Ask Uncle Quo: should I change my name when I get married?

Commenter RG asks:

Not relevant to this post, but curious to your thoughts: Debate is about a 26-28 year old woman who wants to keep her last name in marriage because of her professional identity. My response was to laugh, what identity do you have at that age? I said, sure there are a couple of hot shots – you came to mind – but I bet they could change their name to a peace symbol and still retain their professional identity. She’s not going into witness protection, FFS. curious what you think about name changes at marriage, reputation, and loss thereof? You seem like someone who would have considered it.

I wanna be like Cathy and answer random people’s questions on Sunday mornings!  In homage to Aunt Pythia I will answer as “Uncle Quo.”

Changing your name seems to me like it would be a massive gluteal agony.  Short answer, independent of any issues of professional identity:  Why would I ask my wife to do something I would never do myself in a million years?

Well, here’s one reason why:  there was a time and a place where not having the same name as your spouse was sufficiently weird that it carried with it its own long-term irritations.  But those days, in the social tranche where I hang out, are not just going, they are long, long gone.  As I said in the comments to the other thread, when I think about couples I know at UW, mostly in the “parents of young kids” demographic like me, it’s very hard for me to think of any who share a surname; the only example I can think of is a couple who both took a double surname (separated by a space, not a hyphen) with the wife’s original surname last.  When I think of couples I know in Madison outside the university, I do know some where the wife adopted the husband’s surname, but in each case they go by three names, no hyphen:  “firstname birthsurname newsurname.”

Professional identity:  in math, at any rate, of course this matters!  If you’re 28, you likely already have a Ph.D. and a couple of papers out, maybe you’re finishing a postdoc and you’re about to apply for tenure-track jobs, you’re going to be on a list of 400 applicants and you want someone on the hiring committee to recognize your name and look at your file, and you’re suddenly going to change your name to something nobody’s ever heard?



As for me and Tanya, we got married 10 years ago and never considered changing names.  We had some vague idea of using my last name “socially” but we quickly realized there was no social situation where that felt appropriate.  Occasionally we get invited to a bar mitzvah by my older relatives on which Tanya is called by my last name.  And I changed my middle name on the Harvard alumni list to her last name.  Our kids have two middle names, the second of which is Tanya’s surname, and their surname is mine.  Nobody seems to be confused about the fact that we’re a family.

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17 thoughts on “Ask Uncle Quo: should I change my name when I get married?

  1. flourishklink2013 says:

    As a 27 year old woman who got married to an older and more prominent man last year…cheers, “Uncle Quo”! All your reasoning applied to me, but additionally I wanted to preserve whatever of my independence I could in our shared field. Inevitably I am and will be viewed as “Mrs M, Professor M’s wife who also writes” but if keeping my name means even one person finds my fiction and sees me as “Ms Klink, author,” that will be more than enough to justify my choice to keep my name.

    Dear commenter: you sound awfully well meaning and awfully patronizing. (I hope this young woman asked you for advice, because if she didn’t and you aren’t her husband to be, it’s even worse.) Please deeply reconsider.

  2. Rob H. says:

    I think you’ve forgotten an example…

    To mention an interesting consequence: I grew up in Quebec where it has been very common for a long time for women to keep their name. It turns out that it is also very common for the mother to be the one who calls the phone company to put the family’s listing in the phone book. This made it quite hard to look up your friends’ phone numbers, and made caller ID a bit confusing. (I don’t have a strong opinion either way on the subject, there doesn’t seem to be a sufficiently good option out there, so I’m all for letting each couple decide for themselves. It had been suggested we change our name to Harrison, but we weren’t going to do that…)

  3. piper says:

    hello, nice to meet you, my husband and i have the same last name. :)

    i do not like the default of the woman changing the last name, but i didn’t feel strongly enough about it to ask my husband to change his name or for us to make up a new name (though there is a pre-existing last name that would have easily fit). it made me vaguely uncomfortable to change my name, and i thought about it a lot. that’s another reason why i didn’t want to ask my husband to change his name. b/c it was such a big deal for me even though i grew up assuming i would and my husband presumably grew up thinking his wife would (unless she didn’t want to). even though i’m totally cool with married people having different names and i think it makes sense, i still feel like it implies some particular desire for independence on someone’s part, and i while i didn’t love the idea of losing my identity, i had no desire to strike independence from my family. i might feel differently of course if i’d grown up in a multi-last-named household.

