Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Marriage and surnames

Whether a wife takes her husband's surname or keeps the one she grew up with is a cause of some stress in more than a few relationships, particularly where one party assumes the answer is obvious. Every option seems to have problems. The traditional move (wife taking the husband's surname) systematically distances wives from their parents. To reverse the precedence (husband takes wife's surname) merely inverts the direction of the sexism (though this is probably to be preferred, all things considered). The modern tendency (both spouses keep their original surname) can imply that the birth family is more important than the new marriage, and runs into further problems if and when children are born. Double-barreled surnames seem like a good solution, but my hunch is that this just postpones the issue for a generation; what happens when two people who already have double-barreled surnames marry? Taking an entirely new surname is possible, though loses the connection to both families of origin and has overtones of voluntarism (I create my own identity in an act of will). Merging two surnames to generate a new one will only work very occasionally.

So here is my solution. During the wedding service, perhaps just after signing the register and before the new couple are presented to the congregation and walk out, the minister or celebrant performs a ceremonial coin toss. No best of three. No appeals to a third umpire. No one knows beforehand who they will walk out as. It gets decided once and for all by the coin and the couple and both families live with it. Neither family is unfairly discriminated against. Any children can have the same surname as both parents. A perfect solution?
I don't usually include photos of people without getting their permission first. This time I didn't and I apologise to M&J in advance if this is a problem.

21 comments:

Matheson said...

Okay, cute suggestion. But, in practice, what it means is that instead of everyone celebrating together at the end of the marriage service, one half of the people leave the church feeling disappointed because their team lost the game. And then they have to go and celebrate with the winners. Talk about rubbing their noses in it! And don't tell me the father of the winning family won't gloat about it in his speech ;)

Dave Taylor said...

Man, these are the kinds of things the artist formerly known as Prince just doesn't have to deal with!

byron smith said...

Matt - OK, well here's an alternative to really start an internecine conflict. Set up two accounts that are either (a) for the couple to set up their new life together or (b) to be donated to a charity of their choice. Instead of giving presents, all the guests get to vote with their money for one surname or the other.

In any case, don't one half of the people (or at least one half of the family members) leave the church feeling disappointed in a usual wedding when it is announced "I now present to you Mrs and Mr X" or "I now present to you Mr Y and Mrs Z"? At least this way, the disappointment wouldn't be personal, but could be blamed on the coin rather than the "betraying" family member.

Dave - Being twice divorced, Prince Roger Nelson (the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince) probably has many of the same problems as the rest of us.

Christopher said...

This is the perfect opportunity for an entrepreneur (or out of work counsellor) to step in and create a whole industry out of this problem...Names Counsellors. The couple could meet the NC for several weeks leading up to the wedding, discussing family history, personal achievements and sufferings, interests and desires, favourite artists etc. Once the payment has been made, or at least a substantial deposit, the NC could then present the couple with their new surname, or at least three to choose from.

Then there could be a naming ceremony in addition to the wedding ceremony, where the guests of course would have to bring gifts and hallmarks cards.

I was thinking of merging Eve and my last name so that our powers combined would be De Mayes, but she wasn’t too keen on that idea. I just wanted some Euro cred.

I should really get back to work.

CJW said...

My wife was all too happy to change her last name from 'Seeman' - for obvious reasons. Though, the decision is not as straightforward for some couples. When her brother and sister-in-law (who both kept their own last names, having already authored academic publications) had their first child, they decided on a hybrid last name consisting of the first and last three letters of their respective last names. Which made for a tense father's day the first time around.

And a funny story about middle names - or lack thereof: the above-mentioned sister-in-law has only the middle initial 'F' which causes all kinds of dramas when forms need require a full name. She was born and grew up in small country town and her mother didn't realise that initials are abbreviations of an actual name...

byron smith said...

Chris - Wow, you're right, there's a whole untapped market here.

I guess "De Mayes" is better than "Maygon".

CJW - Yes, certain names don't generate as much enthusiasm regarding preservation.

I love the story about middle names. I've often joked about giving a child an initial for a middle name, but doubt I'd ever do it for exactly the confusion with forms you mention.

Drew said...

I've heard people wanting to give a first initial... like T. James Smith, or something.

Why are we so caught up with names? What is the value of a 'family of origin', which only postpones the the question of who's name by a generation? To what importance do we attach the creation of a new family, and therefore, is not a new name therefore suitable? Perhaps for both. Other cultures adopted numerous names much more readily than ours - be they descriptive, genitive, or in recognition of an achievement or event. What is the importance of tradition here? Surnames are (in their Anglo form), surely, a reasonably recent invention.... Is there not room for some voluntarism here?

As usual, I have questions and no answers ;)

bigdog said...

Doesn't Jesus offer a solution? No marriage at the resurrection...

byron smith said...

Drew - A family of origin, while relativised by Jesus' teaching and practice, continues to have some place in our lives. I agree that the giving of a new name is a powerful way of symbolising a major change in identity, hence the practice of "Christian" names, which were given at baptism. Many RCs still give a fourth name at baptism in a slightly watered down version of this practice.

