As a single woman, I was ambivalent about keeping or changing my last name. People would ask and I’d shrug. My answers were varied and tepid, in the realm of the hypothetical (as marriage was). “Maybe I will… it depends on what my future husband prefers… perhaps if we have kids.” Shoulders raised, unsure — in full disclosure, uncaring.
I know women, professionally and personally, on both sides of the name-change game. I have mentors who stridently held onto their names, appalled that my generation gives them away without resistance. These women deem keeping our names a breed of feminist crusade, something totally worth a fight — or at very least, a well formed opinion.
I know women who changed their names without pause, as it was a given, their part in building a family, and something they always knew they’d do. A friend gifted her last name to her husband for his birthday before their first child was born. Some were critical of her act, and unnecessarily, I think. I’ve learned, with time, that acts we consider indefensible on the surface often make much more sense when fully unpacked and considered within another’s unique circumstances.
I envied all these women, with their black and white decisions. My ambivalence felt shameful. As it goes, I’m not an ambivalent feminist.
When I became engaged to Austin, I expected my position would become clearer. If not, well, I make a living in communications! My key message would solidify and I’d have a neatly wrapped up sound bite in response to this now-frequent question from friends and family and colleagues.
Shortly after our engagement, I sat at my childhood kitchen island enjoying coffee and conversation, and my dad asked (benignly) if I would be changing my name. “We’re a bi-national couple,” I answered. “Sharing a name will be easier when we travel together. Probably… yes?” I shrugged. So much for my on-point key message.
Austin didn’t care one way or another what I did with my surname. And that’s part of what made the decision difficult. This choice would have nothing to do with my husband’s beliefs or preferences, only my own. The times we discussed the matter, he would always respond that I should do what was right for me — professionally, personally and emotionally — and he would be supportive.
So it was my time to consider, and consider with care.
I built my professional identity with my name. Pontikis has served me through diplomas, through job titles, through cities, through google searches. I carry my personal history and my family’s narrative with my name. I am the first of four daughters and no sons. I bear a surname granted to an ancestor who saved his village by feeding them mice — pontiki — through a wartime occupation (a story of its own, that my family were not always Pontikis). We daughters will bring our names with us or leave them in the past; we will carry our nominal lineage into the future or give it away.
The answer seemed obvious.
Austin and I married just over a year ago. We were pronounced at the altar as Mr. and Mrs. Zwick, a passage in the ceremony I co-wrote with my husband for the wedding I co-planned with my husband. We sat at a head table where my place card was, nominally, a woman I would learn to know.
I signed our Christmas cards with my new moniker but kept our dual-name address stamp. I registered her a gmail account but resisted renewing my passport as her. I smiled politely as relatives greeted me as the new Mrs. but kept my email signature intact at work. Here: my not-so-neat divide — I would have double the name and double the fun!
Over time, with each self-made contradiction, I figured out that my name was not just worth keeping. It was the only way, for me.
By becoming a wife, I reclaimed my name.
I will never (I hope) contend that it’s an inherently feminist choice to keep or take our husbands’ names. The act is replete with both obvious and unspoken truths, cultural and professional norms and historical weight, some that I understand and others that I don’t. I do understand that there’s too much nuance and depth to other women’s circumstances for me to judge or begrudge or applaud their choices.
The act of marriage forced me to deal with this nominal (and powerful) part of my identity outside the realm of the hypothetical, in ways I never anticipated. It became real. I considered with care.
I realize, a year later, that staying Maria Pontikis is one of the heaviest decisions I have made in my 28 years, masquerading as ambivalence. For many women, the decision is clear. But maybe you’re marrying soon, or you will one day, and you still don’t know. That’s okay! Take comfort that you don’t have to decide now, or tomorrow, or even by the day you say “I do.” Take comfort that uncertainty is normal. Take comfort that you do not love your husband more or less, you are no more or less a family, and you are no more or less a feminist — whatever your choice.
Maybe, like me, you’ll sit on your binomial fence for some time and feel your way around, until your choice is defensible — to you. That’s what matters.
(Photo credit: Sarah Kivell of Every Little Wonder Photography)