last names.

    Perhaps I’ll feel differently when I have children? Growing up in a blended family (my mum remarried and took my step-father’s name) I can’t say that it caused any problems not having the same last name as my mother.

    I like penguinunearthed’s middle name solution (much better than getting into double-barrelled names). I like the idea and symbolism of creating your own family unit with a common surname but I do have a problem with the assumption that in our culture this is carried along a patrilineal line.

  3. I read the same article, and whilst I think the writing was deliberately sensationalist, I actually don’t reject the central point: why do you, as a woman, take your husband’s name, and not the other way around? If the only answer is ‘tradition’ or ‘convention’ then personally I think that it’s relatively unsatisfactory.

    I don’t deny the obvious problems when it comes to kids. Say the parents keep their own names, and have two kids – do they give one the father’s surname and one the mother’s? It’s a difficult problem.

    But that problem is completely distinct from the problem of why the male family name takes precedence over the female one, and I’m yet to hear a strong argument as to why that should be the case if the genders are genuinely equal.

  4. On the other hand, why should the husband take the wife’s name? Maybe neither partner should take the other’s name, as in Asia?

    I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone for not taking their partner’s name, nor would I criticise them for changing their name. It’s up to the individual. The tradition is a patriarchal one (father’s name swapped for husband’s name, just as father’s ownership is swapped for husband’s ownership). Both my parents walked me down the aisle – none of this father handing over the woman to the husband stuff for me. But for me, the history of it is divorced from my decision. My decision arose because I decided it would be nice to have the same surname as my daughter in a family context. If we hadn’t had children, I’d still have my maiden name.

  5. Sometimes it’s just easier too. My wife took my family name to escape the misspellings and mispronunciations of her maiden name. Deveny’s article was a rant and probably not meant to be taken literally. But a poorly thought out rant. You can’t get away with that sort of crap in the blogosphere though, so how come newspaper columnists can?

  6. That’s the advantage of the blogosphere – it’s interactive, so if you stuff up, go too far or make an illogical argument, a commenter will point it out. It does give me the pip that this woman is being paid for her opinion, but she obviously didn’t think about it at all – just let whatever was in her head flow onto the paper.

    I’ve just thought of a reason why one might want to keep one’s name. When my uncle and aunt married, my uncle’s mother was strongly against the marriage. She remained so until my aunt had two sons (and then she totally relented). My aunt didn’t want to become Mrs X, because Mrs X was the name of the mother in law, and had bad vibes for her. So she kept her maiden name.

    On the other hand, my other aunt kept her married name even after she divorced – she said it was just easier. I suspect she couldn’t be bothered going through the rigmarole of changing everything back again.

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  8. lostinsuburbia

    I saw that article too and it made me bristle.

    I changed my name when I got married. My surname had been legally changed twice by my mother previously, so I have no real ties to my surname. Identifying as a family unit was important to me, I wanted that represented on paper as much as in physciallity and genetics.

    I did think about keeping my maiden name though for the sake of my adopted father. His name died out with me.(He can’t have biological children) I wanted one of my sons to have my maiden name as their middle name but it just didn’t work with their first names.

    I was glad to take my husbands name, I just wish I could get rid of my first names. I wish I knew if this was historically acurate or just a piece of whimsy I read where in early Scottish life children took their mothers names as it was much easier to determine parentage through matriarchal lines than it was through patriarchal lines. (Women know they are mothers, men don’t always know they are fathers or rather proving fatherhood was much harder)
    That always appealed to my inner feminist.
    I quite like the idea put forth by penguin, retaining both the patriarchal and matriarchal lines by giving the girls the mothers name and the boys the fathers name. Of course, my husband would never go for it.

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  13. It’s happening! More and more men are taking their wives names or both partners are developing a new blended name (not a double barreled name!) and both people go though the inconvenience. I read that article too. I didn’t like it. In this day and age we should be able to do what every we want with our surnames and not have feminists or conservatives criticise our decisions. Still, 85% of women who get married change their name, and I’m one of them! I guess we are secure enough in ourselves ot pick up a new name and not feel like our identity is being threatened.

  14. It do not agree to with much of what was written in the article in the age. I come from the same latin culture as penguin described so it was a big decision to change my name and I did precisely for the reasons penguin outlined. I want my kids to not to be confused about their family.

    But, everyone should be fee to choose.

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