weddings, marriage, & divorce

What’s in a Name? Identity, family, and figuring it out

Getting married raises question of whether one or both of us will change our names as an indication of this union. My partner and I, along with numerous other couples in this and previous generations, recognize that the traditional practice of a wife taking on a husband’s last name comes directly out of a patriarchal tradition in which the wife, upon marriage, is considered property of the husband. She is leaving her father’s house for the house of her new husband, thus she leaves behind her father’s name (which her own mother had taken upon marriage) and she takes on the name of her husband, which she will then pass along to her children, and so on.

We are very lucky to be getting married at a time when couples find many creative alternatives to this patriarchal tradition.

On the one hand, names are very tied up with our identity as individuals. I want to use a name that feels like mine, that feels like all of me, that feels like a celebration of my agency as an individual and does not reduce me to half of a partnership. I feel strongly connected to the name I have used for all my life, in both its full and shortened forms.

On the other hand, we grew up in a culture in which the concept of “family” generally implies a shared family name. My childhood family is “The Arbeits”: we are a unit in many ways, including that we shared the same last name. Now, my partner and I are forming our own family unit. We associate names with family designations, and thus we desire to use the process of (re)naming to demonstrate this formation of our new family, our new household, while at the same time honoring our own and each other’s family of origin.

We gave ourselves time and space to find a solution to this complex question. We did a lot of brainstorming, a lot of careful and gentle playing around with different options, a lot of sharing and listening to each other’s feelings. In addition to our commitment to queering structures of power and carefully working through patriarchal pressures, we wanted to attend to our personal preferences and desires:

1. We didn’t want to combine our names. I remember one g-chat conversation in which my partner and I went back and forth with different unpleasant-sounding combinations of our two last names. Besides, we both love our families and the connections that our family names give us to our parents and siblings, and weaving together the syllables of our names would not address that desire to explicitly stay connected by keeping our family names in their shared forms.

2. I wanted to keep my last name (Arbeit) professionally. My mother kept her name professionally, and I always really liked that idea. Furthermore, starting work as a research assistant last summer taught me something: it’s nice to be easy to find on Google. My last name happens to be much less common than my partner’s. (If you’re looking for our registries, search using my name!) Plus, I have already started my career with the name Arbeit—teaching, blogging, starting graduate school, serving as a coauthor on presentations and publications—and I would like to continue my career with this name. I mess around with my first name enough (Miriam v. Mimi) and I would prefer to keep my last name consistent.

3. I felt pretty open to using my partner’s name in certain social situations and, specifically, having members of his family refer to me or address me using their family name. As mentioned above, I consider sharing a name to be an exciting element of family membership. I am very excited to be a member of his family, to be one of the Lowes.

4. My partner’s middle name happens to be very similar to my last name, so he had the idea of changing his middle name to my last name, so that my last name would be his new middle name.

At first, #4 led us to the idea that we would both be Arbeit Lowe, as two family names sitting next to each other. Arbeit (my family name) came before Lowe (his family name) because of his idea of making Arbeit his middle name. I would keep Arbeit as my “first” last name and take Lowe as my “second” last name. As per #2, I still wanted to use Arbeit professionally, with no Lowe involved. However, if professionally my name ended with Arbeit, in what capacity would I add on Lowe as my second last name? We did not address this question until a few weeks ago when we went to City Hall for our marriage license. The forms required us to indicate what our last names would be after marriage. Not our entire names, but just our legal last names.

I realized, at this somewhat inconvenient moment as we stood at City Hall, that I wanted to keep my own last name as my legal surname. It felt important to me as an indication of my continued existence as my own independent entity, connected to my past as well as to my present and future, particularly in official contexts such as law and vocation. My partner agreed, and we filled out the forms accordingly.

But later, my partner commented, “If you aren’t changing your name legally, maybe I won’t change mine either.” Wait! I felt confused. I felt that changing a legal surname and changing one’s middle name had quite different implications. I realized that there were a lot of aspects of this decision that we had not yet discussed, and a lot of options we had not yet explored. So we discussed it in more detail, and eventually came to a solution that we both really love, that embraces our personal identities and symbolizes our integration into each other’s families as well as our formation of a new family unit. I am feeling quite excited for when we implement this decision after our marriage, through venues ranging from legal documents to Facebook.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Identity, family, and figuring it out”

  1. Ivy says:

    I'm struggling with this too, since no one but I seem to like the name "Leibsest". = )
    I'm looking forward to seeing the results of the decision, whatever they may be! Your blogging has really helped calm me down, knowing that I'm not the only one experiencing these hard questions. And there are others experiencing them at the exact same time! Thank you for putting yourself out there.

  2. illusionofreality says:

    So what was your final decision? I've always been interested in this question since hyphenating my name with any other name makes my sound like a vineyard. And happy almost wedding, Mimi!

  3. havacow737 says:

    I appreciate the thought process both of you have put into planning your wedding and married lives. You have brought up so many things that I probably wouldn't have seen as complex issues before. But seriously, this post was such a teaser! I can't wait for the big unveil!

  4. Poopalontatist, MSW says:

    Since my partner and I have the same *first* name, when we get married, I'm going to use my middle name as my last name and change my clunky hyphenated last name into two new middle names with the same initials, and then our kids, G!d willing will have a hyphenated last name of my middle name and my partner's last name. So complicated!! ~Elana R.L.

  5. Rachel says:

    I like being easy to find on Google, too!

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