Feminist Decision-Making (Or: How I Decided to Change My Name After Marriage)

There is nothing either feminist or unfeminist, but thinking makes it so.

– Shakespeare, basically

Every so often there is a debate, a hubbub or even a furore about whether a woman changing her name after marriage is “unfeminist”.  The only unfeminist action I can think of is declaring “I’m not a feminist and I think all feminists everywhere should stfu” (or words to that effect).  Everything else – nope.  There is no Big Feminist Rule Book stating which things are and are not OK.  There is no feminist hive mind.  Individual women identifying as feminist will hold every opinion under the sun.

The key to making a feminist decision, in my opinion, is thinking, understanding and acknowledging.  So if you’re considering changing your name after marriage, acknowledge that this is an action which has historically indicated that a woman is possessed by a man, understand that there is still a lot of pressure on women to change their names after marriage and plenty of judgement for those who choose not to, and think about what giving up your name will mean for you.  After all that, if changing your name still seems like a good idea, go for it.

This process works for pretty much every other action which is sometimes labelled unfeminist.  You know: getting married, having babies, not having babies, being a stay-at-home mum, undertaking sex work, enjoying casual sex, engaging in BDSM, wearing a bra, allowing men to hold the door open for you (gosh, being a woman is fraught sometimes, isn’t it?)

Here is my story.  I got married at the beginning of last year, and I chose to change my name to that of my husband.  It was a decision made at the end of a conversation that lasted over a year and began with “You know I’m not taking your name, right?” “Yep.”  I had never considered changing my name after marriage.  In fact, I was one of those feminists who was boggled by the fact that so many women still chose to do so, when it seemed to me to be so unnecessary.

My partner and I got engaged and then spent just over a year planning our wedding.  During that time we really started to nail down what being married actually meant to us (possibly we should have nailed it down before we agreed to get married, but engagements are more about romance than logic).  The answer to that is wildly complex, hugely personal and way too much for a simple blog post, but the main thrust of it is: we were choosing each other as family.

That’s not where I made the decision to take his name, though.  Our surnames are often referred to as family names, but I know that a name is not what makes a family.  My mother, my sisters and I all share different surnames, but this sure as hell doesn’t make us any less family.

We all have different names firstly because my mother reverted to her previous name after she and my father split, and secondly because I chose to change my surname by deed poll back at the start of my 20s.  The name I chose wasn’t a surname anyone in our family had held previously, but it had a familial connection nonetheless, plus a wonderful feminist story attached to it and a certain amount of magic and uniqueness, and I loved it.  I’ve also changed my first name in the years since, although not legally (yet), and in the course of working in the sex industry I answered to many, many names.  So names have always felt a little bit nebulous and impermanent to me.

Anyway, once my then-fiance and I identified that one of the reasons we were getting married was because we were choosing each other as family, we started to consider the idea of a family name to reflect that.  I really liked the idea of choosing a whole new name just for us.  However, my husband has a very strong connection to his name for highly understandable reasons which go well beyond the usual “It was my father’s name, and his father’s before him, etc, etc” tosh.  He wanted to hold onto it, so we considered the idea of hyphenating.

I don’t know about hyphenating.  It’s become such a standard compromise both for couples getting married and for couples with different surnames to bestow on their offspring.  I wonder about the next generation, though.  When Jane Smith-Brown marries Kim Davidson-Howard, are they going to take the surname Smith-Brown-Davidson-Howard?  How long are birth certificates going to have to be when it’s time to register little Tabitha Jenson-Steel-Howick-Robinson-Cooper-Osborne-Myers-Jeffries’ birth?  Despite this, we would have likely pursued that option, but for the fact that my former name would, for various reasons, be difficult for my husband to pull off, shall we say.  And as we discussed the possibility, I found myself not wanting him to have ~my~ name.  It was a name that I’d chosen wholly for myself, and it was a name that was chosen as something of an act of independence from my family.  My surname wasn’t my family name; it was more of an anti-family name.  So it made no sense for my husband to take it as a symbol of the fact that we’d chosen each other as family.

And that’s when I got to thinking about how things were back all those years ago when I chose to change my name, and how I’d largely healed the rifts with my family, and how I’d sort of simultaneously felt like I’d spent so long drifting without a family exactly, and how my strange surname reflected that.  THAT’S when I made the decision to change my name.  Because I was no longer drifting, because I was choosing to anchor myself to someone (who was likewise choosing to anchor themselves to me).

I’m not going to claim it was a profoundly feminist decision.  But it was a profoundly personal and thoughtful decision made by a feminist, and thus it was definitely not unfeminist.

