Of course, we all know that the tradition dates back to that not-so-distant past when women were the legal property of men and marriage was more of a business transaction in the good old boys’ club. But forget about all that nonsense. Now we focus on the importance of commitment, and love, and two-becoming one by joining together in marriage. There’s no ownership involved.
But the name dilemma remains, despite all the ideas behind it having stepped forward into the present century. The question is, how can the name tradition keep up with the modern ideas of marriage? Because after all, keeping one’s maiden name really only implies keeping one man’s name (your father’s) rather than taking on another man’s name (your partner’s). Is that truly progressive?
While we generally don’t bat an eye when a woman’s last name has fifteen hyphens in it and we actually are quite shocked when a powerful woman who marries the world’s most eligible bachelor chooses to take on his name, when it comes right down to it, it’s still more common than not for a married woman to take on her husband’s last name.
But what happens when this concept is turned on its head and a husband decides to take his wife’s last name?
Mark Tyler, formerly known as Mark Harper, is just such a man, a spouse who describes himself as a “househusband” on Twitter and quips about issues like changing his “maiden name” and the stereotypes that surround female breadwinners.
As Mark tells the story, when he and his fiancée, Carol Tyler, first started discussing marriage, they had all the conversations about whether she’d change her last name to his. Carol saw her options in the way most of us do: change it, hyphenate it, keep her name, and how this decision would affect their future children. Although she wasn’t sure on what she wanted to do, Mark was pretty adamant on what he wanted — for the entire family to have the same last name.
“I’m not sure exactly why I feel that way,” Mark says. “It’s just something that I said at the time and still believe in.”
A few months later, with no decision reached, Carol brought up the subject again — but with a twist. “She said,” Mark continues, “and I’ll never forget this — ‘If we all have the same last name, why can’t it be mine?’”
Although his fiancé was joking, Mark decided to think seriously about her proposition. The fact of the matter was, Carol had an established career as a high-powered attorney, and the couple had already planned on Mark taking the non-traditional role of staying home as their family grew. “She was and is ‘making a name for herself’ in her career and I was not,” Mark explains. “Our plan is for her to be the primary breadwinner and me to be the primary parent. That was part of our deal when we got engaged. So, Carol Tyler was well on her way career-wise while Carol Harper was — who?”
Mark surprised Carol with the news of his decision to take her name on Christmas Eve. She was “stunned,” Mark remembers and even urged him to reconsider. But Mark was determined and after the couple’s wedding, he says that the reaction from family and friends was largely mixed. “The reaction was about 60/40 negative, which means that what people were thinking was probably more like 80/20 negative,” he says. “A number of people just rolled their eyes at me, a few called me a wimp or more colorful terms, and many more directed negative comments to Carol.”
Mark’s story made me think about what it actually means for a wife to take on her husband’s name — even in this non-traditional case, the partner who held the most “power” was the one who kept her name, while the partner who dedicated himself to raising the kids submitted, in a sense, to taking on a new identity. Sure, it’s a choice now to change a name or not, but given what it still implies about power and dominance in a relationship, especially when the roles flip and society doesn’t necessarily fully accept it, it begs us to consider how progressive we actually are when it comes to thinking about marital roles.
As progressive as I consider my marriage to be, there have been a million and a half transformations along the way as I have been forced to consider: what kind of wife am I? Does it make me feel guilty if I don’t cook dinner every night? Do I have insecurities related to feeling like I won’t measure up to my mother-in-law? Are we date-night kind of parents or Netflix-on-the-couch kind of parents? Does my husband think his time is more important than mine because he works outside of the house?
A wife has to answer so many questions about who she is, not only within her marriage, but beyond it as well, as a parent, employee, and woman that exists on her own too. Typically the way her life is defined still circles back to her roles in relation to other people.
And Mark experienced that far-reaching identity change when he began the daunting process that married women everywhere are familiar with: legally changing his last name on all of his official documents.
“One of the last documents I received was my re-named college diploma, and for some reason this had a greater effect on me than any of the other materials,” Mark recalls. “I don’t really know why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that I graduated years before I ever met Carol, and now my marriage to her had reached back and literally rewritten the name on my diploma. This is awesome and cool, but it still feels a little odd.”
It’s awesome and cool to be part of a partnership, no doubt, no matter what form that may be, but to have a reminder every time you sign your name that your relationship has changed everything about your life, your roles, and your identity, is not necessarily a decision we should take lightly. It really does mean something.
So what’s in a name when it comes to marriage?
A little bit of power, a blast from our pasts, a decision about our present, a look into the future, and like all things about love — a little bit of compromise. No matter what that may look like for you.
Image via j&j brusie photography
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