How Marriage Taught Me to Embrace My Name

06/01/2015 11:22 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Emilie Sage Leftwich Bahr. My name is at once a reflection of my dad's distinctly German ancestry, my mother's (mostly) Cajun French heritage (which somewhere down the line was muddied by some forefathers of questionably English descent), and a byproduct of being birthed to hippie academics who, I imagine, sorted through all variety of monikers potentially suited to their only daughter before settling in on one imbued with just the right balance of spirit, austerity and acoustic appeal.

Growing up, I hated my name, and my last name in particular. I cringed at its monosyllabic curtness, which stood in stark contrast to the mellifluous French surnames of my peers that seemed to dance out of my teachers' mouths during roll call, a ballet of sunny, round vowel sounds formed by silent T's and H's.

I also hated the ease with which it could be likened to a sugary snack, to gym equipment, or mistaken for that of the abrasive and overweight comedienne who was then in her prime. ("Are you related to Roseanne Barr?" classmates would ask, and because I was also self-conscious about my pudgy cheeks and thighs, I assumed the question had as much to do with our physical resemblance as the homophonic quality of our names.)

Yet somewhere along the line, I developed an affinity for my very long, often mispronounced, and always misspelled name. I hadn't realized just how attached I'd grown to it until I was given the perfect opportunity to shake it.


Eight months ago I got married, and prominent amid the onslaught of well-wishes and revelry (not to mention the crisply-folded, monogrammed napkins that now occupy an entire kitchen drawer), was the widely-held assumption that in marrying my husband, I would be giving up one of the more potent symbols of my identity and espousing his name.

"But I really want to be able to introduce you as Emilie Jones," my mother-in-law told me recently, when the topic of my name bubbled up seemingly out of nowhere as we stood outside a hotel in downtown Baton Rouge.

I wanted to explain to her that that my name is the label that encapsulates my history in all its glory and imperfections. It has been with me through 34 years of joy and sorrow, accomplishments and setbacks. It's been called out in praise and in fury, appeared in newspaper articles and letters to the editor, in police reports and my parents' divorce decree.

It's one of the few remaining tethers to those friends with whom I long ago lost touch but with whom I hold out hopes of reconnecting. It's helped me get jobs and free tickets at will-call. It's kept me from getting jobs. It's gotten me placed near the front of just about every list compiled alphabetically, and therefore saved me (and my loved ones) from hours' worth of grueling graduation exercises, music and dance recitals, and athletic tryouts.

It connects me to an odd and assorted cast of intergenerational characters I call relatives, whether I want to or not. If you Google it, I'm the first Emilie Bahr to appear (which I don't think can be said for many non-celebrities), alongside essays I've written, projects I've worked on, and, for better or worse, my time in every race I've run over the past decade. I wanted to tell her I could think of few things more unnatural to me than giving up my name.

But it was late and I was tired, and not very well-prepared for explaining to my newly-minted mother-in-law why I would not be taking the family name, one that she accepted proudly (but I sensed, not without a smidgen of regret) as a matter of course in marrying her husband almost four decades prior.

So I told her she could introduce me however she wanted, then let the conversation drift to other topics.