At a book-launch event, I drained my small cup of flat prosecco and introduced myself to the writer of honor.
“Hi, I’m —”
I froze. After an awkward pause, I said my first name only because I didn’t know which last name to use. Since getting married, I’d been going through a bit of an identity crisis.
I had planned on taking my husband’s name, phasing out my maiden name, and walking off into the traditional sunset. Sure, to some, changing your last name is a patriarchal custom considered prehistoric in the year 2022, but I didn’t think of it as a hostile takeover. I envisioned it as the voluntary start of my married life and future family. I embraced this shift in the months leading up to my wedding, just as I had written Mrs. + my crush’s last name in notebook margins during middle school. The pastel Milky pen surnames varied, the bubbly lettered inevitability of a new name remained.
But after more than two years of marriage, I still hadn’t made the professional or legal transition. Turns out, the prospect of erasing a name I’d had for thirty years unsettled me more than I’d thought. I mean, my work didn’t belong to my husband — why should he get six out of 11 characters of credit? I also worried about judgment I’d receive for subsuming my name and editing my email signature.
So I oscillated between the two, using one professionally and the other socially. My LinkedIn stuck with my maiden; Instagram went to my married.
The split-name solution works for some women who’ve established themselves professionally but want to take their husband’s name for family cohesion. Elizabeth Stevenson (Toomey), a VP at American Express and mom of three boys, uses her maiden name at work and in parentheses. “I’d built brand equity with Toomey and didn’t want to lose that,” she says. She admits that it can get confusing — she’s booked travel under the wrong name, and professional relationships that turn personal can veer into double agent territory. But overall, she finds the compromise worth it to preserve her work identity and share a name with her kids.
Around that same two-year mark, my personal-professional divide was beginning to bother me. Not only did my disjointed status trigger introduction amnesia, it also pitted my biggest desires against each other. I wanted to be a mother with a longing rivaled only by my ambition to write a novel, and feared I wasn’t far enough along in achieving my career goals to focus on sustaining a tiny, screaming life. I wasn’t ready to have kids and live out the reason for my married name; I also questioned whether I’d accomplished enough publicly to insist on keeping my name.
Indecision, as it often does, curdled into insecurity while both names remained nascent: one associated with a career that hadn’t hit its stride, the other linked to a brood that was still hypothetical.
Passing on the man’s name to children isn’t a given, but it’s the default for the vast majority of heterosexual couples in the U.S. About 96 percent give the husband’s surname to their kids regardless of whether or not mom makes the switch — even though women often take on a higher percentage of caregiving. Women who buck the norm deal with other people’s questioning and confusion. In an essay for Time, author Aubrey Hirsch wrote that “a woman passing on her name demands an explanation, while a man doing the same does not.”
A name alone doesn’t make a family. A family’s made in the quieter, unnamable moments: rides to doctor’s appointments, hand squeezes under the table, eye contact that unknots anxiety. Many women keep their names and don’t have issues passing their husband’s name onto the kids. Taryn Petrelli, a high-school English teacher and mom of two, recognized the pros of identifying as a family unit but felt strongly about sticking with her last name. “It felt unfair that I had to give something up,” she says. Others give their name to children as a middle name. Karell Roxas, an operations director and mom of one, did this for both emotional and cultural reasons — it’s a common practice in the Philippines, where she’s from. I also have friends who took their husband’s name but used their maiden name as a child’s first name. Then there’s hyphenating (mom or dad’s name, the kids’, or both), double barreling sans hyphen, flipping a coin, or starting from scratch with a new family moniker.
My husband wanted me to do whatever felt right for my last name, but wanted our future kids to have his. I decided I was fine with this, and when I thought about our children and their shared last name, I realized how badly I wanted in on that linguistic tie. My love for this family would change me — and I was okay with, and even excited by, that change showing up in my signature.
So, after years of writing different initials in the shower steam, I headed to the Social Security office. I legally changed my surname to my husband’s and moved my last name to the middle. I initially dismissed the three-name idea as too much. Who did I think I was, a Supreme Court Justice or a notorious assassin? And yet when I said the name, Avery Carpenter Forrey, I smiled.
While I’d never used my middle name in a byline or professional context before, now I wanted my maiden-turned-middle name out there. I was excited by an additive change, not a subtraction. It reflected my past accomplishments, family that raised me, and the family I’d raise.
I’m in good company. As social-justice activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham wrote, “My name isn’t Brittany Packnett. It’s not Brittany Cunningham. It’s Brittany Packnett Cunningham. It takes up a lot of space, and that’s just going to have to be okay.”
Since changing my name to all three everywhere, I enunciate in introductions and am figuring out how to make both of my life goals move forward. I’m revising a full draft of my novel and trying for a baby. I have no way of knowing how either of these dreams will work out or coexist, but at least I know my name.
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