10/11/2011 03:19 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2011

The Name Game: Why Is It So Damn Hard to Find a Name That Fits?

During the process of researching my book, Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides, I spoke with more than 50 brides about topics ranging from the humor of the term "STD cards" to the best therapy-speak techniques for dealing with family wedding drama ("I statements," anyone?) I probed these bridal lab rats about all sorts of hot topics, things like appropriating traditions from other cultures and whether 'Feminist Wedding Planner' was an oxymoron. But the issue that got everyone the most riled up was the debate over last names. Take his? Keep yours? Both of you adopt a new name? Despite all the months of cordial discussions over the nuances of indie wedding planning, the debate over last names quickly became heated, delving into the nature of feminism, the value of having a "team name," and one woman's pleasure in saying "Neither of us changed our name." If my research was any indication, this was the hot-button topic for freethinking brides, so in picking a chapter from Offbeat Bride to share, I figured this was the one.

Poor Ariel Meadow Fetz. She never stood a chance, really. First and foremost, she was shot down by my second-generation gender-egalitarianism and the fact that I had a career built on my given name. She also had to face up to my partner Andreas' staunch academic feminism. Ariel Meadow Fetz was aborted, and the pro-lifers didn't even get a chance to wave around bloody signs and protest.

Mrs. Fetz had a window of opportunity for a while, though. Growing up, I'd always been one of those girls who practiced writing her future married name. Ariel Meadow Beck, I wrote in bubbled cursive in seventh grade, which later gave way to Ariel Meadow Himmelstein, Ariel Meadow Harrison, Ariel Meadow Lemire, Ariel Meadow Dunbar. By the time I got around to Ariel Meadow Nordstrom at age seventeen, I was already starting to have second thoughts. I sort of liked my birth name.

And by the time I met Andreas at twenty-two, I had one fleeting adolescent reflex of learning his name and thinking "Ariel Meadow Fuck this shit. I'm Ariel Meadow Stallings. Regardless of who he might be." As Leah from Minneapolis said, "A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but me by another name?! I can't imagine it!"

Journalist Marjorie Ingall also kept her name, explaining in an article for The Jewish Daily Forward entitled "Josie Who? Maxine What?," that simply using her husband's last name wasn't an option: "We're feminists, but the fun kind. Not the type who sing dirge-y folk songs and talk about our personhood; the type who really do try to be fair to each other while maintaining a sense of humor and respect for difference."

Then again, six years later when we got engaged, I did play around with various ideas. Should we hyphenate? I knew lots of hyphenated kids growing up, and (I know this is cruel) I always felt pity for them and their mouthfuls of twelve-consonant names. Maybe, I thought, we could combine our names. What about Fetzlings? It sounded completely ridiculous, like a distant species relative of Tribbles.

Then there was my odd idea of swapping first names. One morning I got a funny phone call from a telemarketer. "Is this the Andreas household?" the woman asked, suggesting that they'd gotten Andreas' first and last names flipped. Then I thought, "How great would it be to take your spouse's first name as your last name? He would be Andreas Tillman Ariel, and I would be Ariel Meadow Andreas. It made a strange deranged sense. There was a bit of ownership there.

Even that quickly-discarded solution, however, wouldn't solve the ultimate offbeat bride's dilemma: What about the kids? Strangely, Andreas and I are without models in this arena: Despite the fact that both our mothers were and are feminists, we both have our fathers' last names. Our tentative solution was to involve genders, but not in the usual way. When we have a child, a girl will get my last name while a boy will get his. We'll probably use the other's last name as a second middle name. Granted, this is, as of yet, untested, but I've heard people who've made it work.

Sometimes it's purely an issue of aesthetics. My aunt elected to give both her kids her last name instead of her then-husband's. This was not a political issue, it was purely one of aesthetics. My aunt's husband's last name is Faget. It's French, pronounced "fah-zhay," but my poor uncle grew up teased with mispronunciations of his name and continued to get crank calls all through his adult life. Therefore, he insisted that his two sons, my cousins, both get my aunt's last name. No politics. Simple pragmatism.

