“Mrs. B"

I spent much of the day yesterday waiting in line at various government offices so as to show off my marriage license and legally change my name from "Ms. Fulton" to "Mrs. Brown." Despite the fact that the license is dated July 6, 1994, neither with the Social Security Administration nor with the Illinois DMV was there actually any fuss. And yet, I was a veritable bundle of nerves by the time I got home. Why? What, after all, is so scary about having to decide whether to call myself "Rachel Lee Fulton Brown" or simply "Rachel Brown"? I even feel nervous now writing about it. What gives?

Our marriage counselor suggested one reason last night: I quite literally don't know who I am at the moment. Am I really "Mrs. Brown"? In truth, or at least, in potential, that's who I have been already these past sixteen years. And yet, it's not how I've asked people to address me in public, nor is it a form of my name that I've used, e.g. on credit cards or at church. Why the angst? Why the wait? What difference does it make whether I use the name that I was given at birth or the name that the state allows me to take more or less without question thanks to the fact that I'm married?

Okay, I'm so nervous at the moment I can barely see straight, much less write. Let's breathe deeply and go sit on the porch (with the dog).... Who am I? Why is it so difficult thinking of myself as "Mrs. Brown"? It was funny yesterday: when I was filling out the Social Security form, I had a sudden panic about whether I would be required to change my tax identification number. Interestingly, I was greatly reassured to learn that I wouldn't. Somehow, knowing that the number would stay the same no matter how many times I changed my name was very comforting (so am "I" really my Social Security number? Horrible to think!). And yet, the thought of changing my name still makes me panic. Why?

My mother was nonplussed: "It's what we all did in my generation." So why didn't I do it when my husband and I first got married? Well, I was scared. My divorce decree for my first marriage had just come through after a two-year separation. Perhaps I wasn't sure whether I wanted to entangle myself in yet another legal mess (ironically, since, as I've learned these past few days, it is actually very easy to change one's name on account of marriage). Plus, I had just taken my doctoral degree: now I could finally call myself "Dr."--and my diploma was in my maiden name. How could I be both "Dr. Fulton" and "Mrs. Brown"? And yet again, this was my second marriage and I hadn't really changed my name after my first. What if, heaven forbid, my ex-husband's prediction about the longevity of this present marriage came true, and I was divorced yet again in under five years? Not that I believed for a moment that he could be right, but what if?

Good grief, this is difficult for me to process. Was I really so scared as all that? Am I really so scared now? It's just a name, after all. It isn't my whole self. Or is it? Am I really so invested in being "Rachel Fulton" as opposed to "Rachel Brown"? Rachel Brown, Rachel Brown, Rachel Brown, Rachel Brown. Maybe if I just keep writing it out, it will start to seem real. Like with the name that I gave my (our) puppy. It seemed so strange the first few days when people would ask me her name and I would say, "Joy." Was that really her name or was I just imposing an arbitrary label on her? And yet, now, when I say it, people smile and say, "Of course, it suits her perfectly."

Circumstances matter here. "Mrs. Brown" has not existed properly for these past several years. And now, blessedly, but confusingly, she seems to be the only one who I want to be, if only I knew who she was. No, that's not it: I do know who she is. She is my husband's wife, mother of his child. She spends her days waiting anxiously for her husband to come home from work so as to spend the evenings in his company, talking and making love. She helps take care of their home, their son, their cat and their dog. She is incomplete in herself, fully realized only as one half of a couple. She exists in relation to him and him alone. Without "Mr. Brown," there can be no "Mrs. B."

Oh, dear, I'm not sure I'm ready to have my very existence be so contingent. Surely I can be "Rachel Fulton" and still be a wife. But whose wife? Not my father's or brother's; I'm not "Mrs. Fulton," nor do I want to be. Nor do I actually want to be "Ms. Fulton" anymore; she is a lonely and bitter person, untrusting and unwilling to take any real risk. But "Mrs. Brown"? Oh, dear, oh, dear, what would my feminist sisters say? Not that I've ever really worried much about what my feminist sisters said, except to listen to that little voice that suggests that taking my husband's name somehow diminishes, as opposed to enhances, me.

That's an interesting way of putting it, isn't it? "Taking my husband's name"--as if it doesn't really belong to him anymore either because I've "taken" it. As indeed I have: he didn't ask me to go through this process, although he is very happy and flattered that I am. Does he actually want to share his name with me as well as with our son? Does this not diminish him in some way, now that he is no longer the only "Brown"? No, that is the wrong way of looking at it. Taking his name, sharing his name makes us a couple: "Mr. and Mrs. B." We become more, not less by sharing a name.

Which is really the point, I now realize. I am ready now to acknowledge myself fully as part of a couple, fully dependent for my identity on someone other than myself. Calling myself "Mrs. Brown" announces to the world that there is someone else on whom I depend, someone to whom I come home in the evening after being "Prof. Fulton" all day. Am I still scared? Of course I am! What if something happens to him? What if he doesn't come home one day? What if (heaven forbid) he changes his mind about me and doesn't want me to be "Mrs. B"? It could happen. Again, heaven forbid, but it could. Then where would I be?

