Friday, August 31, 2012

Name notes

I get asked sometimes about my decision not to change my last name, or from well-meaning family and friends, "wait, what is your last name actually now?" because while I had plans to change it (that did not involve taking my husband's last name), and while I batted around the idea of swapping one of my hyphenated names for his last, I ultimately decided that I would just keep my name.  So I wanted to check in and talk about how it's worked out for us to have three last names for two people.

I feel like lately, it's gotten so much more common to take your husband's name.  And frankly, I find this disappointing, not in a "that's so un-feminist" way, but in a "there's nobody here at the keeping-my-last-name party but me!" kind of way.  Simply put, I feel a little left out.  I feel a little stodgy and old school and second wave feministy about it, like I'm clinging to an antiquated notion that not changing my last name is the only way to keep my sense of self.  

Objectively speaking, I know that isn't why I kept my name.  I kept my name because I never ever thought I would change it.  I think ultimately that is what it came down for me.  I was raised to never change my name, and frankly, I approached name changing like a man (why would you suggest I change my name? That's ludicrous.).  It never occurred to me to change it, and therefore changing it wasn't really an option.  I only thought about changing it when I realized it would make my life easier, and then I battled with it a lot. 

For the most part our family has been pretty good.  Every year, I sort christmas cards into, "like", "annoyed with" and "can no longer be friends with" piles. Anything addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Hisfirst Hislast goes in the "can no longer be friends with" pile. The jury is out on people who call us Mark and Ellie Hislast.  I recently sent a package to my sister in law and forgot she changed her name, so I can certainly understand somebody who didn't grow up in Bethesda forgetting I didn't change mine.  I don't think that they are passive aggressive attempts to remind me that I'm a bad woman for not changing my name, and I make gentle reminders.  I also keep my rants about incorrectly addressed mail to myself, my husband, and my other friends who kept or will keep their names.

I did want to touch on being a professional with a hyphenated last name.  When you are an attorney, your last name is what you practice under. I have to use my full name in court, and I have started to get a sadistic thrill out of being in front of new judges who struggle with it.  Some of them learn it, some of them call me Mrs. Secondlast, and some of them just call me Counselor.  I haven't yet figured out how to correct them about calling me Mrs. Secondlast (Mrs. Secondlast is my grandmother, mind you), politely, in open court.  My business cards say Eleanor Firstlast, because I believe it is easier for my clients, but I will use my full name with them on the phone sometimes if I forget.  Some of the judges clerks and the courthouse staff is a bit confused about my last name because of this decision, and despite the fact that I just got another brand-new box of business cards with just my first last name on them, I think next time I will put the full hyphenated name on them.

Once I started practicing under just one name, I thought it would be so easy.  Turns out I was wrong.  I realized that it's not just having a hyphenated last name that makes my name difficult - using just my first last name is really difficult!  It ends in "f" and no matter what, it sounds like "s".  I cannot enunciate it properly.  I was listening to my husband spell his name over the phone recently and realized that every single letter was easy to hear, and was overcome with jealousy.  My second last name is not much better, thanks to an uncommon spelling featuring a double "n" that sounds like "m" over the phone.  

One thing I realized that was hard was that I really identify as a person with a hyphenated last name.  My last name is arduous, but it is distinctive.  People remember me because of it.  I don't get lost in a shuffle of other people's last names.  People don't always remember my last name, but they remember that it's long.  It's weird because in many ways, I curse my name and the way I was raised.  Why couldn't I just be one of those girls who is so happy to be Mrs. John Smith and eagerly trots off to the DMV with nary a second thought?  Yet here I am, relishing being Ms. Firstname-Lastname as I get older, although I can't fight the need to clarify to people that the whole thing is my maiden name.  

Another issue is that I was concerned that people would think it was weird to have three last names for two people.  That people wouldn't believe us when we said we were married.  I have not had this happen, ever.  I have a friend whose had some issues, but here in Baltimore, last names do not a family make.  Hyphenated last names aren't that weird.  Kids with different last names aren't that weird.  Married couples who don't change their names aren't that weird.  And nobody that works for the city really cares that much anyway.

The biggest advantage of my name lately has been a certain amount of privacy.  Things like our car and our utility bills are registered in my husband's name.  Even if somebody tried to figure out where I lived through those means, they would have a difficult time.  This is good when you work in an industry where people kill people when things don't go their way.  I'm trying to figure out if I can register for my hockey team using my husband's name or something, to try to better cultivate a public/private persona and hide my name from the internets a bit.  Has anyone had any luck using a married name socially without making a legal change? I would especially like to do this with kids, because I would be worried about my kids safety and privacy (if I keep this job.)

Do you have a hyphenated last name? Did you keep your name? Change it? How has the process been for you?