Love and Marriage: What Does it Mean to Give Your Name Away?
I once told a woman I was dating to go “hyphenate” herself. She was teasing me about a pair of bright yellow shoes I’d just bought, a nervous purchase which I’d quickly come to her for reassurance about—my nerves are often at their jagged worst when my swagger is most exaggerated. She had a last name split in half along the fault line of her mother’s and father’s names, hung together by a hyphen’s slender thread. Names can matter, or at least hint at some area of importance beneath the opaque surfaces of polite adult personality. Last year a Shippensburg University study that found a correlation between children with “unusual” names and the chances of the child being a criminal. Though clearly not a causal relationship, the study does suggest names, and the process through which people arrive at them, are close to some social kindling.
It’s this kindling that we traditionally retie with new colors when a man and woman decide to marry one another. My mother, for instance, gave over her identity to my father’s family name. I’d sometimes remember this fact growing up when considering her history. She’d been born and raised in Denmark, attended college in England, and then arrived in Michigan for graduate school, where she first met my father. He was a fellow Dane, who’d followed his parents to Michigan at the end of high school when they decided to move there after something called a “General Conference,” a convention the Seventh-Day Adventist church arranges every four years.
They met, they courted, and, at the age of 27, they married each other in a Danish church just a few miles from where they were both raised. She took my dad’s name and, in the coming years, followed him and his career to Tanzania, Italy, Germany, and America again. As my older brother and I began to reach an age where annual moves to new countries would be destabilizing, they settled on California as the place to finally tether their roaming spirits. Any illusions my mother’s parents might have had of her returning to her native country were lost, along with any hope of there being a place for her own family name in records of the future.
I’d sometimes think of her marooned in our household growing up. She had a mind set on the polite indulgences of the aristocratically feminine, lavish and generally floral tastes in dress and decoration. She was alone with this prim predilection in a home besieged by the farting filth of three males who filled out the spectrum between apathetic sloth and manic disorder. She had no refuge with us. There was no one to daydream with, no one who could share in her instinctual urge to put a flower on a ledge or keep an embroidered pillow fluffed for the sake of aesthetics. To compound things, my brother and I quickly stopped speaking Danish at home. So many of her most productive adult years were spent in a foreign country, in a hovel of men, speaking to her own children in a second language. It’s hard to imagine a clearer way to tie up all of those factual threads than to say that she gave away her own name for that of the man to whom she latched herself until death.
In 2002 and 2003 I taught English in the big but remote city of Panzhihua, Sichuan in China. I taught college freshmen and once a week I’d meet with some of the other English teachers in the department and help them with their more advanced language skills. One of these students had lived through the Cultural Revolution, a woman in her sixties with a voice that seemed to bubble up and waver into the air with restrained vivacity. She explained how, as a teenager, she’d been taken from her family in Sichuan and sent to work on a farm a few hundred miles from Shanghai.
The government had forced her to change her name because her given one had an abstract connection to a phrase sometimes uttered by resistance movements. When she returned to Sichuan a decade later her family had disappeared. She never saw then again. She enrolled in school, earned a degree, married, and became an English teacher, all while going under her new, government-given name. She laughed when she told me her old name, like pulling out a natty old teddy bear from an attic. It seemed to me to suggest all the withered possibilities of the life she could have lived without the invasive hand of the government, some nostalgic keepsake of this whole other person she might have become.
I feel stupid for having had those thoughts now. I don’t know if she ever had them herself, but it seems dull and precious to imagine she might have become another person, essentially different than who she presently was. Names don’t rearrange genes or open up new neural pathways. They’re the first and most superficial imposition of society onto a life that will be filled with rhetorical compromises about arbitrary inventions. The kindling that the Shippensburg study points toward is not in the power of names, but the fact that somewhere underneath, we take these little bundles of letters and syllables to mean something in the first place.
Cultural tradition, property rights, and general inheritance have it that men should pass on their names to children, even in cases where the spouse declines to take the husband’s. It’s not in any way a necessity, but it makes things less complicated. Since American women can now vote and own property, the importance of patrilineality is reduced to almost nothing. Yet, in spite of a few isolated curiosities, this cultural zero point of name equality isn’t likely to ever be reached or develop a matrilineal analog.
Last week I went to my best friend’s wedding. His wife took his last name. She is entirely beautiful but not especially prone to the western clichés of femininity (the ceremony was, I think, the fourth of fifth time I’d seen her in a dress in seven years), but she agreed to rename herself. Her father, who conducted the ceremony at her family home, made note of this during the ceremony, his voice catching for the first and only time describing her walking away down the driveway with a new identity.
I don’t know if I could ever ask someone to give up her old name to adopt mine. I’d want it to be her idea, and even still, I’d feel somehow brutish and territorial in the occupation of someone so dearly cared for. Maybe that’s why I’m not married. The institution has been thoroughly romanticized in Western culture, but its roots point to a time when a basic sense of socio-sexual morality couldn’t be counted on so it needed to be enforced by law.
In an era when women were forbidden from speaking in temples and put to death for having a second lover, marriage made as much sense as a deed. It was a legal scaffolding to establish a familial chain of title. Now marriage has become a metaphysical union open to interpretation. It’s most commonly described as a partnership meant to stave off existential loneliness. A life committed to someone else has a greater sense of purpose than one lived with only good friends, eccentric roommates, and, inevitably, a distant nurse to scrub you in the rest home.
The truth of marriage is that the old framework that gave it meaning has eroded to a point of near complete abstraction. There are a few general truths about marriage that could also be compared to childhood. The period of adjusting to someone’s habit of flushing dental floss or saying “Thank you so much” to every disinterested counter person are a kind of teething or bed wetting phase that’s easy to obsess over but rarely remembered. Like naming a child, deciding on what to do with your last name in marriage is a test of faith. It’s utterly meaningless, a question asked without any way of discerning what the truth is. Sometimes you hyphenate yourself, letting the two possible choices hang together with whatever black ink will keep them there.
Image from Logan’s Run via Rotin
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