Have it all: take your spouse’s name socially

When you get married, you are creating a family. One way to reinforce that is to have the same name. But whose name do you pick? Do you hyphenate? Do you not hyphenate, and never have a simple time filling out a form again (like my friends the Rabideau Childerses)? Do you make a new portmanteau of your “maiden” names (like my friends the Baker + Lee = Bakerlees)? Do you select a completely new name (like Will MacAskill nee Crouch)?

I submit a new alternative, one I think is by far the simplest– just use your spouse’s name socially and keep your legal name. Many women (and some men) go to the trouble of changing their names legally only to go by their former names socially. Why? If there are two names you wish to use in different situations, one of which is already your legal name and the set of sounds that have been used to address you your entire life, and you have to chose one to be your official name and the other to use fictively in social situations, why not simply keep your maiden name as it is and use your spouse’s name only in the social situations where that’s desirable?

It’s not as if our legal names are our one and only true names. Legal names serve an important purpose as our identifiers in a large system.  But names are rich sources of social meaning in many contexts, not just legal, and we needn’t restrict our use of socially meaningful names and titles to the identifier we give at the DMV. From birth, my legal name has been Martha Hollingsworth Elmore, but my first name is also Holly, because that’s the name my parents called me. “Martha” and “Holly” are both my name, just in different contexts. “Martha” on official communications and school rosters, “Holly” for those who know me personally. “Holly” would be my one true name, if I had just one, and it’s not my legal name.

I personally always thought I would take my husband’s last name (legally) when I got married. I would be sad to see mine go, I thought, but (1) I wanted the family unity, (2) not every ancestor can be memorialized anyway, and (3) I agree with the patrilineal system for naming children. (It gives men a little pride in household and family as well as some assurance of paternity. Why not throw them a bone? There’s no doubt who the mother is.) But then I got married at 21, and I just wasn’t ready to change the very words by which I refer to myself. So I stayed Holly Elmore.

But I still want my children to share my name, and our family unit to have a short and distinct designation. Changing my legal name at this point is really not appealing. I wouldn’t have the momentum of a wedding behind the change, I have publications (including this blog) under Elmore, I have networks that know me as Holly Elmore, and I simply like my name as it is. If I legally changed my last name to Todd, I’d have to figure out what to do about my middle name, “Hollingsworth,” from which my parents derived “Holly.” I wouldn’t want to lose that link between my social and legal names or things could get confusing. I would have to go through all the legal rigmarole of changing my last name to Todd, possibly having to change Martha or Hollingsworth in the process, only to use Elmore socially, like, more than half the time. And, frankly, to have to erase Elmore to be able to adopt Todd would feel like an erasure of my identity. Why does becoming part of something bigger, a marriage, have to supersede my individual identity?

So it hit me. Why not simply use “Todd” socially in family and children situations? Todd doesn’t have to replace Elmore– they can both be in my repertoire. All I really want is a sense of family unity. I don’t want a wholesale replacement of my identity in every context, and it’s just not necessary. Changing your name to your husband’s family name was most sensible when you moved upon marriage to live with his family. You were now of that House. Why not treat marriage the same way today, as gaining a new title instead of erasing your base name? I am Holly, Martha, Dr. Elmore, Lady Todd, Mrs. Todd to my future children’s friends… I can be all these things! And, should Hudson ever want to use my name socially, he is free to do so as well. (“Hudson [Elmore] Todd” could solve the “Todd Hudson” error he has faced every day of his life.) Why is this not already the most popular option?

Changing your legal name to reflect a social change, marriage, also frustrates the whole purpose of legally documented names– to identify the same individual over space and time. Filing name change paperwork and updating every legal form of identification is a hassle for us, and it still doesn’t do that good of a job linking up documents with different names. Chalk this up to my time building a database, but I don’t think the identifier should change every time an alias is added.

I believe I will also give my kids the name “Elmore” socially, without creating legal headaches. “First name” “Middle name” [Elmore] Todd. Possessing my name legally isn’t really what matters to me– what I want is the sense of bequeathing them my legacy as an individual and not just a member of team Todd. I’ll do that regardless, but the name I’ve answered to most of my life is a particularly potent symbol. I’m not having kids yet, so who knows how I’ll feel then, but for now the idea of giving my children my name extralegally meets my needs. Let their legal name and the name they pass down to their children be Todd, but, hell, if my grandchildren want to use Elmore socially, I say why not? As long as they consistently put down their legal name on forms and don’t try to mislead people about their identity, why shouldn’t my descendants use as many of their ancestor’s names as they like?

If we allow legal names to serve their functions– clearly identifying the same individual over time– and social names to serve their functions– honoring ancestors, reflecting relationships and group membership, reflecting our preferences– then the messy issue of changing and assigning names in the making of a family suddenly gets a lot easier. If we don’t limit ourselves to one name to serve every function, I think we can have it all.

2 thoughts on “Have it all: take your spouse’s name socially

  1. I chose to take my wife’s name, and fully embrace it. It took a lot of talks, and eventually some fall out with family members but I feel secure in knowing I made the right decision for family unity and so forth for any future children.

    That being said, I don’t know why, but I get irked socially when people (especially those disgruntled family members) choose to use my old last name on purpose when interacting with me. It’s like a portion of my identity is being invalidated, no matter how many times I’ve corrected them.

    I do see your point, and agree with it.


    1. Names have so many different meanings in different situations– here the use of your old name is invalidating of your choices– that I think a number of solutions for family names need to be available. And, in your case, as a man taking his wife’s name, your decision was clearly not going along to get along. You had to put thought into what was the right solution for you and your family. What I was writing against was the assumption that you have to *legally* change your name when you get married or else you can’t use your spouse’s name. I didn’t really think about this, but taking “Berlanga” fictively would probably have been way harder for you as a man than it would be for a wife…


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