My husband and I were good friends for more than a year before we started dating. After that, it felt right very quickly – we were talking marriage only a few months later and got engaged after only eight months. It didn’t feel fast. I had dated a guy for almost five years before I met Tim, and I had never been sure. This time I was.
One of our first conversations on the subject of marriage, weirdly, was about last names. I had grown up like most boy crazy teen girls, doodling my name with my crush’s last name all over my journal. Actually, very hilariously, I still have a journal from about the 7th or 8th grade where about fifty “I [Heart] so and sos” are crossed out and rewritten with the crush of the following week or month.
But by the time my future husband and I were having this discussion in my icky grad school apartment in Norman, Oklahoma, I had lived a little longer. I’d had awful boyfriends and good boyfriends and weird, creepy dates, and okay dates, and bizarre hook ups, and many nights staring in a mirror trying to remember who the hell I was.
I’d seen other women cycle through last names between different marriages, confused and lost – probably not because of that, but it seemed symbolic of the confusion somehow – an identity crisis at its most basic level.
And even though I was sure that I was staying with Tim forever, and even though I had doodled hundreds of bullshit last names that were never worthy of me next to mine over the years, all of the sudden, I knew that I couldn’t relinquish my last name to him. I had been Ryan Winkler my whole life. It sounds superficial and silly, but all those times in the mirror, that was the name I had whispered to myself for grounding.
It was mine, and I was keeping it.
Now, lots of women do this, and if I’d left it there, I probably wouldn’t be telling you about it. But we didn’t leave it there.
And things started getting weird.
My husband, wonderful man that he is, had this discussion with me with an entirely open mind. My one hesitation in this whole deal was that we planned to have kids someday. And I wasn’t sure how we’d deal with that. I didn’t want them to just automatically take Tim’s name. I was going to be carrying them, if everything worked out as planned, and doing my part to take care of them, etc. It didn’t seem fair that they didn’t share my name.
Tim was okay with them taking my last name, but that didn’t feel right either. They would be part his, too.
We considered combining our last names to make a new last name, but that undermined my original issue, and it felt silly. We considered me just hyphenating, but that didn’t seem fair, either. After lots of back and forth, we decided to take each others’ last names, no hyphen, just two last names for both of us. “Winkler Herr.” Our kids would have that name, too. All was right with the world.
In reality we blew the patriarchy’s collective minds.
The first issues were with our families as we told them our decision. Conservative, traditional Oklahomans for the most part, they weren’t keen on it. Some family members continue to ignore that my kids’ last names are not simply “Herr.” They have implied that I must have ball-busted my husband into this agreement and denied his sons the legacy. Which is not remotely true, but I’ve wasted enough breath trying to convince them.
Furthermore, mail started coming to the house addressed to bizarre combinations of our names. We got insurance for “Paul Winkler.” His middle name, my maiden name (I go by my middle name instead of my first name, and I guess that contributed?) – anyway it was all wrong. And people on the phone would ask us to explain a million times why we had two last names. No, excuse me, why TIM had two last names. It was fine that his woman would do it. Just not without a hyphen.
As it went on, I got more pissed off. We hadn’t legally changed our names yet, though it said “Winkler Herr” for both of us on the marriage license, and we signed affidavits of alias when we transferred everything over to Texas stating that both of us could go by our previous names or “Winkler Herr.”
As angry as we were, though, we very quickly got tired of fighting the whole world over it. Finally we left it with our previous last names, though we agreed that our kids would have the combo, and we’d refer to ourselves collectively as “The Winkler Herrs.” Auggie and Hank, our little boys, both have “Winkler Herr” on their birth certificates. And bless their hearts, their schools already can’t get it right.
But it is still RIGHT. Those kids belong to both of us, we belong to each other. When they grow up, they can decide what they want to do when/if they get married.
Because I’m not saying that it is the ONLY right. It was particularly important to me for the aforementioned reasons that I retain my name. I can also understand the importance of having a new identity as you start forward in a marriage. That can also be right. All those answers are right.
What I CAN’T understand, what I think is WRONG is that, in a society where we are increasingly speaking out about equality, it is almost universally assumed that women are the only ones deciding whether the name change is an issue.
I will reiterate that it seems like a superficial thing. But I will also reiterate that it’s a symbolic thing – important enough that we have established it in our husbands’ names for generations. But it’s still such a given, such a norm, that I don’t think even many of my most progressive friends give it much thought.
I realize that there are much bigger fish to fry in the feminist debate, but I also think that when we talk about equality, these issues matter. All those small details in our society that place women down one notch from their male counterparts matter. In this day and age, women are not only mothers or wives or workers, some of them are all of the above and the primary breadwinners of their households to boot. When do they earn the right to hold the household name?
When does that at least become a question that we ask?