Why My Married Name Still Sounds Wrong to Me

Most women in the U.S. still change their name when they get married. Is this a good thing?

Even though I had gotten quite sick of being confused (at least on paper) with a certain Playboy bunny whose name is annoyingly similar to my own, I wasn't champing at the bit to take my husband Joe's last name when we got married. (And not just because it happens to be the Portuguese word for intercourse.) My birth name wasn't just a string of letters used to distinguish my jackets and underpants from those of my peers; it was my identity. It was literally and figuratively who I was.

I hemmed and I hawed and ultimately I let my unborn children convince me that it would simply be less confusing if we all shared a surname. So I took my husband's last name, at least legally, although I never even considered taking it professionally. I hadn't spent decades making a name -- again, literally -- for myself just to forsake it for some dude, devastatingly handsome or not.

I remember the first phone call I ever got asking for Mrs. Coito. Why would someone call here looking for Joe's mom? I wondered. And then the bulb went on: I was Mrs. Coito, too! (That's Mrs. Intercourse to my Portuguese pals.) Fifteen years later, that still sounds wrong to my ears.

The truth is, as women with a choice we're sort of in a fix: We're judged if we do and we're judged if we don't. "When women see our names as temporary or not really ours, and when we understand that part of being a woman is subsuming your own identity into our husband's, that impacts our perception of ourselves and our role in the world," writes Jezebel's Katie J.M. Baker. Her words infuriated many, including commenter Lisasaur, who wrote: "Oh Jesus H. Christ. Guess what? I'm a feminist, and I changed my last name. Why? Because I [expletive] wanted to. Does that make me less of a feminist? NO. Does it take away my identity? Absolutely not. My identity is based off of who I know I am as a person, not my last name. I am just so sick of the implication that MY choice to change my last name makes me a weak, sad little girl as opposed to a strong, independent woman who just wanted to share something with my husband and my future children."

The judging doesn't end there: According to research reported in The Atlantic, only 2.7 percent of students surveyed agreed with the statement that a woman keeping her name was less committed to her marriage in 1990. In 2006, that number jumped to 10.1 percent.

While name-changing is still fairly common in the US (the Jezebel piece states that more than 90 percent of American women still ditch their maiden names when they get married), the practice varies in usage around the world. In Spain and many other Spanish-speaking countries, people have two last names -- one from Dad and one from Mom. In Chile, China, Cambodia, France, Greece, and most Arabic-speaking countries, women do not change their names; in India, Japan and Sri Lanka, they routinely do. Other countries including Iran, Sweden and Portugal adopt a situational approach (this name informally, that one in formal situations, or adding your husband's name as a middle name, for example).

I have to say, flip-flopping back and forth may not be the best approach. For one thing, I have to start every email to a child's friend, teacher or camp counselor with "this is so-and-so's mom" otherwise they clearly won't know since my email address has a different name than my children's. When a customer service representative asks for "the name on your account", I usually have to rattle off three or four possibilities before we nail the one I used in that particular instance. And then there's the matter of my poor husband frequently being called Joe McCarthy, even though I know for a fact he's not a witch-hunter.

The topic came up recently with my kids. "Mommy, when I get married, do I have to change my last name?" my 7-year-old daughter wanted to know.

"Of course not," I told her. "But you can if you want to."

"How come the boys don't get a choice?" she asked.

Hell, yeah, kid, I said in my head. I like the way you think.

Jenna McCarthy is an internationally published writer, TED speaker and the author of five books including If It Was Easy They'd Call the Whole Damn Thing a Honeymoon: Living with and Loving the TV-Addicted, Sex-Obsessed, Not-so-handy Man You Married (Berkley Books, 2011). Find her at JennaMcCarthy.com.

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