name games

You Can’t Waffle on Taking a Man’s Name

Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

It was hard to know what to make of the Black Eyed Pea formerly known as Stacy Ann Ferguson legally changing her name to Fergie Duhamel. Was it retrograde for a famous, self-made woman to take her less-famous husband’s last name? Or was there something empowering about picking and choosing from the plethora of names at her disposal? Did that outweigh the threat of being known as Fergie Ferguson? As it turns out, none of these questions holds a candle to the practical quandaries of having many names.

According a New York Times op-ed this weekend, people who use both their given and married names (to say nothing of stage names) are called “situational name users” and they sow mass confusion with Homeland Security and on the home front. Times editor and situational name user Pamela Paul was once detained in Charleston, West Virginia, while eight months pregnant, for traveling with a form of identification that didn’t match her ticket. But it’s the small inconveniences that sound schizophrenia-inducing:

Building security guards often usher me in to work appointments with my married name emblazoned on a temporary-ID card, or calls up to whomever I’m meeting asking if they’re expecting a person they’ve never heard of.

Even on the home front, the double-identification system has its tripwires. Which name should I use at my children’s schools? How do we register for the school auction, and should I have my credit cards changed as well? Can my husband get away with using my Costco card, and how on earth do we straighten out matters with Zipcar?

Then there’s the emotional component.

My young children are all in a permanent state of confusion about the bylines they see under one name and the family name we use at home. Isn’t our shared name part of what unites us as a family? Why would I want to set myself apart? Recently, my 4-year-old rather poignantly declared that he wished his first name were Paul. On occasion, I find myself reading emotional tea leaves into which name my husband uses when referring to me. Shouldn’t the anniversary dinner reservation be under our shared name? Why did he write a check for me made out to “Pamela Paul”?

It’s all a little melodramatic, but there is reason to believe more women will face the situational name user’s dilemma. Paul reports that the number of women who keep their names after marriage is dropping (from its 23 percent peak in the nineties to 18 percent), at the same time that women are waiting longer to get married and spending more time establishing a professional relationship under their given name. Personally, I think Sean and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter played this one right. It probably helps to have someone you can pay to do the paperwork for you.

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You Can’t Waffle on Taking a Man’s Name