My Husband and I Made Up a New Last Name When We Got Married Despite His Family's Disapproval

A pastor at our church took me aside "just to inform" me that he would "not allow" his daughters to do what we're doing.
Publish date:
June 17, 2016
sexism, marriage, last names, patriarchy, taking his last name, Maiden Names

I had always thought it was kind of unfair that a woman is expected to give something up to get married but a man isn't. Every time I tried to talk to an adult about this growing up, they'd "rephrase" the notion of giving up one's name to something like "think of it as committing to a new identity as a couple" or "it's the best symbol of two becoming one." Granted, I did grow up in a fairly conservative evangelical city, but this all still seemed to dodge the question: why did I have to give something up to achieve this new unity while the man did not?

It wasn't ever expressly forbidden for married couples to keep their respective last names — this is a cultural tradition in some Middle Eastern countries as a woman's way of honoring her father — but the expectation was clear: I'd either scoot my last name over to the left to make room for his last name or drop the name I'd grown up with altogether.

The maid of honor at my wedding and her husband both changed to a completely new shared last name. So when I got engaged, I suggested this idea to my fiancé. Wanting to be sensitive to the fact that he didn't grow up thinking he would change his last name when he got married, I let him decide: we could either both keep our given names, or we could take a new name together.

Wildhood is not the name my husband gave to me when we married; he decided that it was more important for us to have the same name, so we both went through the expensive hassle of legally changing our names. I'm not particularly attached to my now-maiden name, so it never occurred to me to suggest my husband take my name. But this might have been the only option that would have been received worse, at least for my husband's side of the family, than changing to a new last name. Technically, we created a new last name and retained our fathers' names as second middle names (which causes a lot of issues on registration forms on and offline because there's only one "Middle Initial" box and not enough room to squeeze two letters in there).

The Norwegian culture my now-maiden name is from has a long history of both people in a marrying couple changing their respective last names to some combination of the names, which is essentially a new name. But there was no combination of my maiden name and my husband's given last name that didn't sound ridiculous. It's not that we wanted to disown our families — we just could not come up with a tolerable new combination of our fathers' last names.

As if on cue, the name Wildhood came to me in a dream. I fear how absurd or cop-out-ish that will look in black and white, but that's what happened. We took that name because my husband loved it. Because he has a common first name, coworkers started calling him Wildhood, which he's taken to proudly. A few of my friends who have had babies recently have dubbed me "Auntie Hoodie." And even though it commonly gets misspelled as "Wildwood," we're pretty satisfied with our choice.

Once we decided on the name, we still had to keep brainstorming about how we were going to tell his father, who we anticipated would have a hard time with this. My parents thought it was awesome, but they had assumed for 26 years that I'd change my name upon marriage. My husband's dad was not going to handle this well, we knew, but not even because of lineage concerns; my husband has two brothers, each with at least one son, so his family name is in no danger of dying out.

His father took it even worse than we predicted. He criticized our method of telling him — we ultimately decided on recording a video explaining what we were doing because we thought a phone call wouldn't give him enough time to assess how he truly wanted to react, and an email or letter seemed too cold.

He did not speak to us for six months.

We started to wonder if he was coming to the wedding. He did — and scowled in every picture he was in. We didn't anticipate the sexist reaction of my husband's younger brother or his then 14-year-old nephew. His brother told us that he would be pretty upset if his daughter did that (but not his son); his nephew asked why he "didn't want to be part of the family anymore," as if women had not been "leaving" their families on their wedding day throughout history.

The judgments and unsolicited opinion-sharing blared on, and I got more flak than my husband did. One of the pastors at our church (a nondenominational church in a pretty progressive city) took me aside a few months before the wedding "just to inform" me that he would "not allow" either of his daughters to do what we're doing. When I informed him that, actually, I left the last-name decision completely up to my husband, he shrugged, rephrased his opinion, which I did not ask for, and walked away. The pastor who officiated our wedding was uncomfortable announcing us as "Mr. and Mrs. Wildhood" because he didn't want to have to explain why that was neither of our last names and not any combination thereof; we had to print little bulletin inserts in the wedding program to explain what was going on.

It's understandable, in a heteropatriarchal culture, that people assume Wildhood is my husband's last name that I took. "Oh, what nationality is that?" I get asked a lot. When I explain where it came from (my mind, essentially) and that my husband thought for three months about it before deciding to change his name, too, most people don't have a problem with it, and some think it's cool. "Way to fight the system," some have said.

Only one person, though, has noted that there is no male equivalent of the term "maiden name" in English and joked that maybe that's why men don't change their names. I asked this friend why he thought it was that we emasculate those men who do change their names by assuming that the woman must be controlling him, and when he didn't have an answer, I said, "That's probably why there's no word that refers to a man's pre-marriage name."

It's irritating that concerns about family ties and carrying on the name only come up when a man gives up his name — as irritating as the assumption that we will have biological children. It's hypocritical to assume we want kids to carry on the "family" name, which our culture largely expects the mothers to raise (we give trophies to dads for changing diapers; we don't think stay-at-home moms "work" — it is totally an implicit assumption that rearing children is women's work) when we so clearly connect the name of the family with the man. It's insular and ignorant to act like couples haven't been changing to new names in other cultures for as long as women have been expected to give up their name, with no talk of breaking family bonds or disrespecting their fathers.

My name is your business only insofar as you need to know what to call me. And the same goes for you: if you freely take your spouse's name upon marriage, as long as that's what you want, I'm behind you 100%. My sister and most of my friends did this. If you and your spouse have different last names, that's great, too. I have a dear friend who's wife made this choice (back in 1978!). My aunt also did this, and when she had twins, she gave the girl her name and the boy her husband's. If you wanted to keep your maiden name but didn't want to have a different last name than your children — this was my mom — I'm sorry that patriarchy is still so healthy in our society. I only know one other couple who took a completely new name upon marriage like my husband and I did; the woman got more flak for it, just like I did.

It's stunning how many people — let's be honest, it was only men who gave me their unsolicited opinion — expressed "concern" that I was "being controlling" because I simply "didn't want to conform" or wanted to "make sure we were sure" (any woman been asked that when she announced she was taking her husband's name?), especially compared to the number of people who asked interested and respectful questions or just accepted our decision without fanfare.