    the reason i changed my name is that my personal opinion is that families should have the same last name. not that i care what other families do, but when i thought about my own family, i wanted my children to have the same last name as both their parents. it just makes sense to me (and when doing mass-mailings i’m grateful whenever i don’t have to write out two full names). i wish there was a gender-neutral way of doing this and as my son grows up i will plant the idea in his head that he might change his name when he gets married. hyphenation of course would solve this problem, but it’s not sustainable (and in my case, no way was i going to go by our names hyphenated) for future generations.

    anyway i totally agree with totally disagreeing with the original person’s phrasing of the question. absolutely nobody should Have to change his or her name if he or she doesn’t want to. but i don’t think it’s because name-taking is inherently stupid (i don’t think either decision is stupid). also if you want to infuriate me, refer to me as Mrs. Husband’s Full Name as my mother did in the beginning.

  4. JSE says:

    Ha, yes, I forgot to include 2/3 commenters in this thread!

    I hope it’s clear that to the reason I disagree with RG is because she seems to have a “the supposed reasons not to change your name are ridiculous” stance. (Forgive me, RG, if this is not an accurate paraphrase.) Whereas I have a “there are real reasons not to change your name” stance, which doesn’t mean there don’t exist reasons TO do it. They just don’t happen to be reasons that apply to my family, and I doubt they apply to RG’s acquaintance either.

  5. My husband and I both hyphenated our last names when we got married. Our initial reasoning was pretty shallow: we had friends with a hyphenated name that sounded cool and my husband wanted a more unique last name. I’ve found, though, that we really enjoy sharing this part of our identity. A lot of arguments against name changing seem to revolve around the need to preserve identity, but for me, my identity shifted when I got married and the name change was a nice way to signify it (like being able to write PhD after your name when you get a doctoral degree).

    The most interesting argument that I’ve heard against hyphenated last names is that it looks like you are subtracting one name from another and therefore subtracting love rather than adding it. Using the plus sign or union sign (\cup) to join the names might better signal how marriage enriches our identity.

  6. Richard Séguin says:

    Changing your name can create some bibliographical confusion if you’ve previously published. A real example: someone changed their first name from Shmuel to Eli. Some bibliographical references to his pre-name-change works use the original name and others use the new name. I’m looking at one bibliography that refers to works authored by both “S. (last name)” and “E. (last name)”, making it appear that they are two different people (father and son mathematicians?). The first time I encountered the new first name in a bibliography applied to a book I was well acquainted with, and which had originally been written under the old name, I wrote to the author suggesting that maybe they had made an error.

    I suppose that a change of last name may be even more confusing. I’m not sure if there standards for handling name changes in bibliographies; if not, there should be.

  7. KCd says:

    Arguing against hyphenated last names because a hyphen looks like a subtraction sign doesn’t make sense. Hyphens are used in writing to join things up. Nobody thinks the compound names Coca-Cola, Swinnerton-Dyer or Harish-Chandra involve subtraction. The only company name I can think of that ever used + to join two names is Gulf+Western, which looks weird simply because it’s so rare. There’s also Google+, but that + isn’t serving the same purpose.

  8. VdS says:

    To add to KCd’s comment: hyphens, minus-signs, en-dashes and em-dashes are different typographical symbols. If you are used to it, you see them differently. For instance, “Birch–Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture” has an en-dash (to link the two mathematicians) and a hyphen (for the double-barrelled name).

    It is not always possible to distinguish them visually. ASCII has only the hyphen. The standard Mac keyboard gives access to the hyphen, the en-dash (option-hyphen), and the em-dash (option-shift-hyphen), but no minus sign as such.

  9. Nick Addington says:

    There was no chance of my wife changing her name when we got married, despite the alphabetical advantages… When pressed on the subject, she quotes Arthur Miller, from the Crucible: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. … How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”

  10. Nick Addington says:

    She also saves all the envelopes addressed to Mr. and Mrs. me, and grumbles about my secret other wife.

  11. Michelle says:

    “Nobody seems to be confused about the fact that we’re a family.”

