“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” -Juliet Capulet
In Romeo and Juliet, the young lovers were eager to redefine the expectations placed upon them by a society bent on division, in spite of their well-known surnames. They were determined that their family names should not dictate to them or to their choices!
But what’s in a name, really? Can a name shape you? define you? change you?
A few days after my own wedding, way back in the 1990s, one of my sister split with her husband. One week later, my two sisters and I joked over cocktails that we were all unified, once again, under our maiden name. But that would all change if and when I got around to legally changing my name to my husband’s.
But I had given the question of changing my name a lot of thought. I liked being a Dunne. And I asked myself why societal norms should dictate who takes whose name? Why should I have to change a part of my identity, just because I married? Whey should I support a gender stereotype that originated back when marriage was more about the transfer of goods than about love and partnership? Maybe my husband should take my name, eh? eh?
So all pumped up on Gloria Steinem essays, I decided, defiantly, to remain a Dunne.
But as my family grew, I found that, in my small town, my proud Dunne name caused confusion. My son’s preschool and early elementary teachers assumed automatically that Joe and I were divorced. No one ever assumed that I was his live-in (but awesome) girlfriend or that we were unmarried parents, which is common these days. Instead, they always assumed divorce and separate households, again and again.
And even more annoying, the single moms in town assumed that Joe was available. At little kid parties at the Chuckie Cheese or the Discovery Zone, I watched the small town rumors unfold and young women who didn’t know our family flirted with my husband, in spite of my presence nearby.
So after a few years of parenting as a Dunne, I started hyperventilating……I mean hyphenating.
I became Dunne-Jackson, not because I lost my feminist passion for holding on to my birth name and my strong grrrrl values, but because I was just plain tired of explaining.
Legally, I am still a Dunne. But nowadays, in the community, I am also Jackson, or Dunne-Jackson, all depending on who is addressing me.
So names do carry influence, even when you think they shouldn’t.
A few weeks ago, my book club read a novel about a gutsy young woman who went on a solo back packing and soul searching adventure for four months. In the autobiographical tale, Wild, author Cheryl Stayed was facing a crisis of self. Having lost her mother through no fault of her own, and having lost a marriage through quite a lot of fault on her part, she hoped that this trip would help her find herself.
What I found most amazing about Cheryl Strayed’s story is the origin of her surname. When her divorce papers asked her to select her post-divorce name, Cheryl wondered at first if she should return to to her maiden name or hold on to her married name. But after some research revealed a hole in her state law, Cheryl saw a name change as a potential game changer for her.
So instead of choosing between the two names in her personal history, she started afresh and selected something new. Acknowledging that she’d made some hefty mistakes, Cheryl chose the surname Strayed. She felt that it was a fitting, given her life’s course so far.
But, instead of seeing her new name as proof of unchangeable destiny, she used her new name to become self-sufficient, braver, and to ultimately become more rooted in herself.
Names do have power.
So embrace your name. Let it root you and make you strong. If you are a woman marrying, don’t feel obliged to take your husband’s name. While only ten percent of American women keep their maiden name after marriage, it is your name and identity to choose. Choose what works for you.
For me, my own name(s) have given me a great sense of self, family, and community. As a Dunne, I am connected to my Irish heritage and to my wacky and wonderful Dunne cousins. I am the Dunne woman who was once a Dunne girl from Oak Valley, a girl with Dunne siblings.
As Lisa Dunne-Jackson, or Mrs. Jackson to the neighborhood kids, I am connected too. I am part of the giant, loyal, kind and funny Jackson family and I am part of a warm and engaged vibrant community.
And to those of you who still buy into marriage name stereotypes, it should be clearer to you now that Lisa Jackson’s husband is not up for grabs! Take note of that neighborhood ladies! (He may be older now- but just the same, back off! Otherwise the Dunne in me might come out, and that’s the scrappy side!)
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