Should You Change Your Name After Marriage? The Woman's Surname Quandary

03/26/2015 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
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Is it necessary for me to have a last name? Why can't I act like a rockstar too, and just be called by my first name -- Nell?

I was born Nell Kathleen McCarthy. I hated my first name growing up. No one was named Nell, except cows and Nellie Olson from Little House on the Prairie.

It was hard to be cute in high school and college with an old-fashioned name like Nell. But after college, it worked on a blue-eyed wonder, with a soft smile and a mind full of romantic ideas.

I married him, eight months later. I was just 26.  

After much polling of other newly married friends, I nodded to tradition and changed my name, sort of. I decided to drop Kathleen, a middle name I loved, and replace it with McCarthy, and take his last name, Gibbon. I officially became Nell McCarthy Gibbon.

This logical and common choice never worked out well for me. People were always hyphenating it to Nell McCarthy-Gibbon. When it happened in the maternity ward, after my first son was born, I knew I needed to fix it... again.

So, one afternoon with a toddler in tow, I went back to the Social Security office and changed my name a second time. I thought, without question, for the last time. I picked Nell Kathleen Gibbon. I let go of my Irish surname and went from under my father's wing to my husband's out-stretched hand. I was building a new family, right?

But something gnawed at me, as I signed the paperwork while my son drew on himself with a pen stolen from my purse. I was pushing something I wanted down, deep inside, into that place where so many things women want get pushed and left to die. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert likens this to a New England cemetery in our souls.
The historical weight of the choice wasn't lost on me. 

I had succumbed to a naming tradition called Coverture which dates back to medieval England, that effectively enslaved women for thousands of years. And I did so, despite all the feminist history I studied in college and graduate school (I knew that in several U.S. states up until the 1970s, married women weren't allowed to open up their own bank accounts or apply for loans).   
Interestingly, a feme sole, a single woman, had legal rights in medieval England, but upon marriage, a woman became a feme covert. A feme covert had no rights to legal property as she was theoretically her husband's property, "covered" by him; made invisible under the eyes of the law. So once a woman signed away her surname, she signed away her human rights as well.

Giving up my name felt akin to giving up a room of my own, something Virginia Woolf had taught me not to do. But my sense of tradition and my need to please turned on Virginia Woolf that day. I walked out as Nell Kathleen Gibbon.

And I lived that way, under my husband's family name, until a year ago. After 12 years of marriage, and two more children, my husband and I separated and filed for divorce. 

I was shocked when my lawyer, very early on in the divorce process asked, "What do you want your last name to be?" Of all the things I was dealing with in the divorce, my last name was the last thing on the list. "Keep it Gibbon," I replied. "I'll figure it out later."
Later came on the day of my divorce. I retained the name Gibbon and laughed for the first time in a long time when the judge told me I wasn't allowed to marry again for 90 days. "Who would do such a thing?" I asked. "You'd be surprised," the judge replied. 

Little did I know, just weeks later, at a candlelit restaurant that smelled like Christmas, a distinguished and handsome man would introduce himself to me: "I'm Drew Hall." I was knocked off balance and instantly thought, 'Could I possibly, no never, fall in love again?'

Fast forward a year. I'm happily engaged and even more confused about 'the problem' that has become my last name. With no immediate plans to marry, do I simply stay a Gibbon? I will admit, I've doodled the name Nell Hall on scraps of paper like a 16 year old girl, but can a woman change her name to her fiancé's name without being married? What would be the social ramifications? And what if we don't work out in the end?  

I've contemplated changing my name back to McCarthy, but to return to my maiden name would be a return to my childhood which feels like going backwards. I'm not doing that. I am moving forward in my new life now.

I've also contemplated choosing a last name as if I was picking out a new dress from the racks at Bloomingdales. I've joked at dinner parties, "I think I'll just call myself Nell Smith."

Inevitably, at those dinner parties someone will ask, "Don't you want to have the same last name as your children?" That question always takes my breath away. Would it devalue me as their mother? 

In divorce, a woman has to give up so many things she never would have imagined. She has to give up, at least part of the time, the most unimaginable thing of all for a mother -- her children.  So what's giving up a name, on top of all that pain? If I clung to every part of my children in this divorce, I wouldn't thrive. No, I wouldn't survive. Divorce, for women, is about learning the art of letting go and the skill of reinvention.  

Madonna, Pink, McLovin and... me. The jury is still out on this girl -- Nell.