Shortly after I got engaged a coworker told me a story about a friend of his. Or maybe it was a friend of a friend, or a cousin, or an allegory. Point is, there was this lady and she was marrying a man with the same last name as hers. While it’s somewhat common and even encouraged in other cultures, the story was a comical anomaly in this context. The couple—we’ll call them She Smith and He Smith—had figured out that they weren’t related, at least not too closely. It was just a coincidence, one that had the potential to eliminate what is, in my experience, one of the biggest conundrums of modern marriage. It turned out that She Smith was a traditionalist and was so committed to the idea of changing her name upon marriage—rather than relish the happy circumstance that had saved her headache and hassle—that she actually went and changed her name to—wait for it—Mrs. She Smith Smith.
When I first heard this story, several months into not knowing what to do with my own name after marriage, I laughed and said she was a fool who didn’t deserve such good fortune. Now, many more months into confusion and facing a dwindling number of weeks before my wedding, I envy not just her conviction, but also her commitment to changing her name. Sharing a name is a beautiful emblem of marriage; and precedent, even stemming from a dusty tradition, is a decent reason to choose one name over the other—especially if it eliminates the element of surprise. So taking your husband’s last name is a great option—if it’s one you feel comfortable with.
Surnames have the remarkable ability to confer both unity and individuality. They mark you as part of your family, but also as the only one with your first name in the classroom or office or Internet. People are possessive of their names by design and I’m no exception—I like that it gives me a sense of ownership over the Keysers’ tendency to talk over one another as well as the writing I do for work. In that sense, my last name feels almost intrinsic—tied to immutable parts of my provenance and personality. But I want that same sense of inclusion and kinship with my new nuclear family. And changing a name can help make relatives out of people who share no blood.
Plenty of people, like the Smith Smiths, approach marriage with a preconceived idea of how they’ll tackle this issue. And that’s great. Trouble is, there’s no middle ground—no neutral default choice—for couples who want to feel fully married without sacrificing their old identity or making a scene.
When we first started discussing names I pestered my fiance constantly about whether he had a preference—I think part of me was hoping he’d beg me to take his name. Then, I could decry the patriarchy but relent, citing my husband’s happiness as the ultimate motivator and with my feminist credentials intact. But he insisted he didn’t care that much and it became clear that I did—if not about keeping my last name, then at least about finding a perfect solution.
The more I fixated on the issue—searching bylines and wedding announcements for subtexts of sexism and making moralizing snap judgments I shouldn’t admit to—the more I realized I’m not comfortable taking my future husband’s last name. I’m proud of the career I’ve built with this name and, besides, I don’t need a reason to not abide by what is ultimately a gendered tradition.
I had mentioned that I would be willing to change my name if he also changed his, but hyphenating our names would force an even more complicated scenario on our future children. Jokes about taking on a portmanteau briefly turned semi-serious, and I envy any Mc-s, Mac-s, or Von-s who are willing to affix their prefix to their spouse’s last name and call it a day. But neither of us thought “Seiser” or “Keyner” were worth offending both families.
You may have noticed that the path we’ve yet to explore is the one of least resistance. Not changing either last name has a lot going for it, including inertia. It’s great when both people—ones who make a living from their byline, for example—are proud of their individuality and confident in their partnership. A future of inevitably misaddressed mail and mild inconveniences when customer service at hotels or hospitals fails to immediately identify us as spouses might be annoying—but not enough so that it wouldn’t be an easy answer if not for one thing.
In the imagined version of our married life in which neither of us have changed our names, we stumble over the question of hypothetical children: What do couples with different last names do when it comes to kids?
For us, the desire to have a family in the not-too-distant-future is strong and mutual, as is the desire to pass on our respective last names to the kids. It’s not about legacy or lineage—at least not for me. I’m sure past generations of Keysers were great but I don’t have any particular affection for my family history. It’s just a matter of not wanting to feel penalized and ostracized for keeping my own last name. If, in doing so, I become the odd one out of my own family, it sort of feels less like progress and more like a consolation prize.
Only four percent of kids have their mother’s maiden name, according to a recent BabyCenter’s survey. This is a paltry sum even compared to the roughly 20 percent of women who keep their maiden name after marriage—even if a certain portion of the abstain from having kids altogether. So perhaps it comes as no surprise that when couples opt for this most unconventional of routes, they suffer some seriously retrograde flack.
We’re not naming any babies just yet, so when we mentioned to my parents the possibility of calling any future progeny little Keysers, we meant it primarily as evidence of the pitfalls of keeping our last names distinct. Still, my mother—an Ivy League-educated lawyer who wishes she hadn’t changed her name—found the mere suggestion outrageous. She granted that I should keep my last name—encouraged it, even—but insisted that passing on my last name to any hypothetical children was a step too far. As if this whole thing were just about pushing boundaries to make a point. She was, more than anything, exasperated by my harping on the issue at all. I was being overly radical, or pedantic, and at least a little bit shrill. Couldn’t I just keep my name and be with happy with that?
But, I’m not. It doesn’t feel fair. And neither is insisting that my husband have a different last name than his kids. And so we’re back at square one, half-heartedly combing through our family histories for interesting last names and telling ourselves we can always decide after the wedding.
In my search for the ideal solution, I’ve found that people feel passionately about this topic—there are those who feel strongly (and sometimes oppressively) that their choice was the right one, and those who have regretted their decision. But you know what? I think there’s just no good solution. Modern couples have more choices than they used to—but this measure of progress is practically nascent and not one of these choices is perfect. So maybe the best you can hope for is to let yourself off the hook in favor of focusing on the more important parts of marriage. We haven’t been able to crack the code for the ideal egalitarian solution and I don’t think you, dear reader, can either.
But if you have: by all means, tell me about it, please.