Marna Nightingale lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She is very married.
I put a lot of thought into the question of taking my hypothetical future husband’s name, when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Just as I felt I had come up with a plan, though, I got a girlfriend. Then I turned out to be poly. I now have two wives, a husband, and my birth name, not on principle, exactly, but because when it comes down to it, there is no practical alternative.
We did consider it, but all of us taking a new, made-up name didn’t appeal to any of us. Choosing one of the four names and going with it didn’t work either. As for hyphenation, I think quadruple-barrelled surnames should be given only to minor European nobility, who are presumably issued special passports with extra blank space to fit it all in.
Aside from all of that, I like my surname. If I didn’t, I might think differently; I don’t know. I don’t really think of it as “my father’s name”, either, even though he’s the reason I’ve got it. He carries it; he doesn’t own it any more than I do – or I don’t own it any less than he does.
It’s my sister’s name too, and my cousins’, and it’s been my mother’s name for much longer than her original family name was. It was carried by a fairly famous distant female ancestor of mine, and, finally, for over forty years it’s been mine. I’ve finally taught most of the people I do business with how to spell it; going through that and then changing it would just be masochism.
It doesn’t help that I’m not actually all that personally radical, either. One of the great joys of my life is that same-sex marriage is not only legal in Canada, it’s damn near unremarkable anymore; I don’t have to watch what I say and do, and I don’t often have to fight with people about what they say or do. Even when I tell people that I have three spouses, it barely rates a raised eyebrow, and this suits me fine. I am, at heart, conventional: so long as The Done Thing isn’t unjust or oppressive, I’m happy to do it. Conventions can make life easier.
This doesn’t mean I have no opinions about the politics of name-changes in marriage, just that, especially when it comes to what individuals rather than institutions ought to do about the situation, I try to hold them very lightly.
I believe that people should be allowed to change their legal names, whenever they like, for whatever reason they like, and to whatever they like. I concede that governments and other institutions have a reasonable claim on being able to figure out which individual I am, and on knowing who my next-of-kin is, and whose parent I am, and stuff like that. I just don’t see why it has to done by making it hard to change our names, about which most of us have strong feelings. I’m sure that the federal government already thinks of me as a Social Insurance Number with some syllables attached; why not make it official?
People of any gender should be able to change their names easily and inexpensively when they marry – or when they divorce, or when they transition, or when they leave home, or any other time they like. (Monday to Friday during normal business hours, at least.) Of that much, I am quite certain.
Well, I suppose I do have one more strong opinion, made stronger by trying to negotiate the whole four-person marriage thing: the whole name business, if you’re a woman, is currently kind of a pain, and feeling as if every choice available is some kind of deep personal and political statement makes it a deep personal and political pain. Even when it’s not a particularly difficult choice, even when everyone’s in agreement and it all goes smoothly, or when, as in my case, the choice is obvious, it’s just one more thing we’d rather not have to think about quite this hard. In my case, I mostly wanted to get the name discussion out of the way so we could talk about the stuff we really cared about.
My family may have dodged the question of our own last names, but now we’re trying to figure out what to do about the surname of the child we’d like to have, and already we’re aware that all of our choices are ones that will complicate border crossings, PTA meetings, introductions, and conversations at parties…forever. If I may say a few words? yuck. crap. phooey.
Creating a new tradition is hard, and takes time: fifty years ago the woman changed her name, the man did not, the kids got the father’s name, and not everybody liked it, or even went along with it, but it had this one, sole grace: most of the time, for most people, it was easy.
Easy, on its own, isn’t good enough, especially when easy-for-most-people means oppressive-or-impossible for many people, and so people started rebelling against the tradition, and we now have a state of mild chaos: fruitful, useful, and necessary, but not, I hope, permanent.
Fifty years from now, we’ll probably have a new set of conventions, I think and hope much more inclusive ones. Conventions that work for opposite-sex and same-sex and multi-person marriages, and for people who transition between genders, and for nearly everybody else. And I hope that the options for people who still don’t – or don’t care to – fit the available boxes will be fair and affordable and relatively painless, and then we can all drop the subject and get on with other things.
In the meantime, well, in the meantime we’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got to work with, and nobody really knows what anyone else’s situation is or was, so it’s just as well to be as non-judgemental as possible.
A quick note about images in this series: each essay includes an image of a place that holds personal meaning for the author.
Let’s Talk About Names: Minna is the previous post in the series.
The entire series is available at the Let’s Talk About Names Tumblr.
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