Changing last name after marriage: Why it’s a hard decision

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The first time someone asked me if I was taking my husband’s last name, I felt like they had wandered in on me naked.

“You surprised me!” I said, as I scrambled to cover my most vulnerable parts.

It wasn’t the question-asking itself that caught me off guard. People saw my engagement ring and suddenly, I was the press secretary for my own wedding. When is it? Where is it? What are your colors?

Unfortunately, what nobody asked me was exactly what I needed to talk about most: Who did I want to become now that I had chosen to become somebody’s wife?

It was a question I had thought about long before I even knew if I would get married.

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Just as I had consider a date’s looks and his politics, I would judge his last name. I tried on each one like I would a new lipstick, and I gave as much thought to the final decision. I was dating! This was fun! No need to make any hard choices right now.

The names, like the men, didn’t stick — until one did. Then, suddenly, I needed an answer.

Like so much of wedding planning, none of the available options felt quite like the right fit. Even the language I had to explain my dilemma was problematic. I could either “take” something from someone I loved or I could “keep” something that was a part of myself. And while some couples make new names and others hyphenate, it all seemed to amount to the same limited choices: take or keep.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t only a bride. I was also a wedding planner. My workplace was cluttered with T-shirts, banners and, best of all, sashes that all told me that I was doing this wrong.

“He stole my heart and I stole his last name!”

“Pop the champagne! I’m changing my last name!”

You see enough photos of blushing brides clearly thrilled to be shedding their pre-married identities and you start to wonder, “Am I the only one who feels mixed up by this choice?”

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Rationally, I knew that I wasn’t. In my six years as a wedding planner, I’ve seen countless women struggle through this same obstacle course. A lot of them are my clients. They’ll come to me and whisper, “How do I do it?” as if changing their last names immediately makes them bad feminists.

Just as cautious are the women who aren’t changing their names. Nearly always they tell me and then rush to explain, “We’re not having kids!” as if they owe anyone but themselves an explanation.

A man marrying a woman has his own set of problems. “I don’t want to rock the boat,” he’ll tell me when the question comes up. I used to think these men were cowards, until I pressed and realized it wasn’t done out of default but out of fear both of hurting his already-stressed partner and fear of the ramifications of doing something “out of the norm.” (That last one sounds silly until you plan enough weddings and meet men who’ve almost lost their families when they announced they were changing their last names after marriage.)

As for my couples who identify as LGBTQ, the whole “what we’ll call ourselves” question is often the least of their worries in an industry that continues to dismiss their love altogether. Instead, they’re dealing with wedding vendors who ask “Who’s the bride?”; proudly point out the gendered getting-ready spaces; or ignore emails once they realize it’s a queer couple reaching out.

When it came to my wedding, what struck me the most was that, for me, marriage was a choice, not a requirement. That’s not a reality my foremothers could claim. I think of those women and wonder how many chose to marry the man that they married. What would they make of me, a woman who opted in to becoming a wife?

To me, having that choice feels like progress worth celebrating. So where are my decorations?

“Soon-to-be Mrs. (without giving up my entire identity)!”

“He stole my heart — with my full and knowing consent.”

“Pop the champagne! Marriage is a problematic institution and I also love my husband.”

I want a world that recognizes the complexity of the choice we make when we marry somebody. I want better options, for myself and for others. I want to keep who I am while also taking on the transformative choice I made by starting a marriage.

For me, that meant doing both: I kept and I took. The result is a name that takes twice as long to say and even longer to write, plus two middle names that TSA agents still don’t recognize.

My married name also leads to plenty of confusion. In every situation — from making a doctor’s appointment to writing an article to RSVPing — I have to ask myself, “Who am I in this moment?”

In that way, this road feels familiar. Like every woman I’ve ever admired, I contain multitudes. Why wouldn’t my name be as complicated as I am?

Elisabeth Kramer (she/her) is a wedding planner in Portland, Ore., who is fighting the Wedding Industrial Complex. She’s also the author of “Modern Etiquette Wedding Planner” and co-founder of Altared.

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