The Journey of a Name

I am getting married in less than two months, and like many women today, I knew that I had to decide what to do with my last name. For the past two years, I’ve been torn between the autonomy of keeping my birth name and the collectiveness of sharing a family name. I spent those years reading through the history of marriage, pouring over blog posts about this very topic, and asking the women around me how they made up their mind. And yet, despite all the hours I devoted to this internal debate, ultimately, my mind was made up in a single, unplanned moment.

Politically, I am aligned with Marxist feminism, so I was hyperaware of just how patriarchal marital traditions are. The last name is a nominal symbol of possession and identity, so many feminists have opted to keep their birth name after marriage to symbolize their independence and defiance of misogynistic naming rituals. However, it could be said that the birth name, traditionally given by the father, is just as problematic as a married name. Some say that women go through their lives carrying the surnames of their fathers and then their husbands, always branded as belonging to a man. I soon realized that politics or theory wouldn’t answer my questions about how to handle my last name. After all, I know many strong, independent women who changed their names after getting married, and their fierceness did not falter after the name change. Also, I was made aware that the conversations about “feminist weddings” often reek of white privilege. I had to check my ego and recognize that my last name would not have any material or representational effect on gender roles or social justice.

This is when I decided that my decision to change, keep, or hyphenate my name would not be based on politics. Instead, it would be a personal, emotional decision. This revelation did not make the choice any easier. Conversely, it prompted a year-long meditation on how I viewed my own identity. I had to analyze my own relationship to my name: did I feel like my birth name represented who I was? Did I feel like taking my future husband’s name would help create a feeling of family and cohesion in our household? On top of the deeper questions, I had to face more logistical issues. If I changed my last name to his, would future perspective employers be able to quickly and easily find my accomplishments online from before I was married? If I kept my name, would I get tired of correcting everyone each time I was called “Mrs. Tomberlin”? If I hyphenated my name, would I get sick of writing out a seven-syllable last name? What names would our future children take? Could I merge our last names and create a super name without it sounding ridiculous?

About six months ago, I decided that I would hyphen my name: Ruth Osorio-Tomberlin. I acknowledged that my initials would be ROT, which was less than ideal, but the name seemed to embody everything I wanted: I maintained my pre-marriage identity by holding onto my birth name while also recognizing my changed status by adding his last name to the end. Employers could still be able to google my name and learn more about me, and strangers calling me “Ruth Tomberlin” would still be 50% correct. My full name wouldn’t fit on most forms, but that was a sacrifice I could make, I told myself.

It’s truly amazing how two years of meditation, debate, and research can be thrown away in a single moment.

Last Friday, Ryan and I picked up our marriage license. While filling out the form, I was surprised when I saw a section about name changes. Instantly, I felt short of breath. My eyes welled up; I was overwhelmed by the immediacy of this name change. I asked the woman staffing the desk if this was my last chance to change my name, and she said that it was my last chance to do it easily; after today, she said, I would have to file for a legal name change, and that was a lengthy legal process. I returned to the form, my chest feeling smaller and smaller as my breath fought its way out. The pen hovered over the section of the form. I realized then that, in a way, I was mourning my name, which I considered a huge part of my identity. In my mind, I was seeing “Ruth Osorio-Tomberlin” written on the class schedule, my passport, and my facebook page. The name felt fake, like a political compromise that appeared to represent significant change but was actually empty. Right then, I knew what I wanted; I knew that I wanted to keep my name as it was. As soon as I said my decision aloud, my chest expanded, air re-entered my lungs, and my eyes dried up. I left the section blank and returned the form to the clerk, confirming with her that I was indeed keeping my last name as it was.

Back in the car, I felt a lightness. I repeated my name and corresponding nick name in my head, and it felt good. I held my fiance’s hand and asked him, “Are you okay with this?” He turned to me and said, “All I want to do is marry you. Nothing else matters.” I felt flooded by his love and support, and blissful realizing that I had made the right choice.

So that is why I am keeping my last name. It isn’t because I am cynical about our chances of marital success; rather, that moment when he expressed his support reminded me of how dedicated I am to making our relationship a lifelong partnership. My decision to keep my name wasn’t based on my feminist beliefs, although I am grateful to the feminists who have challenged patriarchal rituals of naming and made it socially acceptable for me to keep my birth name. No, my choice was defined by my emotional connection to my name, the pride I feel as an Osorio, and a childlike enthusiasm about my nickname. It’s been a few days since we filled out those forms, and I have not felt an ounce of regret over my decision; instead, I have felt relief and excitement. Now that my mind and heart are clear, we can focus on the things that really matter: building a loving, caring, and shared life together.

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The Journey of a Name

7 thoughts on “The Journey of a Name

  1. Melissa Tanner says:

    I felt the same way when we had to sign the license. I was scared. I kept my name.
    And I don’t plan on changing it. I love you.

  2. I felt that sense of mourning as well. I, too, have many nicknames associated with my maiden name. In the end I made a decision that was right for me, which was to change my last name, but I totally understand the sentiment behind your blog. You go Ruthie!

    (P.S. My friends still call me nicknames associated with my maiden name and I completely love it)

    1. Aw, thanks Turtle! It’s awesome that you were able to change your name and still feel connected with your maiden name through your friends and nicknames.You’ve got the best of both worlds!

  3. Christina says:

    Ruthie,

    This was such a good read…and just as a side note, not changing your name also takes away the hassle of dealing with and changing any finanancial (or other document) that has your original name attached to it. I, to this day, still have credit cards and accounts with my “maiden” name just because it pretty much takes an act of congress to get them changed… Though we may not see eye to eye on many political topics, I truly enjoy reading your perspective and learning more about you through your written words. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Really, this made my day. Also, I had no idea that financial institutions were so stubborn about name names!

  4. I’m happy you’re keeping your name and I’m happy that it’s for these reasons. If it feels fake, if it doesn’t feel like you, then it isn’t right. And what a wonderful future husband you have! Just a couple years ago, I met a man who insisted that any potential wife of his must take his name unless she had already made a name for herself in her career or something. Wow. Talk about fraught with wrongness.

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