By Jaime Cunningham
I'm getting married next spring, and I've decided to keep my last name. And, honestly, most of my reasoning behind it has to do with convenience. In order to change the name I've had since birth, I'd also have to change all the paperwork associated with it—the name affiliated with my Social Security number, credit cards, passports, apartment lease, degrees, and student loans, and several other accounts or memberships I'm sure would slip through the cracks in the process.
I'm not a feminist. And even if I were, by keeping my last name, I'd still be holding onto a man's name (my father's). I'm fine being addressed with my future husband's last name in social settings. I'm happy for our kids to take his surname. I'm just not OK with dealing with a lot of red tape in the name of tradition.
But I'm making an unpopular decision. According to the results of a national survey released last month, 71 percent of Americans said it's better for a woman to change her surname to her husband's after marriage. Only a mere 29 percent disagreed. What's even more shocking is that nearly half of the respondents supported the idea of government regulation requiring name change.
It makes me wonder: Does it really matter which decision a woman makes about her name after the wedding? Does society really expect me to take my future husband’s name? Are there severe social and professional consequences to holding onto my surname? How will it affect my kids?
Some sociologists think that the popularity of the age-old tradition of taking the groom’s name shows that society’s opinion on marriage isn’t changing as much as we think. "The claims that we are moving toward equality within families has been overstated," says Brian Powell, coauthor of the study and James H. Rudy professor in the department of sociology at Indiana University. "When there's such resistance to women keeping their names, maybe we haven't moved as quickly as we think."
According to Powell, many of the respondents’ reasons had to do with tradition and the concept of family unity. Religious references were sometimes brought up, including one respondent who said, "We don't want to follow the way of Sodom and Gomorrah!"
Despite the fact that women now have successful careers and have moved forward in so many ways, it seems that men still dominate in the home. "There's still a male bias in our family systems," says Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of public policy in the department of sociology at Johns Hopkins University who did not work on this study. He explains that although the days when men owned their wives and children are long gone, Americans still retain a little of the traditional, male-dominated view. "There's a sense that one name is better than two and that the husband's name and family is more important, and that's tradition. It's a lingering sign that men have more power. The greater of two equals."
But in terms of the societal drawbacks for women today not changing their name, Cherlin doesn’t think it’s too severe. “A few decades ago, a woman keeping her name could be seen as not accepting her husband's role as the family head. But today most people don't view husbands as automatically heading their families.”
Only a few of my friends are married, but their decisions vary on how to play the name game. "I hyphenated mainly so that all my kids should share at least a part of a last name,” says Cyndi Lopez-Martin, 33, of Sacramento, Calif., who has three children, one of them from a previous relationship. “My husband hyphenated too.”
The majority of my female friends and acquaintances, however, have actually taken their husband’s last name. I’ve noticed a growing trend of female friends I’m linked to on Facebook keeping their maiden names as middle names, and taking on their husband’s last names as their new surnames, like Angela Chang Marlaud, 31, of San Francisco. “I took my husband's last name because it seemed natural. Being married is another way of evolving as a person and, for me, incorporating my husband’s name while keeping my maiden name is a reflection of that,” she explains. “I didn't feel any social pressures or expectations since I think it's completely up to the individual to do what seems comfortable to her.” Daria Blake Walton, 35, of South Gardiner, Maine, made the same choice. "I took my husband's name because I enjoy paperwork,” she jokes. “Seriously, more because I love him and am a traditional kind of girl. I did make my maiden name my middle name, so it's not gone forever."
But will changing their names midcareer affect their jobs? Paul Hoch, certified business coach and vice president of sales for the Sacramento, Calif.-based Business.com, hasn’t seen it really impact anyone, although he has noticed that many women tend to hyphenate their names at marriage. He advises brides-to-be to consider the professional consequences of a name change. “Look at the overall financial impact of taking his name. How will it affect your career?”
Changing your name once you have established yourself in your career could lead to some confusion in certain situations─like if you change jobs within your field. But it’s probably more dependent on how high profile your name might be. So, if you’re a writer, physician, or defense attorney and already have established a reputation, suddenly changing your surname could affect future earning potential. A lot of women avoid this confusion by hyphenating their surnames at marriage so they still retain their established (maiden) name in some form. Some women try to find a balance. "I took my husband's name legally, but kept my maiden name professionally,” Kerry Cavanaugh Kandel, 32, of Los Angeles, writes via e-mail. “It's gotten confusing, though, as professional and personal life intersects, and I'm increasingly going hyphenated. But our baby has my husband's last name."
Children are often the deciding factor, says Laura Hamilton, also a coauthor of the study and a graduate student at Indiana University. Rachel Adame Anderson of El Paso, Texas, found that to be true. "I kept my name until we had our daughter, and then I hyphenated,” she explains. “As a teacher, I am sensitive to the confusion it causes at school when parent and child have different names."
But are kids confused if Mom holds onto her maiden name? Probably not. "They know who Mom is and they know who Dad is,” says W. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. Still, there will be hassles, he says. “Teachers, coaches, and school friends can sometime get confused trying to match children to a mother with a different name. I don’t think this necessarily has a lasting impact on children, unless the difference in surnames is linked to a lack of a common family identity.”
Serena Carbonell, 33, of Chicago, kept her name after tying the knot. “[My husband] wanted me to keep my own name for, I guess, the feeling of independence—he is very passionate about being married but not losing your identity,” she explains. “I, also, did not want to deal with changing any legal documents. That all seemed to be a serious hassle.”
I'd estimate that my friends' choices run parallel to the results of a 2005 survey out of the University of Florida that showed that 77 percent of women were choosing to take their husband's names after marriage, while only 18 percent decided to keep their last names, and the remainder hyphenated or took new names.
Well, at least my choice to keep my name would be acceptable in Montreal. Quebec law mandates that both spouses keep their names. It probably saves the province a lot of paperwork.