In the Name of the Father

January 8, 2008 at 3:13 am (Uncategorized)

I made an accommodation booking for a friend’s wedding weekend yesterday. As I gave my credit card details to the woman on the other end, she paused after I read out the name on the card and then said “You don’t sound like a doctor.” I told her that I was a PhD, not a medical doctor, and that my husband had ordered the subsidiary card and added the ‘Dr.’ I said I would never have included that detail myself – I am by turns embarrassed by it, then profoundly irritated when the card is frequently taken to be Llew’s. It seems to be the extremely infuriating and sexist assumption of every waiter everywhere that the man at the table is the doctor. Llew finds it hilarious; I find it disappointing and demeaning.

Which brings me to my somewhat contradictory position on hand-written mail: I don’t like receiving mail from friends and family addressed to ‘Mr and Mrs Jenkins.’ My official title, if I’m going to have one at all (and some people insist that I must), is Dr, not Mrs. I worked long and bloody hard to earn that title, and if people are going to insist on the formalities, then I’d appreciate it if they could use mine instead of simply honouring Llew’s. What ‘Mrs’ denotes is my relationship to Llew’s title; what ‘Dr’ denotes is my title, which is quite independent of my relationship to Llew. I feel like I have conceded quite enough already in changing my surname, thanks very much. Quite apart from the name-changing issue, I have a title I worked incredibly hard to earn, and if people want to use titles, then hey, that’s mine.

I never thought I’d change my name. On the contrary – I insisted I wouldn’t. I wholly rejected the idea that I should sacrifice my name (and therefore in some obscure way my whole identity, or so went my thinking) and take Llew’s instead. It was outrageous. Patriarchal. Outmoded. Hegemonic. Sexist. You name it. And it is, let’s face it. The name change conundrum is all of those things. It’s a refreshing fact that some Scandinavian friends of mine have rejected this set-up and now have impressively double-barrelled names – one friend even has his wife’s name on the latter end of the hyphen rather than his. But in my own world, the convention is either for the woman to retain her own name or for her to take her husband’s. I’ve heard of the odd case of a man taking his wife’s name but that was for purely cosmetic reasons: he liked hers better. Usually the conversation never even occurs.

Once Llew and I had committed to be married, I began to think about the name issue once more. I think the legal position – I’m not certain, but I think – is that whether I had his name or not, any children borne of our union would be given Llew’s name. I’d just get to carry, deliver, and nurse them. Again, I find this situation incredible and unjust. But then I took it back a notch and started to examine the significance of my own name, my ‘maiden’ name. And what I discovered pretty briskly – and of course had always known but merely chosen not to interrogate – was that my unmarried surname wasn’t really my strong, independent woman name at all. It was my father’s.

The only option I ‘d ever seriously considered before ultimately taking on my married name was my grandfather’s. He was very much like a father to me, and for a time I considered taking his surname as a way of honouring him and keeping his name going in some symbolic way. But it’s still the man’s name, isn’t it? There is no escaping it. That’s what I found out. Every name I had at my disposal was simply one or another means of denoting my relationship to one or another man. I couldn’t find a meaningful feminist alternative.

The more I thought about retaining my father’s surname instead of taking Llew’s, the stranger and more perverse it seemed. On the one hand, I was choosing to build a life, my future, with Llew, and on the other I was holding on to the name of a man who hasn’t been in my life for what is now twenty years. Well over half of it. The only people who still have my unmarried name are my father and my brother, and I don’t have anything to do with either of them. What was I holding onto, exactly? And then there was Llew and his family, and his name, and the fact that we are partners in this life. Since any way I cut it I was going to have to take a man’s name, wouldn’t I prefer to have Llew’s? The simple and final answer was yes, I would. And now I do. But that’s Dr Jenkins, thanks, not Mrs.

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