Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mrs. S? That’s my mother-in-law.

Recently, I received a letter for the family, addressed to “Dr. and Mrs. S and family.” Mrs. S? Try "Drs. S & T and family," or something like that, please.  I was seriously peeved.  It wasn’t the first time this sender, and others, had deliberately chosen to forget this important detail: I kept my last name when I got married.

Growing up, I never thought I would change my name. My mother kept her maiden name. Interestingly, she came to this country in the 70’s, when many women in the US started keeping their name in the spirit of feminism.  But her reasons were different. Where she came from, most women did.  It was cultural, customary.  So I grew up thinking I would do the same.  And when I went to grad school in my 20’s, it seemed funny to me to trade in my professional-personal-ethnic-family identity for someone else’s ‘til death do us part. That’s when I also started noticing the great name divide: the keepers and the changers.  Two of my friends kept their last names.  But many friends I knew didn’t. And there was plenty of trash talk on both sides.

A colleague basking in his newly minted married status explained to me how his wife changed her name “so our children won’t be confused who their mother is.” I had to suppress a chuckle on that one.  Throughout my childhood, I knew who my mom was, thank you very much.  Lots of head-scratchers about my parents, but that was not one of them.  Growing up in one of the reddest-most conservative-backward-religious states, I was often called a chink (and to them I would like to say, if you’re going to insult me, at least get it right. The correct pejorative is “gook.” But I digress.). But no one ever called me a bastard.  Because everyone knew who my mom was.  She was the chink-y looking lady who picked me up from school in her orange Toyota Corolla every day. Duh.

My keeper friends scorn those who changed their name.  “Why would you ever give up your identity and become property of your husband?” they roll their eyes and sneer.  And I have definitely stooped to that, even saying to a friend of mine at her wedding, “You’ll always be Ms. B to me!” Ouch. Many apologies, Mrs. T.

Fast forward 10 years later, and I say, hey sisters, let’s give each other a break.  We’re the lucky ones, where our last name does not signify that we are the property of our father or husband.  We aren’t required to register to vote under our husbands’ names--if you can believe it, that was state law in some places until very recently.  Ultimately, unlike women generations before us, we have many more choices in life.  And one of those choices is whether or not to take the last name of our spouse. In the liberal state of Massachusetts, currently 87% of college-educated women are changers, and 13% of women are keepers, down from a peak of over 90% before 1975, but up from about 80% in 1990.  And that’s fine by me.

To my family and friends:  If you are 80 years old or older, I give you a pass.  This is a generational thing. I get it.  If you didn’t know I kept my name, I give you a pass—the first time.  Next time, before you send out that chintzy family holiday card, do what many friends have done and call to ask how to address that envelope (FYI: the T & S family will do fine).   If you went to our wedding and know I kept my name, you have no excuse.  If you call your self gen-X, Y, or whatever, you really don’t have an excuse.  Again, it’s a generational thing.  If you went to any fancy pants ivy-league-esque college or have an advanced degree or call yourself a liberal in any way...shame on you.  You know plenty of women (professors, mentors, classmates, friends) who didn’t change their name. I am one of them.  Do me a favor and remember next time. And if you fall into all of the last three categories (as the sender of the card in question did) well you’ve got me stumped.

For those of you out there who like to gossip, let’s dispel some myths. Consider the following statements: 1) I don’t love or respect my husband enough to take his name. 2) I don’t love my kids enough to share the same last name and bask in glow of our family unit.  3) I’m a bra-burning, man-hating feminist. 4) I’m saving my time, hassle, and money in paperwork just in case this marriage doesn’t work out. Sorry to disappoint the rumor mill: all are false.

Anna Post, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette had the following to say in the matter:

“The correct etiquette is to address them in the way they refer to themselves. So the invitation should read, for example, ‘Ms. Jane Rasmussen and Mr. Timothy Caldwell.’ That way you are respecting the woman’s choice to keep her own name.”

I am a strong proponent of gender equality, though the dude and little miss are teaching me a lot about the role of nature versus nurture (one of the dude’s first words was "bus"; little miss has taken an early liking to my jewelry).  But it’s not about making everything exactly fifty-fifty; it’s all about giving equal opportunity and choice.  And though I have my own opinions for being a keeper, I know those changers have their own point of view.  I respect their choice.  So ladies and gents, and especially the changer ladies out there--please respect mine.


  1. Great post, from a hyphenator - the best of both worlds? Plenty of myths to dispel about that one too - no I'm not just indecisive, no I don't "want it both ways" and didn't have the guts to keep versus change. No I won't make the kids do it someday, but if I did, that would be okay too. Yes it is impossible to spell on the phone. Love to you and the littles from Auntie So-So's old roommate :-) -- Dr. B-L

    1. Yes, I forgot to acknowledge the hyphenators and the new-name-creators as well. Thanks for the shout-out. Hey, whatever works for you and your family, I give you my 100% support. Hope things are well for you too!

  2. I commented on Facebook and commenting here to! I didn't change my name because in Quebec, where I'm from, nobody does. Even my great-grandmother has kept her name. The practice has been long gone, even though some older folks still refer to wives as "Mrs Husband's first and last". I use it sometimes socially because I don't mind too much if people call me by another name (though I hate how my husband's aunts address checks to me under my husband's name). My biggest stink....? I am a young mom-well, 25 now, but I look very young. When I go to the Dr's office, they think "the worst"...oh my, a single, teenage mom when in reality I am an accomplished business owner, wife and mother. And that wouldn't even be their business, anyway, but I hate that people are so backwards. I cannot even imagine what it would be like living outside of MA! While I am glad to see the practice being gone in Quebec, I wish they still gave women the choice to change it (and make it very difficult, perhaps, to discourage name change). Still, I cannot image saying goodbye to my French-Canadian last name. I already immigrated here, speak a different would be too much. Rant over :)

    1. Nice rant! Again, I find it very odd that people who *know* that you and I have kept our names insist on calling us by our husband's names. What are their intentions? Do they feel they are doing us some sort a favor by righting some sort of cosmic wrong we have made by not changing our names? Or are they so offended by our choices that they couldn't bear to write our correct last names? Inquiring minds want to know. It's good that you "don't mind too much." I wish I could say I felt the same.