It’s funny how we grow up with misconceptions. I always thought that women were, by and large, expected to change their surname once married. In fact, this tradition belongs mostly to English-language countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, India, the English-speaking provinces of Canada, and the United States. In countries like Belgium, Cambodia, China, France, Greece, Italy, Iran and most Arabic-speaking countries, women are not expected to take their husband’s last name.
Of course, just because I grew up thinking this was the norm, doesn’t mean I planned on conforming if/when I ever married. I knew plenty of women who hadn’t changed their names for various reasons (as this article demonstrates), and had always planned to keep my own for life. It was more than just professional convenience and recognition. My birth name also held significant meaning.
When my father, African American, married my mother, foreign-born and Caucasian, in 1958, his last name was Washington, the ‘Blackest Name’ in America, according to the writer of this HuffPo article. Several years later, and to the chagrin of my father’s family, my non-conformist parents decided to ditch Washington for something new – something other than what Malcolm X referered to as a “slave name.” [Watch the first two minutes of this clip to hear him explain the concept: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SldZ-r5pHfA]
My mother took on the responsibility of inventing what would be the new family name. She did it by combining letters from her and my father’s existing full names. The 4th letter in her first name was D. There were three O’s in my father’s name, three R’s between my both of their names. The 1st letter of her last name and 4th letter of his first name was E. Both her last name and his middle name contained the letter L. Thus our last name became D-O-R-E-L-L. And I, the youngest child, was the first to have that surname on my birth certificate.
[Little did my parents know the name “Dorrell” apparently dates back to an Anglo-Norman family that shows up in history around 1066 and seems to have been originally from Ariel, La Manche, Normandy. They even have their own family crest.]
When Kaz, also African American, proposed to me in April of 2010, I explained how (and why) my parents had invented my last name, and told him I wanted to keep it when we married. He then explained how important it was to him that I took his last name. “I’m old school that way,” he said. Kaz’s last name was Smith, the most common North American surname in 1990, 2000 and 2010 according to Wikipedia. Along with Washington, Smith is also one of the surnames of the 74 Founding Fathers of the United States.
The entire year of his illness, we went back and forth about the issue. But by the time we married, on April 22, 2011, I could no longer deny him. When I told him I would change my name, his whole face lit up with a smile. For 11 days, we were “Mr and Mrs Smith.”
After he died, I changed my surname formally, first at the Social Security Agency, then the bank, the DMV, my employer, my healthcare provider, on Facebook. I changed it on every form of identification… except one. My passport. At first, it seemed unnecessary because I didn’t plan on traveling anywhere any time soon. Then someone told me a new bride (who takes her husband’s name) has a year within which to change her name on the passport.
2.5 years later, I just applied to change the name on my passport. But apparently, I didn’t send the proper paperwork. If I don’t send it within 90 days, they will send me my old passport back. The good news is, as I recently learned, a woman who has taken her husband’s name actually does not need to change her passport. However, it is recommended that all your identification be consistent. So, now I must decide if I should go ahead and change my passport to be consistent with my other I.D., or leave it as is.
To be honest, I have thought about one day going back to my original name. I have grown fond of my married name, which has obvious emotional significance too, but one of my fears is that, by keeping it, I might always feel like a widow to the man who gave it to me. On the other hand, if I change it, won’t this be severing the last remaining tangible thread between us?
It’s not something I have to decide right now. But the more time passes, the more I wonder what, if anything, should I do with my name… and when.
Did you change your name when you married?