My main concern with the couple picking out a new name is that it is the couple who are picking it out. Names are give by others, not chosen for ourselves. I think this is actually an important part of socialisation and coming to know ourselves - that our identity primarily comes through the recognition of others, rather than being self-willed. So if we could come up with a good way of the community bestowing a new surname on the couple , this would be an improvement.

sair said...

"Names are given by others, not chosen for ourselves... our identity primarily comes through the recognition of others, rather than being self-willed"

That's a very interesting point, Byron... One that we don't like to think about too much in our individualistic society. I gives us a healthy perspective of us as people in relationship with other people, rather than people in spite of other people!

Bruce Yabsley said...

Let me speak in favour of the excellent Spanish practice, in which children take the family name from both sides: father's first, mother's second. So if I were a Spaniard, my legal name on the peninsula would be Bruce Donald Yabsley Sawkins. And if (for example, and contrary to her tastes) I had a son with Jodie Foster, his name would be Nathan George Yabsley Foster.

(This is not a criticism of ACF's own naming choices, as Charles Foster is one of the coolest names imaginable.)

In this system each name gets a turn, and the outcome is predictable. And it beats the recently-invented idea of couples choosing [some_random_name]: an invitation to vulgar and faddish choices if ever there was one.

byron smith said...

Bruce - I was going to mention the Spanish practice (which I think is superior to most other options), but didn't want to go on too long, as it is a little complicated. It ends up 'privileging' the female line, though only in the children's children (since grandchildren bear the two final names of their grandmothers, not their grandfathers).

Bruce Yabsley said...

Sorry, Byron, but isn't this a misunderstanding?

My (hypothetical) son would have "Yabsley" as his "first" surname: as would I, and as my father would have had. By contrast "Sawkins", his (my son's) grandmother's name on my side, would be no part of his name.

nico said...

As a woman who delighted in changing her surname to that of my husband, I often find myself feeling somewhat frustrated when this topic comes up, particularly when issues of gender and sexism are raised alongside. While I understand that the tradition from which the name change arises was somewhat less than ideal in its understanding and treatment of women, I really quite resent the (not always underlying) accusation that because previous generations of women changed their name as they 'changed hands', that I am similarly unenlightened and unempowered, buying into patriarchy and sexism, blah blah blah.*

Isn't the very fact that I was empowered to make the choice that I did an important thing here? I didn't have to take my husband's last name, but I wanted to, and I did. If I hadn't wanted to, I could have chosen not to. While I doubt he would have wanted to on a basis of pronunciation along, he could even have taken mine, or double-barelled, or whatever. The issue of surprising or offending our family would have been a way bigger issue to deal with (although my mother in law, who kept her own surname, did express her displeasure that I wasn't doing the same)... No solutions there, although perhaps this issue will become less tricky for future generations.

I must say I do like the Spanish option though.

* sorry if I've gone a bit off course here, but a recent Heckler in the SMH got my goat and I've been steaming for a while!!

nico said...

woops meant to post the link to the SMH piece.

byron smith said...

Bruce - My apologies. I was misremembering the system from reading about it a couple of years ago and didn't look closely enough at your explanation. You are right. It is the maternal names that generally drop off after a generation (though this is sometimes reversed).

Nic - As part of a married couple who have also gone with the husband's name, I am not criticising your decision. My aims were to point out that no system I've heard of obviously solves this issue and to suggest a lighthearted alternative that might make it fun rather than a battleground.

nico said...

Thanks Byron - I didn't intend to suggest that you yourself were being critical, and I enjoyed your attempts to lighten things up ( although I think I've heard the coin toss option floated somewhere before...).

Maybe I got carried away but I guess I just feel like it's an issue which is often completely overpoliticised, and in which women such as myself are made to feel like we have somehow set back the feminist cause by a few decades - but amongst it all we are rarely heard from! :)

Bruce Yabsley said...

Hey Byron. I was also thinking: the Spanish example is relevant to the discussion about wives' names, since in that system (as I understand) no-one's personal name changes on marriage. As a matter of convention, my mother could (and would often) be referred to as "the wife of Yabsley": or now, "the widow of Yabsley", a usage close to the "the widow X" style that is still current in English in some rural places in (say) the States. But she would still have the same personal name that she was born with. And I don't think people have (at least recently) accused the Spanish of being anti-family.

It's a useful example, I think, because it relativises certain questions. In our system, as Nico was pointing out, people overload the choice of name with a bunch of meanings that are left over from past polemic. As an individual, one doesn't necessarily intend those meanings --- or have any simple relationship to them. Elsewhere, the issues are not seen to be linked up in the same way.

Megan said...

I changed my name. I did get a fancy french name for my trouble though. I agree this is a very difficult decision. For those who objected to me being known by a man's name, I pointed out that my maiden name is my father's name - another man. I am contemplating putting it back as a middle name, since I did that for facebook recognition purposes. We used my maiden name as one of my son's middle names. I like the spanish system too, though I must say despite my egalitarian credentials (female minister) the whole thing doesn't keep me up at night - now equal pay etc on the other hand.......

byron smith said...

In the news...

Anonymous said...

Charles Foster, a son of Jodie Foster has the same name of a hero shot the gunman dead in the McDonald's. Ironically, a man shot and injured the gunman in Luby's cafeteria, and HIS name is Jodie Fore!