The John Hancock that Won’t Change

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve

A friend was celebrating her birthday and invited a multi-generational group of women out for the day with her. We spent a bulk of our day at the mall, going from store to store. Around lunchtime, we all met in front of the Caribou Coffee kiosk and started talking about marriage. I should have known to keep my mouth shut, sitting among them, as soon as the conversation started, but I didn’t.

“She doesn’t want to change her last name either,” one of the women said pointing her indictment finger at me, while the group was already chastising me for saying I didn’t think I wanted to birth children. Their unsolicited advice was simple: “Don’t tell a man that, or you’ll never get one. They don’t like that.” While I didn’t ask for clarification about which truth—the children or the name … I mean it must be truth because they said it with such certainty, right?—about me would leave me single for the rest of my life, I stuttered, trying to defend myself against the onslaught of reasons it behooved me to keep such information to myself.

This is not the first time I’ve ever been told I’d never find a man. This time made four, as a matter of fact. And it’s not just women who’ve told me this. No, no. Men have, too. (These same men also accused me of being a lesbian because I “act like you don’t need no man.”) My response the first couple times I was told this was an emotional one. “What’s wrong with me?” but I quickly got over it when I heard one of my mom’s favorite expressions when I was growing up, pertaining to relationships echoing in my head: “It’s better to have nobody than just anybody.” When my mom’s voice jolted me back to reality, I found myself upset the next time I was told I would be subjected to singleness. What’s wrong with singleness? And just because you have a problem with my decision doesn’t mean all men will. … Does it?

People do things all the time without legitimate reasons. Though “because I want to” is not kosher to say beyond first grade, it’s the attitude we tend to have about a lot of thing. When someone does what we expect them to do, we accept it. But when someone does something that’s against the cultural norm a “because I want to” justification doesn’t cut it. That’s not the world’s way. You have to explain, ad nauseum, or keep your anti “everyone-does-it-this-way” ideas to yourself.

Such is the problem I had sitting in front of Caribou Coffee. “WHY?!” I hear spew from accusatory grimaces about me not wanting to change my name. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anyone ask one of the 85 percent of women who marries each year and chooses to change her name to explain why she chose to do so. The grimaces that don’t ask the 85 percent about their choices undoubtedly believe the remaining 15 percent are social and spiritual ingrates who deserve the single life in which they’ve trapped themselves. They have say things like …

“That’s the way it’s always been done.” Besides the fact that this alone is not reason enough for me to chose to do much of anything, it’s not true. First of all, Adam and Eve didn’t have last names. If they had, Gale Austin, my first Sunday School teacher would have told me. But fast forwarding from those two, in Britain (from which plenty of American culture is derived), it wasn’t until the 14th century that surnames were common. They were necessary because everyone was named Mary. Which Mary? Mary Smith, the blacksmith’s daughter. Or Mary Hill who lives over the hill. Your surname was what distinguished you. In the Middle Ages, you wanted to take on the more noted surname, so it wasn’t uncommon for a man who married a woman whose family had more social acclaim to take her family’s last name. No, that’s not the way it’s always been.

“Wouldn’t you want everyone to know you’re married to your husband?” Of course! But is a name the only way that can be done? The “You’re taking on a new role in life” argument comes up around this same time. Isn’t the husband taking on a new role, too? What does he do to symbolize his new role? That logic for name changing necessitates both individuals change their names. What is it about the marriage role that necessitates a name change? We change roles throughout life. Why not chose a new last name when you change careers or get a new hobby?

Then there are the religious zealots who proclaim, “The husband is the head of the household, so a wife should have the same name as the head.” My sarcastic self thinks Barack Obama is the current head of the American household, if you will. Let’s all forsake our family names for four years and be Obamas. But you only irritate people with sarcasm, so (sometimes) I try not to respond that way. Symbolism is great, but a last name has no direct reflection on a commitment to God and/or a husband. Again, 85 percent of women change their names when they get married. And yet 50 percent, give or take a percentage point any given year since 19-whenever, of marriages end in divorce. A name change does not a successful marriage make.

“What are you going to do when you have kids? Won’t they be confused about their name?” Besides the fact that there’s an assumption that a couple wants to or even has the ability to have children—God forbid they don’t want to have to have them … another posting, another day—who would be confused? The people who think you should change your name or the children?

All of that leads to this. The reasons I don’t want to change my name when I get married:

I don’t want to. There’s really not much explanation needed beyond that. Indulge me. It’s only fair.

My name is a gift. While my mother carried me in her womb, she called me “Cherie.” But when she saw me, she changed her mind. She saw me as an individual whose name should be “nac.” Not “n.” Or “na.” But “nac.” She had dreams and hopes for me. And she knew that if I achieved those aspirations of hers or chose my own to follow, I’d do it with the name she gave me. It’s a gift my mother chose.

It has taken me years to become the person I am. A great part of who I am is the name by which I answer. I’ve grown into this person who is comfortable with all aspects of herself (even the things she wants to change), and it wasn’t easy getting to this point. I think of Tina Turner in one of my favorite movies, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” when she’s in the courtroom working toward a divorce settlement. She says, “All I want is my name. He can have the rest. But I want my name. I earned it.” I share the sentiment, though not the divorce from Ike or being forced to “eat the cake, Anna Mae.” I’ve worked hard to carry this name around with pride. We’re talking lots of self-exploration, therapy, prayer and mediation and tears.

This name is one of the things I share with my mom and brother. Yes, my father is the way the three of us got our last name, but it, honestly, has little to do with him. It’s about honoring them and the commitment and love we had for one another before the man who is for me came along. And since my brother’s passing, it’s become even more important to me to hold on to that particular connection with him and the mother that we share.

… as I prepare to post this, I can only think of how many more phantom men won’t want me because not only do I not want to change my name but I can articulate the reasons. You know phantom men are afraid of women with brains who use them to express themselves. At least that’s what the women implied that day sitting in front of Caribou Coffee.

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~ by MsInklination on August 11, 2009.

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