Latest posts by Alexis Record (see all)
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“When women see our names as temporary or not really ours […] that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world. It lessens the belief that our existence is valuable unto itself, and that as individuals we are already whole.” Jill Filipovic
I did it. I changed my last name. I took it back. Cognomen correctus!
In a piece I wrote for this site in early 2015 I explained that changing my last name to my husband’s was presented to me by nearly everyone I knew as the only option for a real marriage. I was told conforming to the man’s name would show respect “to God and your marriage,” yet what it really did was leave me without a surname to tie me to those who raised me.
Good standing in one’s community should not be predicated on changing something crucial about one’s identity. But that’s a blog post for another time.
My married name has bothered me for twelve years. It’s a fine name; it just isn’t me. It doesn’t help that I have consistently received mail over the years addressed to my husband’s first and last name with a “Mrs.” in front to indicate I was the actual recipient. The San Diego Zoo even pulled this on me, which felt like getting a surprise kick in the teeth from one of their adorable koalas.
I had already been using my family name in unofficial ways, including having it as my email address for the last ten years. My spouse and I agreed that if twelve years was not enough time to “get used to it,” then another twelve won’t do the trick either. So we went ahead and started saving our money to change my married name to my family name. My birth (maiden) name would become my middle name.
This undertaking would cost us $435 in court fees alone, making my minor-yet-long-standing identity crisis feel selfish. I have been somewhat conditioned to apologize for taking up space in the world, and this process would require not only a chuck of money, but also a chunk of others’ time in legal filing, court proceedings, and account updates. It would be so much hassle and expense spent on what largely amounted to my feelings. I had to consciously stop saying sorry during this process, as in, “Sorry, but I’m changing my name. Could you show me where to file my paperwork?”
It was also not an easy decision to change the name I had on my diploma, my body of work, my children’s book, or that had been used in my husband’s and my 15 minutes of fame. Yet once I finally decided what my name really was, despite what others told me it should be, it seemed so obviously right. I immediately felt at peace.
The court paperwork was confusing at times since I filled it out “pro per,” which just means without the help of a lawyer. The only really difficult part was when it asked me to explain (I interpreted as “defend”) my decision. After staring at that blank space for a long time I finally wrote that my married name never felt like my identity. I hoped that was sufficient reasoning for whoever makes such determinations.
Next I was required to put a legal notice in the newspaper for four weeks prior to my court date. I’m surprised they didn’t also require I announce it on AOL Instant Messenger and use my pager to inform the court. (/sarcasm) This cost me an additional $60 in pure ridiculousness. (Updated total cost: now $495!)
As I waited outside the courtroom I was picturing an older male judge who had never in his life felt the gendered pressure to change his name. I imagined him glancing at my case, raising an eyebrow, and then asking me how my husband felt about it. (Every single person I had told about this decision had asked that very question.)
Because of this fear, I ended up begging my husband to get the morning off work and come with me to show that he was supportive. It was as if we were back in the olden days and I was asking to buy property all by my lady self. The extra support was welcomed emotionally, but turned out to be completely unnecessary. No one asked my husband’s opinion or permission. Nor should they have.
The bailiff called me into court using my married name. I stood in a group of four people and we were quickly asked to raise our right hands and swear to tell the truth “so help you God.” I had to ask to redo the confirmation without religious language so it would be as sincere as possible, and I think that surprised the judge as she had referenced God as the Creator already in her introductory talk, assuming it was universally accepted. (#atheistproblems)
The bailiff then called out my new last name for me to come get my official documentation. It was deeply validating. I grinned for an hour afterwards as I smoothed out the four copies of signed paperwork, slightly paranoid that a single wrinkle would somehow invalidate all the work I’d done.
There is no time limit to do this, but I immediately went to the social security office to request a new card, the DMV to request a new license, the bank to request a new credit card, and even Costco for a new membership card. The Costco card was the only thing that didn’t have to be mailed to me as it was printed right there at the desk. Right now it’s the only thing with both my picture and my new name on it so I carry it around with me everywhere and treat it like my only ID.
I’m so happy. Just… yeah.
The only downside of this process has been explaining to everyone that my name change and my marital status are not connected.
Target RedCard services: “No marriage or divorce paperwork? What was the cause of the name change then?”
Library: “Are congrats in order or was it a divorce?”
Bank: “Marriage or divorce?”
Social security office: “I need either your marriage or divorce paperwork.”
DMV: “Do you have your marriage or divorce documents with you?”
Four strangers so far: “Can I ask how your husband feels about this?” (I didn’t mind this question from close family, but strangers?!?!)
Insurance customer service: “You can submit your change online and just include your marriage or divorce paperwork.”
Passport help line: “Please include the marriage or divorce documents. Also it will be $110!” (Total is now $605!)
Costco: “Name change? Cool! Here’s your new card!”
(This whole thing has become a surprising plug for Costco.)
It’s like, OKAY I get it! A woman is only supposed to change her name under two conditions! I realize the vast majority would be included here, but would it kill anyone to just say “documentation”? Or if they must list each individual document, adding only one completes the set: marriage, divorce, or court order. That simple change would mean my name is no longer tied to the status of my marriage.
Shocker: My name change has nothing to do with my spouse, and everything to do with me! My own name is not a threat to the man in my life.
This whole process has made me realize just how important identity is, and by extension how vital a name is to that identity. Cultural and societal pressure can be powerful external forces. No one threatened me with violence to change my name on my wedding day, and no one literally blocked my way when I wanted to change to my family name, yet multiple pressures were there working to keep me in a name that made me uncomfortable for twelve years of my life.
For me, the first step in taking that power back was to be true to myself.