Is there a better way to change everything about your life than by changing your name? Because while it might not completely erase your circumstances, it definitely allows for a new you, if in name only. So this week, we’re looking at what’s in a new name — for yourself, for your favorite TV characters, for your boat, for your stripper, for your son and for nearly everybody (and thing) in between.
Catherine, a 37-year-old working in human resources in Canada, only asked for one thing for Christmas when she was 17: For her surname to be changed to her mother’s. “My dad was mostly absent save a few cameos, and he fully checked out when I was 13,” she explains. “I realized that I had no attachment to him whatsoever and I should really have my mom’s last name.” Catherine got her wish and has gone by her mother’s last name since. “After the change, I felt more connected to a true sense of family and history,” she continues. “Before, I had a name stuck to me by a guy who wasn’t good for much more than getting my mom pregnant.”
Sarah, a 44-year-old policy analyst from New Zealand, also changed her last name because of her strained relationship with her father. “To begin with, it was a personality clash — we have very different ways of seeing the world,” she says. “It got worse over time because I have a fairly severe chronic illness that he won’t acknowledge because it’s too much of a bummer.” She decided to change her name legally while she was in high school, and like Catherine, she chose her mother’s family name. “She raised me, so it seemed ridiculous to still have my father’s name,” Sarah, whose parents split when she was five, continues. “I didn’t want a name that I had by patriarchal default, that connected me to a family I had an awful relationship with instead of the one that I felt I belonged in.”
People raised in traditional families commonly adopt their father’s last name by default: According to one survey, just four percent of mothers pass on their maiden name to their children. But for anyone with a difficult relationship with their father, a paternal surname can be an unwanted burden. After all, names are a “crucial factor in developing your sense of self” and can influence one’s social standing, choice of spouse and perhaps even career — so having such an obvious and intimate link to an abusive or estranged father can be unbearable for certain individuals, some of whom take matters into their own hands by changing their surnames.
All of which poses an immediate question: What should they change their surnames to? For Catherine and Sarah, the decision was simple; they had strong relationships with their mothers, so they adopted their maiden names. For Joshua, a 33-year-old Californian who recently changed his surname after a relationship breakdown with his entire family, his new surname needed to represent a complete split from all of them. “It wasn’t just my dad, although, of course, the change felt very directed primarily at him,” Joshua explains. “I was asked to do something I couldn’t bear in order to continue being a part of the family, and when I declined, I felt like I needed to mark that divorce with something permanent, public and legal.” As such, he took his wife’s surname, both for the sound and to ensure some sense of continuity, given that both of them had already changed their first names when they transitioned.
Since the 1970s, feminists have been critical of the pressure women face to take their husband’s surnames, causing a rise in the number of women keeping their maiden names after marriage. Despite the rise, however, Laurie Scheuble, a sociologist at Penn State, told The New York Times that women taking their husband’s last name is still “the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect,” and around 80 percent of women still do it. In other words, the practice is still a live feminist issue, with some people insisting that it’s antifeminist for women to change their names after marriage.
But for many people, especially LGBTQ+ individuals who find comfort in a queer chosen family, taking a spouse’s surname can feel much more affirming and transgressive than keeping a family name — because familial estrangement and rejection are common for LGBTQ+ folk. Each person has idiosyncratic family dynamics, and changes their names for such varied reasons, that it’s difficult to draw lines in the sand about which decisions are “feminist” and “antifeminist.” People change (or don’t) their names for practical reasons (“I’m not changing my bland-ass last name to his bland-ass last name when I just renewed my passport,” one woman told BuzzFeed); aesthetics (“I took my husband’s last name because my maiden name is Coward,” another said); and as we’ve seen, a fuck you to abusive or estranged parents.
Others, however, keep their family names for exactly the same reasons. Adam, a 31-year-old graphic designer in Nevada is a trans dude whose dad hasn’t been cool with him coming out. “Keeping his last name has been an important power move for me, in that I won’t get rid of this family tie even if he won’t acknowledge me as his son,” he explains, adding that his father insists on mourning the loss of his pre-transition self rather than continuing the relationship. “Keeping the last name for me is important to keep my family history and my personal history intact, because my transition isn’t a big change in my eyes,” he continues. “It’s just being who I’ve always been.”
Obviously, the trouble with names, especially for people who wish to avoid patriarchal surnames, is that unless some unusual matrinaming has occurred in the family, your mother’s maiden name or spouse’s surname is still ultimately a man’s name. Even the ostensibly equitable Spanish system ends up hiding women’s surnames once grandchildren are born. “I was about to change my last name since it was my father’s,” says Melody, a 23-year-old customer service representative in San Diego. “But right before I completed the paperwork to get my mom’s maiden name, I realized that I’d just be switching to another man’s name who was also abusive to the women in his life.”
Short of concocting a completely new surname, it’s very difficult to land on a name that has no cultural or personal baggage whatsoever, as Melody discovered. “Any name I change it to would be a man’s name,” she continues. “I’ve thought of changing it to an unrelated word, but I haven’t discovered what would be best for me, so I’ve just kept it — for now.”
Safe to say, then, that anyone who keeps their father’s surname isn’t necessarily making a ringing endorsement of their dad. Sometimes there’s just no better alternative.
Names have been changed in this story for privacy.