Thursday, 8 April 2010

That which we call a rose

Never let it be said that life is generally free of complications. Making generalisations is a thing fraught with peril, and laden with clich├ęs. Nonetheless, let me wade in.

Is life simpler for the male or for the female? Or is this simply a very stupid question? It probably averages out fairly equally. In one respect, however, males have a kind of advantage. It is one which is firmly founded in history, and in the many centuries during which women were the legal possession of fathers, brothers or husbands. It shows up still in surnames. Children bore the names of their fathers. Sons kept that name. Daughters' names were changed when they married, upon which event they became subject to the legal authority of the husband instead of the father's.

When I was a young woman, about to embark on matrimony, thinking and assuming that we would live happily ever after in blissful togetherness, one option never occurred to me. It was accepted that upon marriage, the woman lost her own name, aptly (probably for the most part) known as the ‘maiden' name. When the newly wed wife signed the marriage register, it would have been, for most women, the last time that name was used. People would laugh tolerantly if a bride accidently signed her old surname. It was a sign of the newness of the marriage. After a short time, the woman became accustomed to her new name. It was deemed an honour to bear someone else’s name, a symbol that the woman now belonged to another man, that possession had passed from father to husband.

Occasionally, maiden names were required for official purposes such as upon registering the birth of a baby.

So my name changed. Twenty years later, the marriage broke down – irretrievably, as the parlance goes - and my husband left me. Several years later I obtained a divorce. My name remained the same, though. It was a strange legal requirement that the marriage certificate was required to be sent to the office and surrendered. If you wanted it back, you had to pay for it. It seemed an outrageous requirement, given that whoever registered divorces had official access to the Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Despite this, Officialdom rubbed salt in the already exceedingly raw wounds by requiring the surrender of the document which certified that your marriage was legal, that (in those days) the children of the marriage were legitimate, and that the surname was your own. I sent in my marriage certificate, as required, and paid the fee in order to have it returned to me.

I did think about changing my name back to my ‘maiden’ name, as was becoming more common, but decided against a change, in order to appear related to my children, who were still at school. It would have been a hassle to register a new name on the house title, at work, for my driving licence, and passport. Of course, a man never even had to consider such issues: he just continued as before. Occasionally such petty injustices made me growl.

When Dr P asked me to marry him, I gave some thought to the question of changing my name to his. He did not mind, and left the decision to me. I decided to keep my existing surname. My reasons, other than that of retaining the same surname as my children, were that I was known by that name professionally, and that changing my name to his could have resulted in a perception of bias or conflict in loyalties in my work.

While we lived in different cities, being together mostly at weekends, having different names mattered very little. Since living in the same house in the same city, quite often some explanations are made. Friends of Dr P’s tend to refer to us as a couple bearing his name (which is not Persiflage). Sometimes when I telephone friends and give my name, the message is as Mrs Dr Non-P is on the phone. When I send greeting cards to people, I use my name, or both our names. We get by, and basically the outside world copes. I use the title Ms, and use Mrs only when necessary to keep it simple. But it is amazing how, after all this time, the simple fact that we have different surnames, escapes general notice and acceptance.

Even the members of my family – sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews – have some trouble coping. Wedding invitations arrive requesting the pleasure of the company of Dr and Mrs Non-P. I reply, stating that I, Persiflage, and Dr Non-P accept or decline, as the case may be. Despite our having been married since 1992, it seems the family has trouble assimilating the facts of our different surnames. One sister says that another sister told her that I had changed my name. I tell her this is not so, but it just does not sink in.

Even in 1992, not changing my name required some explanation. People do need to know, of course. With fewer people marrying now, and it having become common for people to retain their own names, whether married or partnered, it matters little. When children are born, then the parents need to decide whose name the children should bear. I wonder whether more children bear the father’s name rather than the mother’s? I bet it is the father's name which is more commonly given to the children.

In Spain everyone bears both the mother's and the father's names. It seems much fairer that way. We are still in a state of social flux, and I wonder what will be the case in a century or so.


Relatively Retiring said...

It could be even more male dominated. When I worked in Saudi Arabia mothers were known by the name of their oldest son, as in 'Umm Khalid' (mother of Khalid). This was assumed as a matter of great pride!

Frogdancer said...

I was aghast at the first comment. I'd be "Frogdancer mother of Tom1." Not good for his already huge ego.

Now where was I?

Oh yes. I changed back to my maiden name as soon as I could. I couldn't see the sense in keeping the name but not the man. Plus I always hated my married surname.

Anonymous said...

Names are such intimate, personal things. A change of name could almost mean a loss of identity... no wonder many men seem so secure and confident, since they've never had to give up their names. I am not a huge fan of my first name next to my last name, as the combination of a terminal vowel followed by an initial semi-vowel can make it difficult to pronounce quickly (yes, even for me). But whatever happens, I'll certainly keep this name for professional uses. I do know of female academics who married and changed their names after they had begun publishing, and it's a case of everyone just sort of remembering the new name, but it seems rather messy.

molly said...

It does seem to simplify everyday life when both parts of a married couple have the same last name. It is a pity though when there are only girls in a family, and giving up their last name at marriage means the family name will die out. Having my husband's last name has never bothered me. Maybe because I was a stay-at-home mom and he's always been the one bringing home the bacon!

Relatively Retiring said...

Sorry, Frogdancer, but you'd just be 'Mother of Tom'!

Meggie said...

My daughter is getting married, and is wondering about changing her name. As she says, it will require a lot of changes and notifications.
I like the idea of keeping both surnames, so the family lineage lives on.

Pam said...

Well, my maiden name was a very common one so I was delighted to lose it when I got married. Daughter 2's boyfriend, however, has a pretty awful surname so if they ever marry I hope she doesn't take his name. (Clearly I take the trivial view of all this.)