When I tied the knot at 40 years old, I gained membership in a society of women least likely to change their last names upon marriage. And indeed, I never thought I’d take a man’s name: I’d walked across long stages dressed in my birth name, degrees waiting for me at the other end. My intellectual property — essays and research papers — all identified me as the author using the only name I’d ever had. My students warmly referred to me as Dr. B.
To my mind, tradition and unity — two of the main reasons 70 percent of American women continue to change their names — was about a way of being, having nothing to do with what one calls oneself.
I had known from a young age that I didn’t want to make such a profound change to my identity. My name had provided one of the few shreds of stability during a chaos-filled childhood marred by divorce, mental illness and addiction. Later, I was motivated by notions of independence and feminism. I saw no need to fix what wasn’t broken, and certainly not for a man. To my mind, tradition and unity — two of the main reasons 70 percent of American women continue to change their names — was about a way of being, having nothing to do with what one calls oneself.
That I came up during a time when such empowering choices were available was also not lost on me. I am a daughter of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg revolution, a direct recipient of progress made for women during her time in the law. Nearly every corner of my life is marked by RGB’s activism: I hold an advanced degree, am financially independent and remain child-free by choice. Even the jury duty summonses I’ve received across time are a function of RGB’s commitments to gender equality.
The least I could do for the women who’d fought for my humanity was to do my small part for gender equality by keeping my name.
When I got married almost two years ago, my husband didn’t pressure me to take his name (we wouldn’t be together if he had). In marrying Matt, I married a feminist. He recognizes my value and makes space for my brain, my words, my goals.
But then my symptoms began. In the months after we married, I’d wake in the middle of the night fearing that something terrible had happened to my husband, even though he was breathing softly beside me. I’d reach out for him and rest my hand on his back but remain unconvinced of his well-being.
These episodes confused me, and I sought therapy for the fear, flashbacks and depression that all kicked up in the months after Matt and I exchanged rings.
With the help of my trauma-informed psychologist, I began to unravel a lifetime of emotional abuse handed down among the generations of my family. She taught me that childhood stress and insecure attachment — the psychological phenomenon in which parents don’t develop healthy bonds with their children — affects brain development well into adulthood. I learned that nearly half of all children grow up insecurely attached, which leads them to struggle with trust and relationships because of their emotionally unstable upbringing.
Dr. Diaz observed that I was terrified of my new marriage, citing my belief that Matt would vanish into thin air the moment I let my guard down. Four months after Matt and I married, she diagnosed me with complex-PTSD — a form of trauma that lives in the brain far past the time frame during which it was experienced. I was thankful to receive a name for the symptoms and patterns that threatened my new marriage and, in darker moments, my life.
In the wake of my diagnosis, my therapist told me that, to heal, I needed to learn that I wasn’t responsible for fixing other people and that healthy relationships required work from all parties involved. For the first time in my life, I dared to hold my mother accountable for her role in our declining relationship. I told her that I wasn’t responsible for managing her emotional needs and stability and that she, as an adult, was in charge of her own happiness. Instead of acknowledging my pain, validating my concerns and offering maternal love and reassurance, she greeted me with silence, her enduring weapon of choice.
My dad was a great support in the wake of the fallout with my mom. Months into her silent treatment, I was happy and excited to see him — the parent with whom I still shared a name — when he visited. Six months after my wedding, Dad made the 10-hour drive to visit my husband and me in our new home across the country. Matt and I spent weeks planning his stay and organized a family gathering with my new in-laws.
Dad said he’d be with us for two weeks. He stayed for four days, spending most of his visit parked outside my home in his pickup truck. Underneath the shadows cast by our oak tree, my dad watched YouTube videos, played digital games and made lengthy phone calls to friends.
A neighbor texted me, wondering whether I knew about the man who’d been parked at the foot of my driveway for hours. My husband, concerned, asked me what was wrong. What had gone off track with dad’s visit?
Dad left the following morning, one day before the family gathering my husband and I had planned in his honor. “I just need my own space, my own surroundings,” he’d said. I sat on the bed in our guest room and sobbed. My father had always avoided meaningful connection with his children. I’d merely activated a coping mechanism by suppressing that fact, in the hope that this time would be different. I felt set back in my psychological progress and blamed myself.
After the visit, I thought about the myriad articles and essays I’d read about why women change or keep or blend their birth names: Feminism. Tradition. Education. Unity. In the weeks after my dad’s stay, I concluded that I no longer wanted my name. The dull ache in my heart helped me make my decision. If I was truly going to heal, I needed to let go of the pain that I began to associate with my name.
My need for a name deeply rooted in love, stability and commitment began to outweigh my desire to conform to feminist ideals. Two weeks after my father left town, I Googled the address to my local Social Security office and gathered the requisite documentation. I met a kind clerk who helped me leave my name behind.
Eight months into our marriage, I surprised my husband with a gift-wrapped box. He opened it in front of his family — our family. It contained the Social Security document with my new identity. He had no idea I’d made the switch. When he asked why, I shrugged, remembering Ginsburg’s famous words: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” I think she’d approve.