I’m changing my name back. I know. After all the the serious thought, hemming and hawing I put into becoming, legally, Natalie Burg Vial after getting married, I made the wrong decision. I tried it on, and it didn’t fit.
Every piece of mail that has come addressed to Natalie Vial has annoyed me. I scoff at the people in my doctor’s office who look up my file and say, “Oh, Natalie Burg Vial?” Which is insane, because the only reason they have me filed that way is because I told them that was my name. But it feels wrong. It feels like a lie. It’s not romantic or sweet. Every time I hear myself referred to by the (actually rather cool) last name of my (wonderful and loving) husband, I feel the crushing weight of thousands of years of patriarchy grind on my bones.
Not that I have a problem with anyone else changing her name! No, no, each woman should feel free to have whatever name she chooses for whatever reason matters to her. But for me, this is not even a hyperbolic description of my reaction to doing so. It crushed my damn bones. Even though I honestly thought it wouldn’t. I believed, once I was married, I would just get the conventional arguments for changing my last name: (a) that I’d want the same last name as my children, (b) that families should have one name and (c) that it’s important for your husband’s pride. But honestly, I knew I intellectually disagreed with these things: (a) clearly, women stop caring so much about having the same last name as their kids on their second marriage (and isn’t the idea that divorce or death could never happen a wee arrogant?), (b) should your daughters follow your lead, they’re not going to share a name with you for very long, and (c) I don’t even know what to do with the third argument other than be thankful I didn’t marry someone whose pride is so flimsy.
These are observations I’d made before changing my name. So why did I do it? Great question. No one made me. Even though logically it made no sense to me, it felt like the right thing to do. It’s what nearly every woman I love and respect has done, and so I did it.
In 1993, I was 11 years old and wrote an autobiography for a school assignment (I assume. I hope). It was 35 pages long. This will surprise to zero percent of people who know me. I had a lot to say about my decade in existence, and a few thoughts on the future as well. On page 33 (in Chapter 6: Future Plans), I wrote:
“I do want to get married, but I want to wait until I’m good and ready. I’m definitely going to know him at least a couple of years before I marry him. [Check!] When I do get married I’m going to keep my last name.”
I just found this recently while going through boxes from my dad’s attic. I giggled my way through most of it, but when I got to page 33, my spirits sank. I’d never intended to be anyone but Natalie Burg from the beginning. Before I’d heard of feminism or patriarchy or knew what a byline was, I knew I wasn’t going to be happy changing my identity for marriage.
I remember telling people I was going to keep my name when I was a kid. Adults said things like, “You might change your mind when the time comes,” and “you’re going to have to find a husband who’s okay with that.” And while none of these statements individually deterred me, I do believe decades of them, from adults, from people on TV and movies, from stupid Huffington Post blogs and from simply watching so many peers give their names away without apparent questioning, I was simply worn down. I felt, like wanting to be a fashion designer/scientist or dating Christian Slater, this was just one of those silly things I used to think made sense because I was a little girl.
Sue Monk Kidd wrote a wonderful book called The Invention of Wings. In the beginning, when she is a child, one of the narrators announces to her family that she is going to be a lawyer — in early 19th century South Carolina. Her relationship with her father, with whom she was very close, is forever ruined by this statement. For her to believe she could have a career, he knows he indulged her too much. Her education is cut off, and he hardly speaks to her for the rest of her life. To comfort her, her mother says:
“Every girl comes into the world with varying degrees of ambition, even if it’s only the hope of not belonging body and soul to her husband… The truth is that every girl must have ambition knocked out of her for her own good.”
I appreciate that keeping one’s birth name after marriage is not as controversial in 2014 as a woman with a career was 200 years ago in the South. No one denied me access to books for making the suggestion. But something still rings chillingly true about girls slowly having certain ambitions knocked out of them as they grow into adulthood. We compromise in places we might never have thought we would. We sometimes participate in knocking our ambitions out of ourselves.
So later this week, I’m going to be fingerprinted and ask the Washtenaw County court system if I may please have my name back. And again, I’m not saying changing one’s name is a mistake for all women. Everyone has their own reasons for living their life the way they want. For me, however, I made a mistake in not trusting myself. Must undo.
And, if my husband and I happen to welcome a baby girl into the world in a few months (we don’t know the gender yet! Calm down!), I hope that my decision to keep the name on my birth certificate will let her know she’s free to keep the one on hers for as long as she’d like.