What’s In a Name? Feminism After Marriage

I did not take the decision lightly to take my husband’s name. Many people were surprised (because here, here, here, here and here). But I have always known I would change my name, painful as it was to drop my maiden name Thorman, and its matriarchal lineage.

In my family, the women are the strong ones, and my mother is very strong. Thorman was my mother’s maiden name, which she came back to after divorcing her first husband, and she never married my father, who later died too early. I was first and foremost always my mother’s daughter and always had the name Thorman.

I didn’t always like it, of course. What I had learned to say in the most least offensive manner on my tongue would come out the opposite of sonorous from others. No, it’s not THUR-man. And I would always cringe when -MAN was emphasized. Or THOR-. Or anything that wasn’t a quick passing of two syllables on a person’s lips.

But who likes their name when they’re young anyway? Even my first name became Becca or Becka or Bex and I tried to see if I could be Samantha too. Ah, the eighties. When every young girl wanted to be the beautiful and elegant Samantha, and the fun and friendly Sam for short. Even back then we tried to have it all.

As I grew older, my name meant more to me. Thorman came to represent my mother, and our shared history together.  To lose Thorman wasn’t to just shed a name I grew up with, but a name that stood for strength and unconditional love. Many women keep their maiden name for similar familial meaning. Names are part of our identity, however you cut it.

So I could have kept Thorman and taken “a stand against the family’s historical swallowing up of women’s identity.” Or I could have hyphenated. I could have become Thorman-Healy, or even dropped my middle name and moved Thorman up to make room for Healy at the end. The number of naming conventions is many, if not impractical and confusing.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow argues in the New York Times that “the inconveniences [of a hyphenated name] — blank stares, egregious misspellings — are outweighed by the blessing of never having to worry about a Google doppelgänger…. [but] the problem, of course, is that this naming practice is unsustainable.” Growing up, Tuhus-Dubrow constantly fielded the questions, “What will you do if you marry someone else with two last names? Will your kids have four names?”

On Slate’s podcast Mom & Dad Are Fighting (yes, I listen to a parenting podcast; no, we don’t have kids yet), Dan Kois and guest host Hanna Rosin talk about their kid’s last names. Rosin decided to use the combined surname Rosin Plotz for her kids, a non-hyphenated homage to both her and her husband’s name (“Now you can ask me if I regret that decision,” she says. “Yeah! Who wants to be named Rosin Plotz?”), while Kois argues that hyphenated names “feel like a generational Jenga, like somewhere six generations down the line it’s all going to collapse as everything gets piled on top of itself.” Still, he expresses regret that he and his wife decided not to hyphenate their kid’s names at all. “I think that would have been cool,” he says.

And honestly, what’s cool and sounds good often wins out. The path of least resistance is often the most practical, because no one wants to get stuck with the ugly name or a surname seventeen letters long.  

My own decision was a little of that, and a lot about family. I wanted to be known as “The Healys,” I wanted to write “The Healys” on envelopes and I wanted to be secure that our future kids would always know we are “The Healy Family.” I changed my name to create our family identity.

It isn’t about joining Ryan’s family or discarding mine; it’s about creating our own. Some feel the best way to do that is to combine or hyphenate names, to keep their maiden name, to take the woman’s name, or to create an amalgam, while I felt the best way to do it was to take Ryan’s name. There are parts of me that feels pangs for the Thorman name. A name change is never as simple as a few different letters; identity runs deep. And what Thorman represents is still there.

Like I can’t help but cringe when mail arrives addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Ryan Healy” or “Mrs. Ryan Healy.” I do remain my own person, and I would much prefer to be addressed as “Mr. and Mrs. Healy,” or “The Healys,” or “Ryan & Rebecca Healy,” and certainly “Rebecca Healy” if you’re referring to just me. But I am happy we are a unit.

Together, we’ll create belonging and meaning and tradition. You can create that with all sorts of manners of names, but our identity will be under just one. After two hours at the Social Security office, a twenty-four hour hold, another two hours at the DMV, and fifteen days later, it became official.

I’m still Rebecca, and now we’re The Healys.

Did you decide to keep, hyphenate or drop your surname? How did you and your partner decide? What will you or did you name your kids?