Having it both ways: on changing – and keeping – my name

Nov 17 2015 Published by under having it all, transitions, women in science

If I can find a way to get exactly what I want without compromising, why shouldn’t I go for it? That’s what I thought when I made the decision about my name, a personal choice that people make for many reasons, as has been written about by others. When I got married, I was a postdoc with several publications from graduate school that were important for my future career, and knew I wanted to keep my name for consistency in my CV, publication record, and network. But I also appreciate tradition and wanted to have the same last name as my partner and future children.

So I did both! I changed my name legally to my partner’s last name, and I continued to use my original name professionally. It was never even a difficult decision for me. I asked around and heard from a number of people that this was possible, though I never met someone in science who had actually done it. A friend had a mother who had done this and said that it was often difficult because she would use the names interchangeably and so others never knew which name to ask for, but I thought that since I am very good at keeping distinctions this would be no problem for me.

The institution at which I worked when I got married was so easy to make the change with – when I submitted the forms to change my legal name, I simply submitted an additional form to use one name legally and another name professionally. This allowed me to change everything with my insurance, taxes, etc., but maintain everything business related with my professional name. It was a system that was already in place which worked beautifully and I never had any issues there.

At my next (current) job, I found right away that there were going to be difficulties. I thought that since this was a bigger institution there would surely be the same kind of practical solutions in place as my previous employer had – surely many people had come before me who had used this system. But no, there was nothing for it! I had to choose one. I tried to work around the system – I ended up registering everything in the beginning with my professional name so that I could get an email address and ID badge according to what I wanted for business. Then I submitted all the documents to change my legal name as I would if I had just gotten married – what a pain! It generally worked the way I wanted, but with a couple of complications. First, there is supposedly no way to change my name in the directory – it has to be my legal name; so if any of my colleagues try to look me up with my business name they can’t find me at all. The other issue that comes up more often is that even though the distinction is clear to me where I should use each name, it is not clear where my institution uses each, so I have to be prepared for either. It can be a waste of time trying to work with someone to find the right name in the system, and it can be embarrassing when a colleague is with me and I have to explain the whole thing.

So far, besides the hassles described above, I’d say there’s only been a real problem once. I traveled to a professional conference, which I registered for under my business name. I traveled using my legal name, of course, and brought appropriate identification. When I tried to register in-person for the conference, they had a strict policy of only giving the packet, which included a Visa gift card used for food at the conference, to registrants with ID. But I don’t have any legal identification with my original name (besides my original birth certificate and marriage certificate, which I am not in the habit of carrying with me), and I hadn’t even brought my institutional ID with my business name. They eventually let me register when I showed them my confirmation email, but it was a major hassle.

I anticipate a handful of experiences like this in the rest of my career. If I was going to be at my present institution longer, I would try to see if I could make improvements to the current system for myself and for others to follow who may need similar situations, but I don’t have that fight in me today and am just trying to make due the best I can for now.

Would I recommend this choice to others? Yes. Would I do it again if I was to do it over? I don’t know… I’ve since thought more and more that I might prefer to keep my own name – and deal with whatever hassles come from that decision to have two last names in the same family. But as it is, I am definitely proud to have each name, and I encourage people to not feel stuck choosing between options when you can have it all!


7 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    Did the same thing, pretty much the same experience. Some institutions handle it more gracefully than others but it's perfectly workable, and I am happy with my choice as well.

  • Zuska says:

    Does no one think to ask the dude to take on two names? Why should he miss out on the pride of having both names, and the thrill of negotiating life with a business name and a legal name? Call me a hairy-legged feminazi, but I just don't understand why this "tradition" signifying transfer of ownership from daddy to hubby is something to cherish.
    Two people each taking a new, or combined/hyphenated name - that would be something else. One person with two names is a recipe for confusion. I respect your right to make your own choice, but long for the day when "taking my husband's name" is just a story in history books. Or should I say herstory books.

    • sweetscience says:

      Zuska, many people do think to do that! I like this listicle of things men can practically do to support feminism: http://www.xojane.com/issues/feminism-men-practical-steps , which includes considering a man taking on a woman's surname as a viable and even preferable option.

