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I Changed My Name -- Before I Got Married

07/24/2012 12:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 23, 2012

A name is one of a person's most identifying features, but none of us has much, if any, control over what it is. Some of us, women mostly, choose to change it, but then it usually indicates that we're taking on someone else's name -- one they didn't choose, either -- rather than claiming a distinct identity.

There are over two million Smiths in the U.S. I imagine plenty of them aren't bothered by having the most common last name in the country. I was that one-in-two-million gal with a remarkable talent for being uncomfortable. So whenever I, one of several hundred Natalie Smiths in the country, had to join a group, give a presentation, or in any way express ideas and words as my own, I tended to shut up, slouch down, and not put my name to anything. As a Smith, I never felt anything I ever said or accomplished was worth attributing to me because the name I had was so nondescript, a laughable attempt at identification. Growing up, I found myself looking forward to getting married so I could have someone else's name.

But that -- a name, a voice, some self-worth and a professional leg to stand on -- is a lot for someone else to give, and a lot to wait for. So as a single young woman about to graduate from college, I decided to legally change my name. I would enter the working world with a name I was proud of -- one that would distinguish me from my peers.

I never wanted to give the impression that I was abandoning who I'd been up to that point, and I actually did like the aesthetics of my name. I decided I would change my last name by only a few letters. I considered several mostly unheard-of combinations of letters that began with S and usually ended in th, but again and again Sayth was the one I arrived at. What better way to assert my voice than to have the verb "say" in my name?

After I made the change, I started feeling better, fast. That's not to say there weren't headaches along the way. The secretary who had to update the name on my transcripts repeatedly asked me if I was sure as I signed the forms she gave me. I was beaming, I was loud, I was a little annoyed, and I was unflinchingly rigid: "Yes, and it no longer matters to me that other people don't understand, because this is something that's right for me," I told her. I should have been wearing a Rosie the Riveter waist pack and pumping some Helen Reddy on my iPod. As I left her office, even in my overly enthusiastic solitary dance-strut to class, I could see that "loud" wouldn't always be the most productive tone for my new voice.

I really wanted to talk about my name in a way that wouldn't turn people off. When I had an appointment with a new optometrist, she asked if the reason my name was different from my parents' was that I was married. "No," I said, my shoulders curling forward, "I'm just ... difficult." I was nearly back to where I'd started! I'd changed my name to better engage with people, and I needed to find a happy medium between talking over people who didn't understand and completely withdrawing in front of those who were innocently curious.

Part of saying my name and telling my story is considering how other people will hear it. I don't necessarily need to say what I think others want to hear, but I do need make sure I can talk about my experiences -- and anything else -- in a way that makes me approachable. I spent too much of my life not bothering to say anything because I was uncomfortable -- and hiding from my many-in-a-million name.

The HR manager at my new job was surprised when she asked for a copy of my birth certificate, and I provided her with that and a copy of my approved name change petition. "Did you get married?" she asked. "No, but I chose to change my name for professional purposes; the commonness of Smith was causing problems putting together my grad school applications." I was frank but not defensive (or offensive). "Hm," she said thoughtfully. "I've never heard of anyone doing that before."

One person who had heard of a similar situation was my former landlady, who had kept her name when she married. "Our son did that!" his mother exclaimed after I told my story. "Except he found his last name too difficult to spell, and he wants to run for office, so when he got married, he and his wife created a hybrid name that's very simple."

"I love that!" I said admiringly.

"Well, his father doesn't," my landlady said, smiling somewhat regretfully, "but it makes sense for them."

Conversations like these helped me explain my unusual decision in an even-handed way. Ready? I genuinely believe that, as a Smith, I kept thinking my words weren't worth as much as someone else's because they couldn't be tied to a speaker's name as easily. Logical? Maybe not. But I felt it all the same.

I'm so satisfied with my last name that for a long time I was adamantly against changing it ever again -- especially for marriage. I finally had a name worth keeping -- why would I drop it to participate in an unthinking, outdated tradition? I was frustrated that taking one's husband's name is still such an automatic action, when the historical purpose of marking a woman as attached (belonging) to one man and not the other has become (should have become?) obsolete. But that historical purpose isn't what everyone sees in that tradition. If there's one thing I've learned from my name change, it's a true appreciation for every married woman's decision (when, of course, she has a choice) regarding her name upon marriage. I'll even admit that I'm considering at least three different options if I ever marry, and which one I prefer varies by the day.

Until then I can at least tell a bartender what name my tab is under and not worry about ambiguity. I'm happy and prepared when people ask me whether I got married, why my name is different, or even how to pronounce it. I'm Natalie Sayth.

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