I absolutely love your column and baby name advice - if I ever have any baby name questions your column will be the first place I go! This, however, is not about any future children. This is about my, and my fiancé's, married names.
Here is the situation (and apologies for the long email) – simply put, I want to share a last name with my fiancé and our possible future children. I don’t LOVE my fiancé’s last name… it’s fine but feels very Midwestern (which we both are but live in NYC). I also didn’t LOVE my current last name growing up, but have spent 20+ years getting over it and have now grown to embrace it. A lot of that has to do with my love for my family, all of who do and always will have my current last name (parents will stay together and I have two brothers who will not change their names). Because I have grown to love my last name and I know I will also grow to love my fiancé’s last name, I have come up with the following solution – I will move my current last name to a second middle name, and have four names, so I’ll be “Annabella Emilia Pickles Smith”.
Now here is where I need your advice – I’ve asked my fiancé to consider doing the same. He is a feminist (like me) and neither asked me to change my last name nor cares if I do or not. He understands my desire to have one name as a family though, and does not want to change his last name (which I believe has a lot to do with carrying on his grandfather and father’s name).
What I’ve asked him to do is the same as me, move my maiden name, “Pickles”, to be his second middle name (no hyphen). He would be “Fergus John Pickles Smith”. We wouldn’t give my maiden name to our children, so our joint second middle name would just be something for him and me to have together.
While I originally thought this would be an equal and modern take to an antiquated idea (Hey! We both get to gain a name and neither of us has to lose one! Cool, huh!?), I’m afraid he is going to do it because I want him to, not because he wants to. He loves me and my family, and I know if I really wanted him to change his name, he would. BUT, I want him to do it because he thinks it’s a great idea and thinks it would be special for us to both share a name together beyond his family name
His reactions so far to the many conversations we’ve had have been confusion, indecision, consideration, acceptance (“if that’s what you want, love”), and, after pushing him to have his own opinion on it, a final “let’s give it more thought.”
But here is the issue I am having – is it fair of me to ask him to change his name since he has not asked me to do the same? Should I let it go since he wasn’t 100% onboard the first time I brought it up? Is it worth fighting for because maybe he just needs to move past the initial shock of being asked to change something he has never had to think about changing?
FYI, we’ve scoured many other options (“what if I keep my last name and our (future) kids have my last name,” “what if we both just keep our last names,” “what if we hyphen,” etc.), but nothing feels as “right” for ME as this solution. One final note, and not to throw a wrench in this whole discussion, but if he does not want to take my last name as his second middle, I would potentially reconsider using four names as well and just simply take his last name and lose mine (since this idea was born out of doing this together as a couple).
Oh…wow. Oh boy. I want to use an affectionate word here to confer that I feel how tied up in knots you are, but ‘oh, Honey’ feels condescending and ‘Dude’ is odd given the context, so all I have is, ‘Hey. You. I Acknowledge You’. Here we go:
You know how there are certain books that stay with you even though there’s no real reason why they should? I read a book as a tween-ish age kid about a girl who discovers she has Type 1 Diabetes, and I can still remember entire passages and phrases. The interesting part about this is that many of them are not about the central story in any way… which is maybe what made it so memorable, in that the lead character had a multidimensional life. There’s a whole section, for example, about a mother and daughter arguing about stating the temperature in Celsius vs. Fahrenheit, and then there’s another sequence about a gym teacher telling a group of 12 & 13-year-old girls they don’t have to change their names when they get married (it was written in the early 80s).
But what I remember is that the girls were all focused not on what they would do if/when they got married, but what their children would do, whose names they would take on or hyphenate or etc. At which point the gym teacher, who was written as very feminist and forward thinking, is like, ‘Yeah it’s complicated. Shrug.’
I bring this up not just to reminisce about one-off YA books of the 1980s (which get less nostalgia bumps than the series that were popular then) but because the gym teacher’s prediction was correct, and also in line with William Goldman: nobody knows anything.
The idea that a family would all have the same last name was popularized by North American culture and shots of the mailbox outside the Beav’s house and The Brady Bunch and whatnot, but it’s not as widespread a ‘given’ as we’ve been led to believe.
First of all, there are many, many cultures where surnames don’t work that way, due to language rules or cultural ones (people in Quebec, for example, are not allowed to take their spouses’ names), and as we also know, not everyone with the same last name is related.