The assumption about offbeat brides is that of course we'll keep our names, and we'll be proud of it! Like most assumptions, it's frequently wrong. Sometimes, brides told me, politics be damned, their husband's last name just sounds better. Jen Moon remembers, "The first time I got married, I took my husband's last name... because to tell the truth, he just had a cooler last name than the one I grew up with." Stacy Streuli had similar sentiments, saying, "Honestly, I don't really care. I was never a big fan of my last name, and I wasn't sad to see it go."

This laissez-faire attitude is surprisingly common when it comes to last names. Amy Ross (who used to be Amy Lichtenbaum) told me that changing her name was no big deal because, "I have a dozen names -- pet names, nicknames, Internet handles, and I am known by different names in different countries." Lisa Marie Grillos had a similar attitude, saying that she chose to take her husband's name in part because "my name never mattered much to me -- I'm not even very attached to my first name and would be fine changing that, as well. Call me what you will, I know who I am."

Other new brides see it not as a political issue but as a family name issue -- Amy might not have cared so much about her last name, but she wanted to show "we were a family, and not just some cohabitating group of strangers." Brittany Wager put it in the sports paradigm, explaining that she wanted her family to have a "team name." Corrin Cramer Pierce (formerly just Corrin Cramer) agreed, saying, "I like the idea of us being a unit represented by one name, and I had no issues with it being his."

Some couples address the "team" name issue by compromising on a new common last (or even middle) name, which both spouses take. After long political discussions, Maria Grundmann and her husband planned to legally adopt a new shared middle name. "Except," she remembers, "we never actually did it. Inertia overcame us, and neither of us has changed our name one bit." She does, however, take solace in being able to explain to people who ask that "Neither of us changed our name." She told me the answer pleases her because "It implicitly questions the assumption that only women would change their name upon marriage."

The increasingly popular option of both spouses taking a new common name is a great idea -- unless one or both partners have professional recognition associated with their given names. Susan Beal, a writer from Portland, Oregon, recounts that, "Some good friends of ours chose a whole new last name, which I think is such a great, meet-in-the-middle option... but I'm a writer and have published under my own name for years. In a practical (and professional) sense, it would be more or less starting over from scratch to suddenly reappear as Susan Anythingelse. My husband has made films and published under his last name, too, so it was completely impractical for us to both change to something else and both lose all name recognition in our fields." Like Maria and her husband, neither Susan nor her husband elected to change their names.

Among brides I spoke to, more than half opted to keep their own names, many for the same reasons I did, which is to say, the reasons you'd expect -- but sometimes reasons you wouldn't. Leah Weaver laughed, "My husband wasn't interested in changing his name, and hell if I would if he wasn't! Leah Weaver isn't a character I've been playing for thirty-two years; it's me."

That said, women who keep their names need to be prepared for the family members who refuse to acknowledge it. You can get your panties in a bunch, or you can take Phyllis from Seattle's approach: "Many of our more old-fashioned family members assume I have my husband's last name. I only know that because of the cards that come in the mail for 'Mrs. Him.' I think it's cute! Even if it's a check, the bank doesn't seem to care -- so why should I? At least they're thinking of me."

Then again, women who take their husbands' names must also acknowledge that they'll get grief for opting for the more traditional option. Amy Ross told me, "Definitely the hardest thing about changing my name was facing down the feminist police, who sometimes assume I'm a slave to men just because I don't really care what my last name is. But I know I'm still a radical feminist, and that's what matters in the end."

Brittany Wagner summarized the issue when she told me, "No matter what you do, you will get grief from someone who did the opposite. It is a choice that everyone faces when they get married, and everyone has a lifetime of experience that shapes that choice. A very good friend (who calls herself a feminist) told me upon finding out that I changed my name that it was 2002, and I was allowed to keep my last name if I wanted to -- as if I wasn't aware that it was an option! Sometimes I feel a little defensive about changing my name, as I imagine the keepers feel, as well. I have a very equitable relationship with my husband, and I'd hate to think that people assume otherwise just because I changed my name."

I'm happy that I chose to keep my birth name. That said, despite all my efforts, Ariel Meadow Fetz lives on. She's a phantom floating around our house, drifting from room to room. I can't see her, but I know she's here: That bitch gets ass-loads of junk mail.

A writer and editor, Ariel Meadow Stallings has been published in print and web publications including ReadyMade Magazine, Seattle Weekly, and Offbeat Bride is her first book. The Offbeat Bride on Amazon.

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