      While I agree that the tradition of changing a woman's name as a signifier of ownership is outdated and just wrong in our current society, there are a lot more subtleties that fall under culture and family dynamics for each individual to consider. I do like the idea of both marriage partners taking a new/combined name, but that wasn't going to work for me.

      On your criticism of two names creating confusion, I think anyone who cares will figure it out pretty easily and anyone who doesn't care enough to get beyond confusion is probably not someone I want or need to understand this choice anyway. Although if you think of it like a celebrity using a stage name, it's no big deal, it's just what some people do, without apparent confusion.

      • Zuska says:

        Yeah...the culture & family dynamic pressures on women to take the dude's name are what I want to go away. Same-sex couples are excluded from that culture/tradition/family dynamic stuff for the most part. They have to craft their own new traditions and solutions for the name game.
        Celebrities do have stage names, yes, but everybody knows who they are, right?
        How do you look up your old high school or college friend or former colleague if she's changed her name to Mrs. Dude?
        I get that there is pressure from various sources to do it. I am just sorry this is still the case in the 21st C.

    • JustaTech says:

      My husband and I had an 'energized conversation' about name changing and hyphenation. I said I would be willing to hyphenate (even though both of our names are really long) if he was. From the look on his face you'd think I'd asked him to cut off a limb.

      I'll keep putting it off.

    • DJMH says:

      I don't know, I like the "Team Hyde" aspect of it. If you aren't planning to have kids that might be less of a concern, but we were, so it was.

      Considered the mash-up or hyphenate but in our particular case, it was exceptionally awkward/bad sounding. There can also be other dynamics--husband is from family of (recent) immigrants, and keeping his name was important to him as a link to the past and culture.

  • gmp says:

    I have several examples of female colleagues who married young, changed their name, then divorced. Most went back to their maiden name and didn't change again when they married for the second time.

    There is a colleague who got married and changed her name in order to have the same name as the kids, thinking she'd keep her maiden name professionally. Lo and behold, she moved to my university and found out she could only submit grants under her legal name, the one that is connected to her HR and payroll record. So she is in an unenviable predicament that she cannot in fact submit under the name her colleagues recognize her by. She explicitly told me she regrets having changed her name. Last I heard she was planning to change her name AGAIN to resolve this not small professional issue (I think either go back to maiden or include both maiden and married names as a new family name). Lucky her, she gets to do all the paperwork again!

    I kept my maiden name, so I am the only one in the family who doesn't have the husband's last name. He would have loved for me to change my, but doesn't insist; he's more passive aggressive about displaying his displeasure. When I got my citizenship a few years ago, he was disappointed as he thought I would change it then. He said once, in front of the kids, that I am not part of the "Hislastname family" because I don't have the last name, to which you can bet that I tore him a new a\(hole. I bore 3/4 of the "Hislastname family." My kids would sometimes say a similar thing when very young, to which I say I am Mrs. Hislastname and it's OK to call me that even though it's not my legal name. Men can be and sometimes (often?) are a\)holes about this issue, but why wouldn't they be? They have it the way that suits them and of course will grumble at the change.

    All other justifications aside (professional etc), the thing is -- I like my last name, a lot. It's mine and it's awesome and I want to keep it. I don't particularly like my husband's. Both names are weird and foreign. I didn't even want to hyphenate or have the kids hyphenate because both last names are unusual and longish, and I don't feel the need nor should I saddle the kids with two weird long last names hyphenated that scream "ALIEN!!!" My kids know who their mother is, even if the name is different. If all those bedtimes and washing their butts and cooking their food isn't enough, me erasing part of my identity isn't going to help.

    And I am all for what Zuska says -- I would be all for men and women changing TOGETHER into a new family name if that's what's desire (my friend from grad school and his wife both hyphenated, so men like that exist). Not the woman automatically being expected to give up the name she's had all her life "for the tribe." It's the joint tribe, not just the husband's tribe. (Re DJMH's comment: My husband is also a recent immigrant; he gets three boys with his name, why does he have to get me? My dad had no sons, I think he deserves an offspring with his name on on this continent, no?)

    This is an issue where many women fall back into proscribed roles and can offer all sorts of justifications or exceptions, and we can argue all we want, but the reality is that the husband and/or family wouldn't want it any other way and communicate it loudly and clearly.

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