Should You Change Your Name?

I was married on July 8, 2011. The third best day of my life. The second best day was the day I met Jason. And the very best day has been every day since.

We have a magical, other-wordly, empowering, true soulmate kind of love. Teammates. Better together than ever apart (though not too shabby apart – which I think is important).

From the moment we first crossed paths, we shared everything: life ambitions, attitudes, perspectives. Everything except a last name.

I was never the girl who fantasized about her wedding. I fantasized about falling in love and having a family, sure, but never my wedding day. I also never put much thought into changing my last name. Like the cut of my wedding dress, it wasn’t really high on my list of things that were all that important.

Turns out it is.

In the months after getting engaged, the question was always there: So, are you going to change your name?

I googled “why you should change your last name,” “should I change my last name?” “women who changed their last name” and found a great collection of impassioned stories and articles. I scanned Facebook for examples of friends who had/hadn’t changed their last name. I made note of successful public figures who had/hadn’t taken their husband’s last name. Did you know Elizabeth Cady took her husband’s name to become Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Me neither. (Though apparently not going by “Mrs. Henry B. Stanton” was a significant choice at the time.) I even dropped by the Lucy Stone League:

I asked my friends for their opinions and got a collection of responses:

  • My recently married friend said she didn’t feel like a family until she and her husband shared a last name.
  • That same friend told me to keep my name; she thought it was strong.
  • My Asian colleague said there was no way she was going to take her American husband’s name because “that would just be weird; I’m not a Smith.” Similarly, my American colleague decided not to take the last name of her French husband.
  • Another friend said changing your last name can signify a new chapter in life – the start of a new journey and a new family.

But I didn’t get any closer to my answer.

I was frustrated by the fact that this decision was even necessary. Why are societal conventions forcing me to make a decision about something that symbolizes so much? Why couldn’t I just keep my name as it was and not state anything by doing so?

Wrapped up in a last name are all sorts of heavy topics: family, identity, loyalty, children, marital roles. Somehow dealing with this “problem about a name” meant putting a stake in the ground on issues that I suppose Jason and I hadn’t quite figured out yet – but were also very comfortable discussing and allowing to evolve. Weighty subjects like these don’t often follow black-or-white logic.

I was very happily committed to Jason. Saying “yes” was a no-brainer. Why was committing to his last name any different?

To help me grapple with this question (and make it impossible to come to a clear answer), I seemed to have a full panel of experts in my head – each with different, completely valid, points of view. Lucky me.

You like your last name, why change it? You’re an independent thinker (or try to be), why follow convention? You really want to be connected to his family, but you don’t want to lose your own. He wouldn’t change his last name, why should you? Your last name is practically your first name, particularly around sports, why close the book on that part of your life? You want to have the same name as your children, so just make the change. Does taking his last name make you submissive somehow? You want to be a family unit. Will you lose the history of who you are? You want to create a new life. You love him!

By the time it came to signing a marriage license (and even before that, deciding on monograms — equally important, apparently), I had decided to bump my last name to my middle name and take Jason’s last name as my own. And I’ve all but legally made that change.

In this digital age, the legal side of a name-change is almost irrelevant. First step? Change Facebook name. Then gmail address. Then twitter handle. Etc. Etc. DMV can wait.

It was startling to see my brand new name in writing. Who is this Sara Brown character? So I adjusted email settings to include my maiden-turned-middle name. Whenever possible, I go by all three names. I little bit of the old mixed with a wonderful amount of new.

When you’re born, you have no choice about your name. And there’s certainly no “before” to move on from; there’s just that first moment. But when you change your name as a 20-something, there are many years of you (20-something, to be exact) to look in the eye and say: “It’s been great, but mama’s got a brand new bag.”

That can be incredibly hard to do.

It’s taken time to get used to my new name. And I think that’s something people don’t talk about enough. You don’t just wake up after your wedding and say, without hesitation, “I’m Mrs. [INSERT NEW NAME HERE]!” It’s an adjustment – a process. And that’s okay! It doesn’t mean you don’t love your spouse.

In a happy/healthy way, I’ve gone through some version of the five stages of grief.

  1. Shock & Denial: I didn’t instinctively respond to Mrs. Brown. Completing forms or signing letters as “Brown” felt like a lie. When “Sara Brown” popped up in office emails, I did not believe they were from me. Who was this mythical character sending emails from my account?
  2. Anger, Pain & Guilt: Angry that societal conventions required me to make a choice in the first place. Guilty that I didn’t run without question to my husband’s name. Guilty that I was leaving my original family name behind. Guilty that I would be dropping my mother’s maiden name (previously my middle name). And the pain of not being sure about any of it.
  3. Bargaining: I’d say adding my newly-middle name to my email signature counts. Jokingly asking if Jason would take my last name. Scouring the internet to see if there was any precedence for avoiding this decision completely.
  4. Depression, Reflection & Loneliness: Depression is a serious stretch. But there was certainly TONS of reflection. And a bit of loneliness. It was ultimately my own decision – so I had to be alone in the final choice. I also felt a little lonely as Sara Brown. I’d spent years becoming Sara Sedgwick. Now here I am, Sara Brown. Nobody. Yet.
  5. Acceptance: After months of airing my grievances, researching the history of name changes, getting used to seeing and being called by my new name, introducing myself as “Sara Brown,” moving into and decorating the walls of this wonderful marriage, I was finally comfortable assuming (and starting to build) the identity of Mrs. Sara Sedgwick Brown.

It’s important to note that changing or not changing your name is a very personal decision. There’s no right answer. But I would encourage everyone to be open about the emotions behind the process.

For a while I didn’t want Jason to know I wasn’t sure about it. I didn’t want to hurt him. Understandably, not taking his name could make him think I wasn’t committed, or that I didn’t hold his name in high regard, or that I somehow didn’t really want to be his wife. None of which was remotely true. But it would be hard to explain that it wasn’t about him – it was about me.

Eventually I let him know. “It’s hard and confusing… and just kind of weird,” I explained.

He probably went through his own five stages of grief as he came to terms with the possibility that I might not take his last name. However the fifth stage led us both to the same, larger conclusion: a marriage isn’t built on a name; a marriage is built on love and a strong, enduring relationship.

In the end, deciding to change my name was a matter of faith. Like marriage, we leap. We leap because we believe that the unknown life ahead will be better than the well-known life we’re leaving behind.

And to that I say “I do.”


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