I did a lot of research on last names before my first marriage. (Which was 15 years ago, for those playing at home.) I was starry-eyed at the prospect of matrimony, especially given my track record of failed engagements. I’d been planning my wedding in my head for years, it felt like. I also had some actual wedding plans; I had an engagement fall through six months before I met my first husband, and while I fortunately hadn’t paid for anything yet, I’d made a lot of the decisions already.
I was so ready for everything married. The ring. The dress. The registry. The name. Being Mrs. Somebody. I’d been through the whole dating-engagement-breakup loop so many times that I was all but daring someone to actually go through with things for once.
But I was also attached my my own name. All of it. My first name is derived from my uncle’s middle name, my uncle who was killed at the age of 14 in a car accident when my mother was 6 months pregnant with me. He used to rub my mom’s belly and call me Little Tommy. Not wanting to saddle me with Thomasina, she opted for the feminine version of his middle name, Nicholas.
My middle name is the second half of my maternal grandmother’s name, Anna Marie. I never met her, either. She passed away from cancer, three months before my parents were married.
My last name, obviously, came from my dad. Who got it from his dad, who I also never met. (Yes, most of my family is dead. A great deal of them died before I ever was.) He died when Dad was 5. Dad was the only child of my grandmother’s first marriage, and I am an only child, and while I know the name Brown is hardly going anywhere, I felt like I ought to at least carry our little vein of it on a while.
What to do?
After much hemming and hawing, I decided to slide everything over a slot. My first name became Nicole Marie. Both my mother and grandmother have double-barrel first names, and I liked the symmetry. My middle name became Brown. My last became my husband’s last, which I won’t mention here because he’s one of like 4 people in this country with that last name and I don’t want to make it any easier for him to cyberstalk me. (He’s kind of a creep.) I didn’t make anyone call me Nicole Marie. But I did sign the full thing on all legal documents. Which was quite a pain in the ass, to be honest.
A year and a half after we married, we got divorced.
It took me a while to change everything back over. It wasn’t that I thought we were going to get back together (I kicked him out); it was more that the whole process of changing your name is exhausting, and I just didn’t have it in me to go through it all again so soon. Anyone who’s gone through the whole name change saga with anything more than a driver’s license and a bank account knows what I’m talking about here. But finally I did get everything changed. (Confession time: I didn’t get the last credit card updated until I was changing it to my new married name.) And swore I’d never go through that mess again.
But then I fell in love again.
As you may know, I did things in a socially unacceptable order this time around: I had the babies first. So I had to decide what to do with my name long before we married, as I wanted my children and I to have the same last name. After much research into the legal issues, many discussions with my baby daddy, and much reading up on societal norms, I decided that Anya (and, later, Kai and I) would take both of our last names. Perry Brown. Not Brown Perry, because R and I agree that sounds dumb. And not hyphenated, because I wanted the option to use just Brown professionally. (At 28, I had fewer than 5 years of professional experience on top of my degrees. Now I have 20.) Way back when I was researching the matter for my first marriage, I read that when you have two last names and don’t hyphenate them, legally you can use either. That sounded great to me.
What does it matter what order the names are in?
Answer: It doesn’t matter at all unless you live in a small Southern town.
The clerk at the first DMV I went to told me I couldn’t change my name to Perry Brown. Couldn’t. Her supervisor concurred. (I am not a “let me talk to your supervisor” kind of person, but sometimes you have to be.) I told her SSI had no problem with my name. (Or my daughter’s or son’s name, though I didn’t drag them into it.) She told me changing my name with SSI wasn’t legally changing my name, that I’d need a court order to change it to anything other than Brown Perry.
I had to go to two DMVs to get my license updated. The second clerk, at an urban DMV, merely asked if I wanted a hyphen or not.
The credit cards were all changed quickly and easily. Nary a raised eyebrow. But the bank employee was taken aback. “You’re taking his last name as your maiden name?”
Let’s pause here for a moment.
There is no law stating that you have to list your birth last name before your spouse’s. None. In fact, many people do it the other way around. Secondly, the term “maiden name” is a bit antiquated at best, offensive at worst. (Case in point: I was not, by the presumptive definition, a “maiden” when I married the first time.) Brown is my family name. My name. In recognition of the (legal) expansion of my family, I have added my husband’s name to my name, in the order most pleasing to us both. (We did discuss him taking the same name as me and the kids, by the way. Lots of people do that. But he’s named after his father, so his name is as important to him as mine is to me.)
So why does it matter what order the names go in? Well, best I can figure, it’s a way of tracking ownership — figurative, of course. (Or is it?) Before a woman marries, her father “owns” her, as evidenced by the label of his last name. When she marries, she is “given” to her husband (who historically bought her — literally — with a dowry, and in modern times proves he can afford to take care of her by buying her a stupidly expensive ring), and adds his last name to her father’s last name so everyone knows her owner history. Thus is patriarchal lineage traced. (Yes, I realize that’s a very simplified explanation, but I’m not wrong.)
Well, nobody owns me. And it’s not really important that anyone be able to readily tell who my father is — what, are you going to tell on me?
As I kept telling the clerk at the first DMV, first nicely and then more emphatically, it is my name. You can’t tell me what it can’t be. Some people pick a new last name — a mix of each spouse’s last name, or something all together different. There is no wrong answer here.
I do realize I’ve created confusion for future generations tracing the family tree. I apologize to them. And to my children, who have one hell of a moniker to fill in on bubble forms. Everyone else can deal.
But I’ve finally changed everything over. Well, mostly. I’m still updating doctors’ records. My dental appointment reminder came to Nicole Brown Perry, even though I was careful to point out my new name on my new insurance card so they’d submit the bill properly and the claim wouldn’t be rejected. Oh, well. I’ll eventually get everyone on the same page.
A side note: This is such a hetero issue. Can you imagine someone arguing with a gay couple over this? How would you possibly determine which last name “should” go first? But I would be willing to bet that the clerks who balked at changing my name would have had more issues with the gay couple themselves than the order in which they blended their names.