Working these recent months as a substitute teacher, after quitting my job, has given me a new understanding of many things. The importance of proper hand washing techniques, the propensity of second graders to tattle on each other and feel proud of it, and the alarming number of middle school students who can (and do) grow mustaches. One insight I never would have expected, however, was how much explaining has to be done about my name. I’ve always been lucky to have a name that is easily pronounced and spelled. Even in October when I legally changed my name, I wasn’t exactly adding anything complex with those four new letters. An onomatopoeia to be sure, fodder for some raised eyebrows, but nothing a 9-year old can’t sound out.
What the students I sub for couldn’t know is how odd it still seems to me when I write my name on that whiteboard. (Newsflash that I hadn’t received until recently: Chalkboards are a nearly extinct species) It took two years and two months for me to find the courage to HYPHENATE my name, and changing it by way of deleting my maiden name was never an option. And even though I know it’s not especially common, especially around these parts, to hyphenate after marriage, the reaction I get has still been surprising to me.
From kindergarten to 8th grade (I haven’t had the courage to sub for high school yet) I get similar confused looks when they read the board with my name on it. It’s not like I wrote a name that is all consonants or rhymes with genitalia or anything. So it’s become standard when I introduce myself to give a brief explanation, something like this:
“Good morning! My name is Mrs. Clark-Bonk. It’s a hyphenated name. This is a hyphen. (points to hyphen) A hyphen takes two names and makes them one. (to preempt questions) Yes, you can call me Mrs. Bonk. Yes, you can call me Mrs. Clark. I answer to either.”
(inevitably) ” Can we call you Mrs. C.?”
“Mrs. C. B.?”
(and the fateful) “How do you get a hyphenated name?”
(stifling a heavy sigh) “Well you see, when you get married your name doesn’t change automatically. You only change it when you decide that’s right for you. What I decided is that I like my maiden name and want to keep it, but I also wanted to add my husband’s name.”
“You can DO that?”
“I didn’t know that was allowed.”
“My wife won’t be doing that.”
Yikes. As their adult figure of the day in a public school, I can’t reply the way I’m naturally inclined. I wish I had the ability or opportunity to describe how sad it makes me to hear those replies. I’d love to introduce, simply suggest, the idea that changing your name from one man’s to another’s is slightly antiquated. Even if it doesn’t imply ownership anymore, it still implies something that most people never ponder.
I know that if I ever were to say this many of those students would have a counter argument. They would, like many of my friends have said to me, say that changing your name is symbolic, an act of love, a nominal way of becoming a family with your husband. And I get that. I really, really get that. And I respect that line of reasoning completely, it’s same line of thinking that led me to, albeit a bit tearfully, to add that hyphen. And I know that more than a few of my newly named friends shed that same tear, despite above-mentioned symbolism, love and family ties.
What bothers me really isn’t that women change their names in general. What bothers me is that sometimes, oftentimes even, women are questioned accusingly if their decision is to leave their name unchanged. What bothers me more is that men are not even expected to ponder this huge leap of symbolism. I’m sure you can tell me a story of your friend’s cousin’s brother’s friend’s uncle who changed HIS name instead of her changing HER name, but overall we know that’s not the case. Dave, a loving, chivalrous, sensitive guy, never even fathomed considering taking on the act of symbolic love or becoming a nominal part of MY family instead of vice versa. And if he had, he would have received quite a ribbing for it, I can assure you. The circles he runs in aren’t exactly feminist enclaves.
All I’m saying is that I wish, perhaps someday, that women who hyphenate their new names or leaving their maiden name untouched are regarded with as much disinterest and normalcy as those who change theirs. The reasons for wanting to keep all or part of your name are just as valid as those who take on a married name. I want to maintain a nominal connection with MY family, in addition to adding one to Dave’s. I want to be recognized for who I am, which for most of my life was Clark and only Clark. I went to university, then got my Master’s, all as Clark. And I can’t bear to lose all the Superman references that Lois Lane Clark Kent brings. People always think they are the first one to ever think of it, and I love the look on their faces when that bubble is burst.