To Keep or Not to Keep: Your Name After Marriage

My youngest daughter got married last weekend. She and her fiancé picked the date based on the fact that there was no Ohio State football game that day. It also happened to be the night of the switch to (or from, I can never remember which) Daylight Savings Time, which gave everyone an extra hour’s sleep the next morning, something I’m sure was badly needed by several attendees. (There was an open bar.)

This was the second wedding among my children and also the second one that didn’t have a wedding party, much to the dismay of my oldest daughter who is just dying to have dresses that match a color scheme. With three sisters, each of my daughters has a built-in wedding party, but instead the brides have opted for simplicity. Both have also opted to keep their names.

That’s a weird phrase: “keep your name,” as if you somehow lose it, or have it wrested from you, when you get married. But that’s exactly what does happen for most women as far as society is concerned. I don’t know the statistics on how many women keep their former last names when they get married, but so far in my family it’s 50%.

I took my husband’s name each time I married, but returned to my maiden name after each divorce. I also use my maiden name as my middle name when I am married, and I’ve hyphenated it on some legal documents. I don’t want there to be any doubts about who I am and where I came from.

And yet I go by my husband’s last name in most contexts. I like people knowing that my husband and I are married. Besides, Keim is a lot easier to write than Appleby. (Although it’s not necessarily easier to spell or pronounce.) And since there’s another Ellen Appleby in the writing world (she writes children’s books), I’ve chosen to write under the name Ellen Keim.

One of my daughters asked me the other day if I’ve ever minded changing my name. I told her only when I got married the first time. It felt strange to have another person’s name hung around my neck. But after changing my name the second time, it became old hat to me. It’s more a way of marking my passage through life: I can remember when things happened by what last name I had at the time!

I guess I see marriage—and changing your name—as an evolution. As you change from one state to another, you take on another identity, chameleon-like. Some women insist on keeping their maiden names as a way of hanging onto their identity. But the truth is, it’s usually your father’s identity that you’re hanging onto. (Unless you were given your mother’s or a hyphenated name at birth.) There’s really no way to get away from familial or marital ties unless you make up a completely new name for yourself.

If you could give yourself a new last name, what would it be and why?