I married young—at the age of 21. I come from a conservative, traditional family, so the decision to change my name was never really a question. Of all the married couples I knew, almost all of the females had changed their name upon marriage. So I, too, changed my name, without much thought to the matter. It was exciting and I felt like an adult following in the footsteps of the cousins and siblings before me. But, not too far into the marriage I started experiencing a bit of an identity “crisis.” After the novelty wore off, and especially when on autopilot, I wouldn’t always respond to my new name. For 21 years, I had been Gracie X and suddenly I was Gracie Y. Who exactly is Gracie Y? I don’t know, it just didn’t sound like me. In my mind, I was still Gracie X, but people were calling me something else, my signature was strange, and I just missed being who I had always been. I also didn’t expect the baggage of the new name in a new town. At the time, my husband’s family didn’t have a stellar reputation in the small town in which he grew up. (I was a kid, so why would I think of this, and marriage is supposed to entail riding off into the sunset, right?). Anyway, I was unaccustomed to the bad vibes I got when people heard my last name.
I later learned that experiencing an identity “crisis” when changing your name is pretty common for most people. Your name is a pretty fundamental piece of how you define your identity. Why wouldn’t it feel strange to be called something else?
All of these new experiences (and being in a bad marriage) made me question whether I had made a mistake in changing my name (and also in getting married). Long story short, eventually my husband and I divorced. A couple years before parting ways, I had started to work towards a career in academia. Given the lingering misgivings with changing my name and the feeling that my marriage would likely end at some point, I thought about changing my name back to my maiden name even before the divorce. I really wanted all of my publications to be under the same name, or at least not under Gracie Y. The end came during the second semester of my master’s degree, and I changed my name back after the divorce. Ugh, changing my name back was so much more involved than I had anticipated, and the process took over a year. I suppose it shouldn’t have been that surprising; I had more than a checking account by that time. Due to this headache (and the slight longing for my maiden name for several years), I swore that I would never, ever change my name again.
In the years since, I started a doctoral program, published a few articles, found feminism (topic for a different post) and remarried. Although my husband never brought up the issue and honestly had no opinion on the matter, I thoroughly deliberated whether or not to change my name. Why would I want to change my name again? Why do (mostly) women change their names with marriage? What would we do if we had kids? What would it mean to be Gracie Z? What would it mean to keep my maiden name? Well, based on my previous experience, I knew exactly why I should NOT change my name. We would figure out something for kids, when and if they ever come. However, the last question gave me pause. I am not close to most of my family, and they are unsupportive of my life. (Seriously, how often does going for a PhD render you the black sheep of the family?) On the other hand, my in-laws are very supportive and encouraging. They share many of my values and interests. In the end, I decided to take my husband’s last name as a way to embrace my new supportive family and become a “Z.”
I had expected more comments from my feminist friends and colleagues, but never really got any. Instead, I perceived disappointment when they found out—looks as if to say, “I thought you were one of us.” I felt like I had to explain my choice, but I didn’t really want to bring up the subject in order to avoid defensively launching into an explanation. That’s not me. Another aspect that surprised me was the plethora of comments from my male colleagues. Somehow, it was inconceivable that I would change my name; although, interestingly, every colleague’s wife had changed her name. Also, it’s pretty common in our society for people to change a last name upon marriage, so why is it so weird that an academic would?
Now that the newness has worn off, I still absentmindedly forget that I am no longer Gracie X, but that’s ok—I’m a different person now than I was in my childhood. I also do not fully identify with my new name yet, but I’ve got time to grow into it. For me, it is liberating. I get to choose who Gracie Z will become instead of being confined to the previous expectations of Gracie X. This was a deeply personal decision for me, so I’m not advocating for everyone to follow my path; the only thing I advocate is to do what feels right to you and accept that others have chosen what is right for them.