So first off: Whatever you choose is… fine. Honestly. If you want to have the same name as your children and so change your name, it doesn’t make you any less a feminist. If you decide that you want to keep your name, it doesn’t make you less committed to your family or your children. You’ll be their parent no matter what, and your bond will be millions of experiences strong before they ever clock who has what last name, let alone understand what a common surname does or doesn’t indicate.
But you didn’t ask about maybe-future children. You asked about your fiancé, and whether it was ‘fair’ to ask him to change his name (or, more accurately, add a name). You further say that you’re asking him to do this – or maybe ‘proposing’ is a better word – but then you want him to want it for himself, not because you want it. You say you want the double name not to extend to your children, but that it would be just ‘something you have as a couple’.
This is where you’re causing yourself problems.
Your fiancé grew up as Fergus Smith. He’s always been Fergus Smith, and all his life, whether he assumed he’d be married or single, he figured he’d be Fergus Smith. That’s probably true of most men of marrying age in 2018. There are exceptions, obviously – I know a man who took his husband’s name when they married, and he’s not the only one – but generally speaking, this hasn’t been an ongoing concern for men who are 30 and above. Even a devout feminist who realizes his future spouse might or might not change their name, or realized future children might have one surname or another, probably doesn’t consider changing his own name as a thing that could happen.
Again, exceptions abound, and I’m sure somewhere there’s a guy with a hyphenated last name who is dying to ditch one or both of them, but as a blanket statement, it probably hasn’t occurred to him before now.
By contrast, women who have grown up in a common-surname subculture, i.e. “We’re going over to the Jansens”, have known they would someday make a choice. “Well I’ll change my name if I get married!” “I definitely won’t, because xyz reasons.” We make a binary choice somewhere along the way, and check in with ourselves periodically. “I always thought I would/wouldn’t change my name if the situation arose. Do I still think that? Is that still the choice I want? Yep.” You might never waver in your decision to change or not to change, but you’ve considered the possibility or the assumption or the convention that you might, and then come up with the answer that is right for *you*.
But it’s a new idea for your fiancé and you’re running into trouble because you want him to treat it like you are—like he’s been considering it for the last 20-30 years the way you have. You want him to have strong feelings – to ‘want it himself’ and to ‘have an opinion on it’ …but I can totally see why he doesn’t, and why he’s getting frustrated by you wanting him to WANT this, as opposed to wanting to make you happy.
First, taking on a second middle name, as you propose, is not going to change his life or his worldview or his work email, so it probably doesn’t seem like something that warrants this much discussion. If it was changing his name, that would be one thing, but it’s not.
Second, you say you want it to be something that will be ‘just for the two of us as a couple’. But at the risk of stating the snarkily obvious, that’s what your marriage is going to be. Your whole life is going to be. Regardless of what your name is. I promise you that.
You know that expression ‘She tried to make everyone happy, and so nobody was?’ This is what’s happening here. Originally when I read your letter my gut feeling was that you didn’t want to change your name, but felt that you shouldn’t feel that way. But upon rereading it and seeing that this is the option that feels more like you, I think what you actually want is for your fiancé to make a compromise that’s as big as the one you feel like you’re making. Real talk? It isn’t and it’s not going to be. If you’re not hyphenating your names, nobody will refer to him as anything but Fergus Smith, and most of the time they’ll call you Annabella Smith. In the current configuration, it’s a guarantee that your name will change more than his and you’ll have more feelings around it than he will.
I know you feel strange about it – like, you’re sharing the planning of a wedding and the way you’ll start a family and everything about what your life will look like, but you feel weird that this one thing is going to be different for you than for him, and no amount of second-middle names is going to change that inequality. If that’s untenable to you and that balance of feelings is what really, truly matters most, then your choices are either to keep your name or to propose that you both change your surname to something else entirely (like ‘Universe’, as in Sloane Crosley’s amazing book I Was Told There’d Be Cake). Which is, as they say, a choice, one way or the other.
You know what I can definitively say you should do? Put this decision on the roof. There’s no time limit on when you change your name after you get married. Live with it for a year or so and see what you think, and whether it matters as much as you thought it might. You’ll be a lot clearer about what matters and what doesn’t and whether you really want to be the Smiths (as some people will call you regardless) or whether, as in many cases, you grow more attached to your maiden name once some people assume you’ve ditched it.
Mostly you’ll realize the following, which is probably a universal truth in marriages: you can’t make someone have feelings about something one way or another, if they don’t. But you’ll grow clearer about how much you care about the issue at hand.
It’s gonna be fine. Deep breath. Let us know.