Modern Dilemma: Would You Change Your Surname to Your Partner's?

My mother didn't like her surname, so when she married my father, she gladly took his. They split up when I was just six months old, after about four years of marriage, but didn't divorce until I was 26 or so.

For 30 years, far longer than she had used her own surname, my mother went by her former husband's. It was as much a part of her identity as it was a part of mine and my brother's, and so even in divorce, she kept it.

A friend of mine, also a writer, resolved not to change hers when she married. But a few years later she was hassled by the subject of an investigation she was working on, so she switched up her name—for her personal life, but not professionally.

My best friend got married in 2015, and while we all joked about ways she and her wife could merge their names into one, they both chose to keep their own.

A man I knew from college and his wife took on a completely different surname after marriage, one that was theirs as a family, and not derived from either of their pre-existing surnames.

I could go on for a very long time about the myriad name-change decisions of people I know. Because in 2017, changing your name (or not) is not a straightforward decision. There are lots of options, plenty of ways to do it, and no right or wrong choice.

The New York Times sourced stories from readers about their decisions to change their names, and they got 16,000 responses. They are a fascinating glimpse into the way people choose to make this decision. And the question got us talking at Spring.St.

So we decided to jump onto Slack and hash(tag) it out.

Senior Editor Sarah-Jane Collins [12:48 PM]: Hello! So you guys saw The New York Times readers talking about why they did or didn't change their names. I know we all had some thoughts about this in the pitch meeting this morning, so here's your chance to discuss. Would you/have you/could you change your name?

Editor Jennifer Owens [12:49 PM]: As the token married woman, this was an issue for me. I come from a multiply-married family. My mom kept her second married name after her divorce, so she and my brother have different surnames than mine.

But then, is it anti-feminist to want your family to have the same surname? What's in a name? A lot.

Sarah-Jane [12:50 PM]: Is it anti-feminist? Men could take their wives' names

Social Media Manager Caitlin Stower [12:50 PM]: I don’t think it’s anti-feminist at all, unless it’s not your choice.

Sarah-Jane [12:51 PM]: You kept yours, Jennifer?

Jennifer [12:51 PM]: I split the difference. I do my maiden name (not a feminist term, for sure) for work and my married name for everything else. I really did want everyone in my family to have the same name. To be a unit.

Staff Writer Catherine Santino [12:51 PM]: I agree, it's only anti-feminist if you judge a woman or man for doing so. I would keep my name, but I think everyone should do what they want and don't think less of anyone who chooses to keep/split/create a new name/what-have-you.

Jennifer [12:51 PM]: That said, I tried briefly to use my married name at work, but it has 13 letters and I couldn't take spelling it out as I made a zillion calls for stories!

Sarah-Jane [12:51 PM]: Hahaha.

I can understand the argument that it's anti-feminist, but I agree the real issue is choice, not dominance.

Jennifer [12:52 PM]: I had friends in the '90s who made new names out of theirs, combining them.

Sarah-Jane [12:52 PM]: All my friends do this as a joke for their weddings; none of them actually change it to a combined one though.

Jennifer [12:52 PM]: I tell you, though, when you get engaged, people will ask you about this right after they ask you when the wedding date is. (And before, "When will you have babies?")

Associate Editor Sara Nachlis [12:52 PM]: Barring marrying someone with the last name "Dickface", or Michael Cera (which would make me Sara Cera), I think I'd change my name.

I have a brother and a huge number of cousins to keep our name going. I kind of like the idea of being a family unit with a name—and the history that comes with the name. Though I am slightly worried about losing my Jewish-name identity should I marry my gentile boyfriend.

Sarah-Jane [12:53 PM]: Why do you think it is so important to people?

Jennifer [12:53 PM]: Names carry weight and history. I was once at a women's retreat and the leader asked us to explain where our names came from. It was incredibly moving. Surprisingly so.

Which is nice to think, considering how much thought went into naming my kids!

But women's surnames have the whole feminist fight tied to it, which can make it more fraught as you make a personal decision that can be seen as political.

Catherine [12:54 PM]: My name means a lot to me. Outside of this office I am known as "Santino" to basically everyone who knows me.

Sarah-Jane [12:55 PM]: Yeah, I think the hang-ups people have about "tradition" are so interesting though.

I went out with a guy and his family was really progressive: His mom had kept her name, they only got married really lat,  and they were totally not religious at all. But when I was there for dinner one night, the subject of grandchildren came up—and his dad was super aggressive about his grandchildren having his name.

(And noted, Santino.)

Deputy Editor Imogen Dewey [12:56 PM]: The other thing is that your name is usually your dad’s in any case. So is it a feminist call? You are still kind of propping up the patriarchy—unless it’s more about setting the precedent—but even then, you’re just passing down another man’s name

Sara [12:56 PM]: Does anyone here have a hyphenated name? I don't think so, just checking.

Sarah-Jane [12:56 PM]: No and I never will because Sarah-Jane Collins-Something is THE WORST.

