Jan 16 2015

Named, Names, and Naming

I’m engaged. On the precipice of changing my name. Again. The first time I changed my last name, I felt initially compromised. Like the mere suggestion made me less of a feminist. The fact that others constantly asked – “Will you change your name?” – and suggested it was a minor assault. Some hinted that if I didn’t … well, then I didn’t really mean it when I was getting married.  That I didn’t really love him.

But my fiancé at the time wanted me to change my name and take his. He argued that he considered it a crucial step in becoming a family. And so I flip-flopped. (I did love him, after all. I cared about his feelings and stuff.) I wanted to at least appear reasonable and sensitive to his needs, like I was considering it, weighing the compromise like a bag of apples at the grocery store. (Of course, no one ever pressed him about the possibility of changing to my last name, which would theoretically have achieved the same effect that he claimed to desire. But that’s another story entirely, and more relevant to our subsequent divorce.)

The truth is that I liked the idea of choosing. I didn’t like the expectation, but I relished the option. It was the first time that I had control over this particular choice. I’d never really loved my old name anyway, and it was my father’s name to begin with. So all the times that I challenged, calling it unfeminist to change your name, I was in fact perpetuating the patriarchy myself. (Or so I rationalized once I decided to change.)

During one of my many “Will I / Won’t I” debates, a colleague observed dreamily: “Colleen Conrad sounds like a novelist.”

And that sealed it for me.

So while I bargained and joked with my future husband, telling him that I’d change my name if he voted for Obama, I probably would have done so even if he’d voted for McCain.  (Don’t tell.) The decision had become something that felt right, however reluctant I was to admit it. And indeed the transition was seamless. The alliteration suited me. Conrad immediately felt like it was mine. Not that I had inherited it, or married into it, but that it had always been a part of me. My own, on my own, claimed at last.

Suddenly I was CC, C-Squared, C2, a poetic roll of consonant sounds. I had a website, and I began the easy adoption of a name that I’d gotten to elect. It felt right. And while it’s probably insensitive and selfish for me to admit it, I never quite associated it with my husband. To this day, I forget that it was (is) his. That had I never married him, it wouldn’t be mine at all. In my mind, I just am Colleen Conrad.

So what to do now? I can’t argue that I’ve published under Conrad (because I haven’t…yet…), and my username at school is still Schmitt. Do I change my name yet again and go through the myriad of paperwork and process, explaining to everyone why I have not two but THREE variations on my moniker? Do I change my email addresses, my social media profiles and handles, my documentation, my credit cards, my accounts, the name on my classroom door? All over again? I liked Colleen Schmitt, but Conrad feels like me, ironically, in ways that Schmitt never did. Was it the act of choosing that changed my sense of ownership? Is it the professional identity that I’ve created for myself? Is it the aggravation of going through all of the documents and the lines at the DMV that puts me off? Or is it simply an issue of control?

And if so, will Kepner feel just as well-suited if I select it myself? It does have a ring to it. People joke that now I’ll be “CoKe” rather that “CoCo.” And as I told my future father-in-law at dinner recently, I want to be a Kepner. Emotionally, physically, spiritually, I want this to be my family.

People understandably challenge me on my reluctance. What does it say that I’d consider keeping my ex-husband’s name and reject (though I don’t think of it this way) my future partner’s? All I can say is that Conrad feels like it’s mine, more than any name ever has, and I’m not sure I want to let it go. We are all handed our names – they’re usually chosen for us – and this time I picked. I only had two choices, but I was happy with my options, and that I had an option at all. And I was happy with my decision. It suited me so comfortably, like my favorite jersey or a song that I can sing from memory.