Alizah K. Lowell, LCSW-R, CEDS, Guest Author
When Joy got engaged, she was excited and ready to dive into planning her wedding. Questions from friends and family started popping up: When’s the big day? Have you found a dress? Are you going to change your last name?
Joy sat in my office expressing her ambivalence about taking her partner’s last name. She had not planned on doing so, but found herself wanting to consider it. As we explored her thoughts and feelings, we began to understand the complexity of the decision.
The more I listen to people in my practice, and in my life, the clearer it becomes that this decision has a range of meanings, and can be approached in very different ways. Here are some things to consider:
Changing your name can represent a shift in identity.
Our identity forms over a lifetime and is based on different parts of ourselves, including our culture, race, ethnicity, values, spirituality, sexuality, and gender. A person’s identity is what makes them a unique individual—and our names are part of that.
When Eva was born, she was given her mother’s last name as a middle name and her father’s last name as her last name. Her parents divorced when she was in elementary school, and as she got older, using her mother’s last name in certain contexts felt more important to her, as it represented, for her, a way to maintain connection to both parents.
Years later, when Eva was getting married, she decided that this was an important marker of change in her life, and she wanted her name to represent that. She decided to take her husband’s last name, and stopped using her parents’ names altogether. Creating a new family with her husband became the most important part of her identity.
When Mia got married at age 26, she decided not to change her name because she strongly identified with and felt connected to her family of origin, particularly her father’s side of the family. Her last name represented her lineage and the family within which she felt solidly rooted, something she wanted to preserve as a foundation for the family she and her husband hoped to establish.
Is it important for you to share a last name with your children?
Jen wanted formal recognition of her nuclear family by sharing a last name with her husband and children. Her identity as a mom felt compromised to her if she did not share her children’s name. “I didn’t want to call my son’s school and have the school not know who my kid is because my last name is different.” Her decision to take her husband’s last name was an intentional and deliberate way to define her family.
Sara and Emily hyphenated their last names when they got married. When they decided to have a child, Emily carried the baby and the couple gave the girl Sara’s last name. For them, their daughter’s last name represented a connection to Sara as the non-biological mother. Sara’s role and identity as a mother was represented through sharing a name with her child, while Emily’s was established through her pregnancy.
How does your partner feel about the options and what they mean?
Aaron is newly engaged. He feels strongly that neither he nor his partner should change their names. “His name is his name and mine is mine. Why would marriage change that? To me it feels like when people get married and one partner takes the other partner’s last name it suggests that the person who changes their name now belongs to the other person.” Aaron detects a power dynamic embedded in name change and worries it could impact the relationship negatively. He and his partner spoke about what changing their names meant to each other, and together agreed on the decision to keep their own names.
Mark sees himself as traditional: His parents just celebrated their 40th anniversary and both of his siblings have been married for years. In each instance, the woman took her husband’s last name. When he got married, he wanted to follow in that tradition. The custom marked an important milestone for him and asking his wife to take his name held a lot of importance.
Our identity is what makes us who we are. As we move through life’s stages, making decisions that reflect our values and beliefs is essential to feeling good about our choices. No matter what you and your partner decide about the names in your family, be thoughtful about the choice you make and take the time to reflect on what your name means to you and your identity.
Copyright © 2015 – Alizah K. Lowell. Alizah K. Lowell LCSW-R, CEDS, is a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in full-time private practice in New York City. She is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute’s Psychoanalytic Program. In her practice, Alizah works with individuals and couples and specializes in treating eating disorders and body image disturbance.
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