What’s in a Name?

To change or not to change, that’s a big question.

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty attached to my surname, it’s been a part of my identity for, well, my entire life. Tradition dictates that when I decide to get married I should take on my husband’s surname. But isn’t that a little outdated? We’re striving towards equality in all other areas of our lives, so why are we so willing to give up such a large piece of our identity simply because it’s the done thing?

Freelance beauty editor Aisling Keenan is getting married in September, and whilst she’s busy planning menus and seating plans, changing her surname is not on the agenda. Whilst lots of women decide to keep their names for professional reasons, for Aisling, it’s the ideology around changing her name that jars. She explains, “I’m aware it’s what lots of women do, but the very fact that it’s women who do makes me uncomfortable. Why just us? Professionally it makes sense for me to keep my name too, but honestly it didn’t even come down to that. My name is my name, and always will be. It wouldn’t feel right to change it. Whilst it’s becoming increasingly common for brides to retain their maiden name once they’re married, it’s not the only option. The idea of merging surnames is an alternative that has become a lot more popular in recent years too.

Tradition dictates that a bride changes her surname when she gets married, but what if she doesn’t want to?

Take, for example, writer and television presenter Dawn O’Porter. Instead of taking husband Chris O’Dowd’s surname on as her own, she chose to pay tribute by simply adding an ‘O’ to her existing surname, creating something completely new. In an interview with Esquire, Chris explained that his wife came under fire for the decision. “She got a lot of stick for it in the UK. I think the people thought it was a silly celebrity thing to do or something. She’s a feminist, so she didn’t want to give her name away. But she also wanted to take something of her husband’s, you know, and the ‘O’ is hugely meaningful. ‘O’ only exists in Ireland. So you’re taking on my nationality as part of your name.”

It’s not just women who are willing to start married life with a little compromise. When digital creative director Seán Cannon-Earley got married to his wife Mary in 2011, they decided on a double-barrelled surname that they would both share. For them it was all about keeping both sides of family heritage intact. Seán explains, “Mary is close to her family and didn’t want to lose her connection with family heritage, but she was also keen to share a surname with me. I suggested that we double-barrel our surnames and have both.” The best of both worlds, who can argue with that?

Seán isn’t the only one taking a more liberal viewpoint when it comes to deciding on a surname. When software designer Matt Broberg got married last year, he and his wife made the decision that he would take her surname. Matt explained that whilst he was the one who brought the idea up, it wasn’t an easy decision to arrive at: “It felt right. It honored her wishes, it fit within my beliefs. We spoke about the pros and cons for a good six months though–it’s not an easy choice. My certainty waxed and waned throughout. But the crux of it was the feeling.”

For Matt and his wife, it was all about unity. “At first it felt simple and perfectly obvious. She wanted her name to stay the same and I wanted that symbol of a family unit that is a last name (being able to announce ‘The Brobergs are here!’). Soon after I made the call, the gravity of the decision hit me. Would it hurt my family? Would it offend hers? These and other valid fears came up, but the positives outweighed them.”

Anything that veers away from the cultural norm is bound to spark conversation and attract curiosity. Something that became all too clear for Marco Perego when he decided to take his wife, actress Zoe Saldana’s surname. The decision caused such a stir that Zoe was forced to issue a strongly worded statement to her Facebook page defending the couple’s decision. She argued, “Men, you will not cease to exist by taking your partner’s surname. On the contrary–you’ll be remembered as a man who stood by change. I know our sons will respect and admire their father more because their father lead by example.”

Whilst she hasn’t yet felt the need to issue an official statement, Aisling has experienced what she describes as ‘raised eyebrows’. “As a joke, for Christmas last, I was presented with a dressing gown that said ‘Not A Murphy’ on the back of it for me to wear. I think my grandparents’ generation are confused about why on earth I wouldn’t change my surname, but other than that, most people accept the ‘professional reasons’ excuse because I work in media. I don’t even go into the other reasons with people because it’s such a personal thing. One of my closest friends who is unwaveringly feminist thinks it’s a lovely show of commitment to change your name, and I totally respect that view.”

For Matt, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. “My mom was so proud, but I’m fortunate enough for that to be a given in my life. I was nervous to talk to my dad, but he was impressed by my choice and backed me 100%. Some distant family members were surprised, and it took them time to get on board. It was my brother who put me on the best footing, reassuring me a name change could never make me any less his brother.” But what about strangers? “Surprise still seems to fill that first reaction. It’s an uncommon practice, even in the progressive cities I tend to live in. However, it’s often followed closely by excitement. I think it’s because people get excited by the idea there are choices in their lives.” And that’s what it comes down to, choice.

By Claudia Gocoul

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