In the middle-school years, I penned my name in careful cursive and precise block letter and nearly bursting bubble letters. Sometimes, just my first name. Once in a while, my initials. But often, in the secrecy of my bedroom, I’d fill journals and scrap paper with what I dreamed would be my married name.
Mrs. Jessica Main
Jessica Ashley Main
But like an armful of black rubber bracelets, double-layered OP polo shirts and pinch-rolled jeans, that crush on a Mr. Alex Main faded. And so did any dreaminess about changing my name.
I don’t know when the confidence rooted that I would never change what is on my birth certificate, with marriage or a career in writing that makes a pen name seem protecting and romantic. But I remember the day it was solidified.
My grandfather preaches
My grandfather, a Methodist minister who loved good intellectual discourse, looked around his home one Christmas. I must have been 12 or 13 and was surrounded by my aunts and cousins, my parents and brother. My dad, he noted, was the only man bearing the Ashley name (this doesn’t count my aunt who unofficially changed her first name, Shirley, to Ashley, and has been unable to convince anyone in our family to call her for the 25 years since).
My grandfather’s eyes rested on my brother.
“You’re the only one who will carry on the Ashley name,” he said seriously. He seemed disconcerted about that discovery. My brother was 8 or so, far too much of a baby himself to conceive of liking someone enough to get married or even more, pass down a surname.
“No he’s not!” I piped in. I didn’t even think before shouting it out. My grandfather looked up, even more confused. “I will carry on the name. I am an Ashley.”
I remember his smile, kind and still knowing far more in his years and experiences standing at altars before couples than I could. I don’t recall if he nodded or laughed or entertained the idea, but I remember insisting.
“I am keeping my name,” and I held on to that promise and Ashley from then on.
It wasn’t that I wanted to please my grandfather as much as I saw myself as being an important part of the family and of the lineage. I didn’t need that to be lost to loving someone else or making a commitment to them. Jessica Ashley was who I was and is and always will be.
After that, it never crossed my mind that I would change my name. While my friends debated hyphenating and others took on new initials and some signed marriage certificates with their maiden names, I didn’t feel judgy (OK, maybe a little, but only for the friends who swore they’d always keep their names or who danced around the one-name-for-personal-stuff and another-name-for-professional-stuff). But when I stepped back from their bouquet tosses, it really didn’t matter much to me what women I know chose. It is a personal decision, and I knew mine far before I met the man I’d marry.
My co-worker interrogates
After I met that man and just about a year after we’d sealed our relationship legally, a coworker of mine got deep into a conversation with me about why I was still Jessica Ashley. Not even a hyphen? Or two surnames?
He couldn’t stop himself, and well past the point of intrusion and obnoxiousness, he asked, “What if you were marrying someone famous, like a celebrity? What if you were marrying a Rockefeller? Would you change your name then?”
I suppose it is a fair question. Does a wedded name change depend on the name?
The answer is not easy. If you were a person considering changing your name to match your spouse, who had a last name of BoogerPants or Flycksnewskiczngetter or Dick, would you take that on? I think it’s worth a debate. And I have certainly had friends who considered all sides of a god-awful/quirky/rhyming/spelling challenge/mispronunciation-prone/serial killer’s/same exact last name before they got married. I respected them all for considering their options, and some chose to be Mrs. BoogerPants while some are now Mrs. Johnson-Dick and others are called by the same name they had way back in seventh grade. I just always wondered why no one was asking the man to bow out of his name and take on hers.
While my annoying coworker’s scrutiny may have elicited a complicated response from many other friends, mostly women, I know, there still was doubt about my answer.
“No,” I said plainly. “No Rockefeller or Pitt or Clinton or Clooney. Why would their last name take precedence over mine?”
I walked away, shut my office door and ended that talk. But the conversation was far from over.
My then-mother-in-law totally ignores
In fact, it was an ongoing, passive aggressive thing with my mother-in-law. Although we’d discussed several times that I would not be taking her son’s last name, not in full or by hyphen, a full year later, she was still sending correspondence to me at Mrs. Jessica Ashley-HerSonsLastName. It was important to her, and I got that, because that last name was a part of her identity. She was proud of it. It defined much of her existence as wife and mother, and she seemed confounded that I did not share that swell of pride.