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Grief of Another Kind

Neither my partner nor I will have our fathers present at our wedding. We’ll have our mothers, our siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles and so many friends, but not a father between us.  The reasons for this are very different, though: my partner’s father died nearly 20 years ago, while my father is very much alive, just no longer part of my life.

I don’t much want to go into the reasons for this, because it’s not really the point of this post.  All I want to say is that he’s not a terrible person. He was around a lot when my siblings and I were young.  He never hit us or abused us.  He was often pretty great when we were kids.  The problems came along much later, and they are an ongoing thing.  Yes, big wrongs have been done in the past, but it’s not an inability to move beyond that which is preventing our relationship (and that of my siblings with him).  It’s things in the present which make our relationship with him impossible.

In a lot of ways, I think it would have been so much easier for my siblings and I to cope if he had died instead.  Please don’t mistake me.  I’m not wishing him dead.  I’d never wish anyone dead, least of all my own father.  What I’m saying is that it would have been easier for us to cope, on a personal level, with his death.  We would have cried a lot, remembered what a great dad he’d been, thought about him being with us in spirit, and probably have a grave or someplace to go to to remember him*.

When my partner and I get married, there will be space to remember his father during the ceremony – and some other loved ones who have died.  But there will be no space to remember my father.  You can’t commemorate someone who’s still living.  There will just be an awkward space, a conscientious not-mentioning like Basil Fawlty’s war – “don’t mention the bride’s father!”

My siblings and I have had a long, slow disintegration of our relationship with our father.  Disbelief that someone we love could behave in such an alien way.  Blaming ourselves, trying to moderate our behaviour so he’d start being the father we remembered again.  Being blamed by him.  Being furious with him.  Wondering if we were losing the plot.  Trying to help him (so much time and energy I put into trying to help him – I genuinely believe I have parented him far more than he ever parented me).  And then the realisation that he was no longer being any sort of parent to us, that our relationship with him was actually just hurting us… but still dearly clinging onto fragments of hope that things would change.

Although it’s been some years since I last spoke to him, it’s only been while wedding-planning that it’s really hit home to me that I have in fact lost my father – amidst the celebrants we spoke to asking if my father was going to give me away**, talking with my partner about his sadness that his father won’t be there to see us marry, and wrestling with the decision of whether to invite my father to the ceremony (truth be told, that was never an option.  But it was nevertheless a hard conclusion to come to).  And it slowly and painfully dawned on me that if I couldn’t even invite my father to my goddam wedding, then effectively I don’t actually have a father any more.  The little bits of hope I’d clung onto evaporated.

We’re not really set up as a society to deal with these forms of grief.  We have conventions for losing a parent through death.  Losing a parent because that parent no longer wants to be part of your life… there are no conventions for that.  People don’t understand it.  They think, when it comes up that I no longer have contact with him, that either he was an absuive parent, and I’m always quick to point out that wasn’t the case, or that my siblings and I are harsh and unforgiving.  We’re not.  We forgave so much, and we’d still forgive, but it wouldn’t do us any good.

The last time I spoke to him, I knew it would be the last time, but it wasn’t sadness or anger that I was feeling.  It was just a tired, frustrated, “Fuck it, I can’t do this any more.”  And I got on with my life.  The grief around it has very very slowly snuck up on me.  I didn’t even identify it as such.  I knew I was upset that my father wouldn’t be at our wedding, and that kind of surprised me in itself.  But then, during an epic conversation about our fathers and our wedding, my partner asked, “Have you ever grieved for him?”  And, boy, did the tears flow then.  It’s continued to hit me hard these past couple of weeks, and I’ve been letting it.  I want to be excited and ecstatic about getting married.  But first I need to sit with all this grief – and anger and doubt and even some faint ghosts of hope – so that it doesn’t overwhelm me.

This isn’t really a post with answers.  This is a post to externalise some thoughts I’d been having, and because grief is so rarely talked about outside those accepted ideas of loss.  That grief was a wholly expected and even healthy thing for me to be feeling was quite a revelation for me.  Maybe there’s something you need to grieve for too.

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* I know I have grossly oversimplified.  I know losing a parent is gut-wrenchingly awful.  I’m just comparing my experience with my father to my partner’s experience with his, and, truth be brutally told, I envy him.  I wish I could have my father’s picture on the mantelpiece and smile sadly as I think of him watching over me, instead of living with the knowledge that he is far away not really thinking too much about me.

** Even if my father was the bestest dad evarrr, I’d never have been “given away”.  But in an alternate universe, I would have liked to gently explained that to him and perhaps asked him instead to give a speech.