Jennifer [12:56 PM]: Fair warning: Doing the "split the difference" means that every time you try to enter a building with security for a work meeting, you have to explain that you're on the list as one name, but your driver's license has another. Every. Single. Time.

Sara [12:56 PM]: I always felt bad for the hyphen kids at school growing up.

Sarah-Jane [12:57 PM]: What do they do when they get married?

Jennifer [12:57 PM]: And whose name goes first?

My husband doesn't have a middle name. I briefly tried to get him to take Owens as his middle name so that we'd both be Owens Sonnenschein. But he didn't go for it.

Imogen [12:57 PM]: The name-order is just about the ring of it, surely?

On that note, my personal take on the whole debate is pretty shallow: I’m all about how it sounds. So if the love of my life turns out to have a name that goes brilliantly with “Imogen”, I’ll take it. If not, no way.

(Or also not if I happen to get very famous with my current name first.)

Jennifer [12:58 PM]: My decision to take his name for our family life was completely my own.

Sarah-Jane [12:58 PM]: What about gender split for kids? I know someone who decided they would flip a coin for what surname the first kid got, and then alternate on subsequent ones.

Jennifer [12:58 PM]: #Confusing

Sarah-Jane [12:58 PM]: And people who give boys dad's name, girls mom's name.

Imogen [12:58 PM]: À la the Iceland patronymic/matronymic system?

Imogen [12:59 PM]: I kind of like that—where you’re “blahblahson” or “blahblahdottir".

Sarah-Jane [12:59 PM]: I don't know the Iceland system; what is it?

Imogen [12:59 PM]: To quote my own article (you’re welcome): "It just names you after your immediate parent. In this scenario, I would be Imogen Joysdottir; my brother would be Tristan Christophersson."

Jennifer [12:59 PM]: I have a female friend married to a man. She kept her name, and the kids got her surname because that family line meant more to them.

Catherine [12:59 PM]: YAS.

Sarah-Jane [12:59 PM]: A really good friend of mine has her mom's name.

Jennifer [1:00 PM]: Is the reason because women do the vast majority of childcare? Because if so, then YES.

Sarah-Jane [1:00 PM]: Her daughter has her name as a middle name, dad's name as surname

Sara [1:00 PM]: My brother's girlfriend and her brother have different last names. She has her dad's; he has her mom's.

Jennifer [1:00 PM]: In my mom's family, you take your mom's first name as your middle name.

Sarah-Jane [1:01 PM]: My last name is really common, so maybe I will only date people unrelated to me who share it, thus avoiding this problem altogether…

Jennifer [1:01 PM]: Ha! I think it boils down to your connection to your name, family line, whatever. It's a personal choice. Period. And not having to spell Sonnenschein 10 times a day. Sorry, honey.

Sarah-Jane [1:01 PM]: It does seem like there are so many ways to go—it sort of seems ridiculous to put boundaries on it.

Catherine [1:02 PM]: Agreed, Jennifer!

Sara [1:02 PM]: Something I don't understand is people who combine the names. They seem to do it because they both find their name important, so they put them together—but doesn't that just kind of mean you're turning your back on both?

Not the hyphen, the create-a-new word type.

Sarah-Jane [1:03 PM]: I get it. It's incorporating it—most surnames are bastardizations of earlier names, anyway. I wouldn't do it though.

Jennifer [1:03 PM]: True. Ask about 80 percent of the people who made it through Ellis Island with essentially a name change!

Sara [1:04 PM]: Yes, but Ellis Island wasn't a choice.

Sarah-Jane [1:04 PM]: I think there'd have to be a really, really good reason for me to change mine, like witness protection or something.

Jennifer[1:04 PM]: Pls do something tremendous before you go into witness protection. #Goals

Sarah-Jane[1:05 PM]: I will try.

Sara [1:05 PM]: "Spring.St's Sarah-Jane Collins Recreates Goodfellas, Never Heard From Again."

Jennifer [1:05 PM]: "Do I amuse you?!" asks Samantha-Jessica Curtis.

Sarah-Jane [1:05 PM]: Research for my mob novel got too real.

Sara [1:05 PM]: Hahahhaha.

Catherine [1:06 PM]: #doitforthenovel

Sarah-Jane [1:06 PM]: Okay, so show of hands. Who here would change their name?

Jennifer [1:06 PM]: Done itHalfsies.

Caitlin [1:07 PM]: Yes, I will change my name.

Sara [1:07 PM]: I would.

Imogen [1:07 PM]: I would if it sounded better than my current name. Imogen Obama, etc.

Catherine [1:07 PM]: I would only if it was Obamaotherwise, no.


Sarah-Jane [1:07 PM]: Guys, Michelle is already taken.

Imogen [1:08 PM]: Touché.

Jennifer [1:08 PM]: LOL.

Imogen [1:08 PM]: Imogen Fassbender.

Sara [1:08 PM]: Malia!

Catherine [1:08 PM]: ^^^^

Sarah-Jane [1:08 PM]: Okay, calling time. I'm glad we cleared that up.