    Thanks for writing this. The whole “we did it for the children” and “families should have the same name” seems vaguely (or not-so-vaguely) insulting to blended families where not only do (some of) the kids not have the same name as both parents, they don’t have the same name as each other. And “that’s just what I wanted for my family” doesn’t make it any less insulting. (That lower status might be ok for *you* and *your family*. If that’s what *you* want…)

    And phone books and caller id? Really? Does anyone have a landline anymore? Is this really a concern? Or will it be 6 months from now? Everyone has their own cell phone listed in their own name.

    The only compelling pro-name-change reason I heard was a woman who intended to have a professional web presence but whose full name was shared by a fairly popular stripper / porn star, so that would *always* be the first google hit. Yeah, change away in that case.

  12. piper says:

    i haven’t read all the comments, but since the last one seems related to my post, i’ll say this:

    hey michelle (and anyone else), sorry to have insulted you. i didn’t mean to. but when you’re making a decision about what you want to do… you will have thoughts. you won’t have to worry about insulting other people when you have those thoughts. i was sharing my thoughts. i’m not sure if there’s a less insulting way to express it except to say that i don’t mean it to be insulting. for instance there are any number of things that are Fine and Awesome if that’s how they are, but doesn’t mean you would choose them if you had all available options. what i would fully embrace and love in my son is a far greater landscape than what i would choose for him. and i fully admit that this decision, and everything else i do, is influenced by culture and environment and blah blah blah. nonetheless, it would have been absurd for me to not change my name for your reasons, given how i felt, just to, you know, not insult you.

    it can be difficult to talk about these things. like with parenting there are any number of conscious decisions i’ve made, that i think are important, but that doesn’t mean people who decide otherwise are wrong…. but that also doesn’t mean i should choose otherwise. does that make sense? if this blog post had been about a specific parenting choice (say crying it out for baby sleep) and i’d explained why i could never do it, it would be possible that no matter how i expressed myself, someone who did the cry it out thing would be insulted. even if i said i think it’s totally okay for others. b/c that doesn’t make it any less insulting if you choose to be insulted. so i guess i sort of feel that in some sense you’ve chosen to be insulted. i have absolutely nothing against people who make other choices… i assume they make those different choices b/c they start off with different premises and b/c they start off as different people. if on the other hand you’re Exactly Like Me and you Agree with All of my Premises, but did it differently… then okay, i insult you. :) but i really think the chances of that are zero.

    (and since i was sharing my thoughts i included some random unimportant thoughts, b/c i was just talking casually and did not think this topic would become A Thing.)

  13. Chard Nelson says:

    The question never even came up for us, but when I thought about it afterward, my reasoning was the same as yours: I would never ask her to do something I wouldn’t do myself, and I wouldn’t change my name for anyone.

    And no one ever has trouble figuring out that we’re a couple, and no one other than the tax agencies seems to care whether we’re married. Our daughter got my last name, mostly because there were no other kids in her generation of the extended family who did, so we thought it would be nice to pass it along to someone.

    And when I get mail addressed to me with her last name (or vice versa), I pretty much know it’s junk mail.

    My thought on hyphenation is probably colored by my computer career: It doesn’t scale. When the hyphenated individuals marry and decide to mash up the now-four-names, I don’t want to be there to see the result.

    I have had friends who decided they didn’t want either of their original names, and chose a third name they both took, which might or might not be related to both of their original names. Marriage happens to be a fairly convenient time to change your name if one is so inclined anyway. The paperwork is already designed to handle it, and it doesn’t require extra bureaucratic intervention.

    So finally I say, call yourself whatever you want, and let the “official” folks think whatever they want. A good nickname helps you know who your real friends are.

  14. piper, I think that part of the reason my hackles get up (not that my hackles were involved, particularly, with your comment up to this point) when people make those arguments is precisely the same as your reasoning for changing your last name.

    *People near universally get my name wrong if they meet my husband first.
    *I had to explain my choice, with illustrated examples, to my extended family when I was married. In the argument, certain people (who shall remain nameless) said, “if you were my daughter, I would FORBID you from keeping your name!” It was illuminating. I learned a lot about what my extended family thinks of me and my capacity for making independent choices.
    *Many people still call me “Mrs M.” In many cases I have given up correcting them. My great-aunt-in-law can do whatever she wants, she’s eighty and I owe her my love and respect no matter what, but it IS a way in which she disrespects ME every time I see her, and while I can overlook it…
    *My whole wedding day was filled with “Mr and Mrs M!” when that was not, actually, my name. People were well meaning and I appreciated what they meant. It still hurt that they did not know what I had chosen, even though I had been very explicit about it.
    *If I have children, they will probably not share my name. This actually does bother me, but not enough for me to subsume my personal identity into a family identity.