My byline speaks
I had my own swell of pride -- in seeing my full name on a byline, on my approved thesis, in the credits of a documentary I made, on personalized work notepads, on a desk placard in the office where I was alone to shake my head and why my name was such a problem for everyone else.
We all know the answer to this, and we all know it is because women’s lives and success are still aligned with the man they stand beside at the altar, in the workplace, and many other places where we find ourselves shaking heads and answering asinine questions about our very own existence, our very personal choices. Who we belong to matters.
One way to see this, and a way that a long-standing and as-yet completely unbroken history of sexism and racism and heterosexism still runs rampant in our culture and our families and on our certificates from birth to death is that women are property and our name indicates which clan we’ve joined, not the one we came from. There’s plenty of feminist scholarship that dissects women’s names and marriage, and I invite you to explore that -- deeply. It is a fascinating debate that feminists worldwide have included in theory and essays and lectures. I’ve certainly questioned myself about why, as a lifelong feminist, I’ve grasped so tightly to my father’s name and to winsome concern of my grandfather. It’s a patriarchal cycle and you might well criticize me for churning it on and on.
That moment, though, standing in the triangle between my brother and father and his father, I got something that was bigger than those men (and my grandfather was a big man, in size and spirit). It was about radically opting out of what felt like a dumb assumption based solely on my gender. It was about taking charge of what I am called.
I wanted to belong to me, and part of that meant holding tight to the name my grandfather thought would escape me. That didn’t mean I couldn’t make a commitment -- I did. It didn’t mean my vows weren’t sealed -- they were. It also didn’t mean (and doesn’t mean now) that my friends who chose to take their beloved’s name were any less themselves or any kind of right or wrong. Making the choice could be seen as a radical act, one that my grandmother would have never considered. For me, though, my maiden name is emblematic of the person who grew out of grammar school crushes and went on to do and grow into much more herself.
My signature stands
As it turns out, my name outlasted my marriage. And that, to me, is a good thing, a relief. After six years in a relationship, five years married, six years divorced, I still have the same signature.
And just as it never occurred to me to be anything other than Jessica Ashley, there was never any option for me other than hyphenating my son’s last name. With MyLastName-hyphen-HisDadsLastName, his moniker might be seen as a consolation prize to an unsatisfied former mother-in-law. To me, the one with my own one-ingredient recipe for a surname, I see his long last name as one part from one family, one part from another and all his own. (You can read more on the controversy of my son’s hyphenated last name here.)
My lady-friends choose
Just as I spoke with many women friends who were ready to walk down the aisle about whether or not to take a betrothed’s last name, I have talked to many of them about what to do once they walk out of the courthouse.
Should they go back to their maiden name? Keep the married name? Use two names? Wait to see if they get married again? Same conversation, different certificate.
The choice is still, as it was, their own. But maybe it’s a harder choice, especially if there are children and careers and associations and relationships that feel more set in stone or at least harder to crack. I like to think that we, on the PTA and in the next cubicle and whipping off holiday card addresses and in networking introductions, are all malleable enough to withstand a divorced woman’s name changing, which is a funny thing to ask for when I didn’t advocate it changing in the first place. Again, personal decision. Once more, we still think it says something important about who we belong to.
Me? I am glad I didn’t have to go through the cost and complication, emotionally and logistically, of altering my Social Security card and credit cards and bank notes and illegible little scribble of initials -- not just once, but twice. It’s a relief to have that mark that, at least just to me says, Still Me.
Rockefellers, Pitts and now you
Perhaps you will read this and, no matter what your name or choice to change or not, feel criticized. That’s not my intent. It is, though, to question how you feel on this side of marriage or divorce about the name you have and the decisions you’ve held. That question is about you. It’s about me. It’s about every hyphen and maiden and married name choice out there. Not about Rockefeller or even Pitt.
Does your name say anything important about who you belong to?
Is there any regret in changing or keeping your name?