Don't answer that question, it's hypothetical, not at all what's in the cards. The real question rather is, where have I been? Why haven't I let Mrs. Brown be "Mrs. Brown"? Why have I hitherto insisted on keeping her secret, hiding her at home, not letting her out in public? It's not that I ever pretended that she didn't actually exist, but neither did I announce her presence properly to the world. Was I embarrassed? Perhaps, but why? My husband is a genius, handsome and witty, someone of whom it is all too easy to be inordinately proud. One day soon I'm going to do a post bragging about him, my beloved spouse. So why not use his name as my own?

But, of course, I wanted to be his equal, have a career, but why not under my married as opposed to my maiden name? Surely "Prof. Brown" would have had just as much stature as "Prof. Fulton" has ever had. Perhaps maybe I should be "Prof. Brown," too. Announce to the world that my scholarship is as dependent upon my relationship with my husband as is the existence of our home or our child. Because, in truth, it is: I could never have written my first book without him, nor could I have become the teacher that I have. It seems idiotic, pointlessly selfish, indeed self-destructive, now that I put it that way. Maybe the reason that Rachel Fulton has had such a struggle as an author is because she was insisting upon writing under that name rather than her true name, Rachel Brown. I actually like that thought. I'm going to have to work on it. Who, after all, is this Mrs. B?

Comments

  1. When Antonio Villar and Corina Raigosa married, they both adopted the new surname Villaraigosa. (Antonio is now the mayor of Los Angeles.) Not every combination or hyphenation will work, but I am distressed by the assumption that if one member of a married couple changes surname, it should be the woman (presuming heterosexual marriage, which is not the only possibility anymore). It does evoke coverture.

    So do other naming conventions, to be sure. Alessandra Macinghi--her father's surname--married into the Strozzi family to become Alessandra Macinghi negli Strozzi, but she did not have to give up her family identity. But then, as Christiane Klapisch-Zuber reminds us, she didn't have much of a choice; women, and especially widows, in quattrocento Florence were always aware of how they tied together two lineages, sometimes precariously. At least that convention, though, and even more so the Spanish and Mexican one (father's surname y mother's [father's] surname), recognize that children are born from two family histories, not merely one.

    Besides, if my wife had taken my surname, she would have wound up with a double dactyl name. Had I taken hers I'd have a double trochee. Neither is terribly euphonious. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if the Middlebury College graduate Brandy Alexander decided to take her spouse's surname, regardless of what it is. Some names should never be visited on people.

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  2. @Brian: hm, yes, different cultures have different ways of forming names for married couples. You could also have discussed Islamic or Icelandic conventions, for instance, all of which we are also aware of. I'm not clear what is so peculiarly distressing about the convention that my beloved FB has chosen to follow (perhaps you can unpack that a bit further...).
    @FB: this is making me see you a whole different way. Rock on!

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  3. I took my husband's name when we got married 19 years ago. He didn't ask me to do so, and nearly everyone was surprised that I did, because I've been a feisty feminist since early in my childhood. But I really wanted to mark the formation of a new family.

    At that point, I was just starting graduate school, so I had no professional record of publications etc. When I did begin publishing, I decided to use my full name (First Name Maiden Name Married Name) in order to honor the family that raised me as well as the family that my husband and I formed. Though in my day to day life people like my kids' friends and teachers know me as Mrs. Married Name, my professional identity is always with both names. The only time it causes problems is picking up registration materials at conferences, because sometimes I get alphabetized under Maiden Name and sometimes under Married Name. But that's a small inconvenience.

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  4. Now that I've taken the plunge and started changing things over, I'm actually thinking fairly seriously about using my full married name for future publications. I'm uncomfortable now with the thought of being fragmented (professional vs. social). Hmmm.... I have a few things just now going to press; perhaps I should start with those!

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  5. The implications of changing one’s name never really hit me as a major identity change when I was a kid. My mother had done it without hesitation, I’m told; but, she’s very much her own person, so I didn’t give it much thought. I think when it comes to legally changing one’s name because of marriage, it would be better to think of it as SHARING the name instead of TAKING the name. I think that would make the emotional transition easier. It might make answering any questions during the legal procedures easier as well.

    -- Kimora Avery

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  6. There is the precedent for religious, not to mention Popes, taking a new name. The reason for this is that the person is taking on a new vocation. The advantage that religious and popes have is that it usually involves taking a first name and either losing the last name altogether or keeping the last name the same. In any case, if marriage is a vocation, then it should be somehow marked by a name change. Saul becomes Paul. Edith Stein becomes Teresa Benedicta. Is Fulton becoming Brown less significant?

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F.B.

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