    Because of all these microaggressions and bad situations, I feel very sensitive when people try to explain why it’s better to keep your last name. I appreciate that you made a choice that is yours. Still, I have heard all your reasons before, and I have heard them applied to me by people (so many people!) trying to convince me to change my mind and my name.

    I am planning on weathering these things forever. It is worth it to me to be able to keep the name I have. And I don’t think you personally are a jerk or that you are in any way responsible for this situation or that you won’t raise your son to think progressively about this. I just have a strong reaction to this topic. I hope that explains my perspective, and perhaps Michelle’s, more clearly.

  15. Kevin says:

    I am not planning on marrying any time soon, but I know I would never change my name nor would I expect my wife to. This brings up the question of what to name our children. The solution I came up with was that the sons would take my name and the daughters would take my wife’s name.

    Can anyone think of practical issues which may arise with this idea that I may not have thought of?

  16. Aaron F. says:

    “When the hyphenated individuals marry and decide to mash up the now-four-names, I don’t want to be there to see the result.” (Chard Nelson)

    I favor the convention of giving each child the name their mother got from her mother followed by the name their father got from his parent of the same sex as the child (if that parent exists and is unique). In families where the children, parents, and grandparents are all cis, het, genotypical, nonadopted, and conceived in vivo (plus maybe some other conditions I haven’t thought of), this has an amusing effect: a kid’s first surname tells you which grandparent their mitochondria came from, and their second surname tells you which grandparent contributed their Y chromosome (for a boy) or their father’s X chromosome (for a girl).

    “The solution I came up with was that the sons would take my name and the daughters would take my wife’s name. Can anyone think of practical issues which may arise with this idea that I may not have thought of?” (Kevin)

    Yes: under the conditions mentioned above, this keeps track of girls’ mitochondria and boys’ Y chromosomes, but throws away all the other information. ;)

  17. piper says:

    thanks flourish. yeah, in some sense offering “the reasons” why anyone does anything is a lost cause. none of the “reasons” for which i changed my name are sufficient to decide to change your name. they all require whoever i was or wherever i was in my life at the time. not sure the best way to have the dialogue discussing why one should or shouldn’t do something. or, no, not should. why one would or wouldn’t do something. in some sense the only thing that’s true is I’m Me And This Is What I Did. :)

    i don’t think my reasons would be enough to Change my mind, had i really wanted to keep my name. i think i started with the default of name-change but with a strong feeling that it was also unfair. i had to work through that using “reasons.” did i think sexism was enough to go through whatever (unjustified) annoyances a multi-named family might go through? not for me. (i wouldn’t have taken it too kindly though if my husband had just assumed i’d take his name.) taking away historical issues i decided i wanted us all to have the same name. but if i had started from a different place, i probably would not have assigned the same value to having the same last name. and just as the reasons i changed my name aren’t actually sufficient to imply someone Should change their name, i didn’t feel that the reasons for keeping one’s name (reasons i don’t disagree with) were sufficient to imply someone Should keep their name.

    i imagined having to explain to others why i didn’t change my name (not a reason not to, but i spent my life explaining my first name to people and i’m sick of trying to make my name okay to others), i imagined having to explain to my children why they didn’t have my last name (or their father’s… another choice would have to be made). and all of that would have been fine if i felt it was important that i keep my name. but i didn’t. i think it’s important that we drop the assumption that women will just change their name without giving any thought to it, as though it isn’t a huge sacrifice. and i did drop that assumption, but decided i would still change my name anyway. i also stay at home because i think it is the “right choice” even though i very much support working moms.

    anyway, i stand by my reasons, of course, but i in no way meant to imply that the Value assigned to any of my reasons (versus opposing reasons) were in any way objective or universal. they were just points that hadn’t been brought up, so i thought they should be included. and then everyone gets to assign their own values to the various pros and cons of the name change question.

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