What’s In A Name?

That which we call a rose would smell as sweet.

Not long ago, while picking up my nine-year-old daughter from a play date, I found myself standing in the kitchen of her friend’s house, writing a check for one thing or another, the Girl Scouts, soccer or PTA. As I placed the check on the table, my daughter’s little friend picked it up, read it, then asked:

“Why is your last name different from Christina’s?”

“Well,” I responded, happy to elucidate the options available to modern women.

“When a woman gets married, she has a choice concerning her last name. She can choose to take her husband’s name, to keep her own name, or to somehow hyphenate the two names.”

Thinking the conversation had ended, I gathered my purse, Christina’s backpack and headed toward the door.

“But wait,” she said. “Why did you choose to keep your own name?”

All of a sudden the din in the kitchen subsided and many sets of eyes were on me, including the parents of this nine-year-old. At a loss for words, I froze.

Back when my friends and I were getting married in droves, in the early to mid-nineties, this was a topic of conversation that we engaged in with frequency.  Many women, while grateful for the “choice” that lay before them, struggled with what to do for a name after marriage: keep, hyphenate or change to his.  These scenarios were mulled over many times, from many perspectives be they professional, feminist or practical.

For me, this was not a difficult choice: I would keep my name. In fact, I remember quipping that “I’m getting married, not adopted.”

Keeping my name meant more to me than that smart-alecky reply reflected – it represented an attachment to a composite identity of who I was in the world up to that point: daughter, sister, friend, employee, colleague, graduate student, instructor, and partner. All of these comprised Lisa Gibalerio. To scratch it all and start over just felt like a lot to ask, of not only me, but of all women.

This felt true especially since, upon marrying, men typically do not make any name adjustments whatsoever. I have always found this inequity irksome.  I remember thinking, "We are both getting married, why should just my name change?" Either both names change, I reasoned, or both remain the same.

Then there was the historical perspective. The name change (I was painfully aware), dates back to a time when women were transferred, as a piece of property, from father to husband. On the day of the wedding ceremony, the father "gives away" his daughter, the bride, to the groom. As you may have guessed, I also eschewed this tradition for purely symbolic reasons; my decision to join my life with this man was not a property transfer transaction and I am not anyone’s possession.

Finally, I was not willing to give up such a rare name. I remember when I first Google-searched my name from a nation-wide database, only four or five Gibalerios surfaced and they were all related to me: a father, brother, sister, cousin and uncle.

But, as I stood in that suddenly-quiet kitchen, eyes locked with this inquisitive third grader, I could not access any of these matrimonial artifacts. It all felt like the grist from conversations that, while once important, occurred very long ago.

“I kept my name,” I finally managed to reply, “because a name is an essential part of who a person is, because it is a unique name, and because it was mine to keep.”

“Oh,” she said, and turned away to offer her goodbyes to my daughter, who was waiting patiently by the door.

Not so complicated after all.

Robin Cushman Phillips May 09, 2012 at 12:32 PM
Rebecca Richards May 10, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Hi Lisa: Thank you for another wonderful piece. I related to this completely, since I also kept my maiden name when I got married. It's created some confusion once on a while, but my attitude has always been "this is who I am"--nothing more complicated. I enjoyed your other column on the teachable moment with the hot tub as well...you really have a gift for capturing these common experiences in our lives and translating them to paper in a terrific way. Rebecca
Rita Carpenter May 10, 2012 at 09:44 PM
Lisa, I, too, kept my maiden name, for exactly the reasons that you stated. When I googled "Rita Butzer," I would only find links to myself; when I googled "Rita Carpenter," several others came up. I have always liked having a unique name, even just my first name, "Rita," is not quite so common. Also in the field of academia, name recognition matters. I told my future husband, "if you don't marry me before I get my name in print, then I can't change my name." It was close, but my first working paper appeared a few months before the wedding. He understood completely, in fact, far better than the family whose name I kept! --Rita
Judith Ananian Sarno May 11, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Lisa, nice work... Judith Ananian Sarno


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