Since the summer of 2021, I’ve been struggling with an identity crisis. You see, as a lifelong cynic, I loathed the idea of getting married.
Then in 2012, I met someone who was as skeptical of the institution as I was — and it was love at first snark.
Fast-forward nine years, and to my bewilderment, I found myself at Lake Eden in Black Mountain exchanging rings with that same person. Both of us now embraced that our relationship would be officially recognized in the eyes of friends, family and federal government.
But after all the guests had left and the last piece of cake was eaten, I was left with a question: Should I change my last name?
A 2015 analysis by The New York Times found that roughly 70% of U.S. women take their husband’s last name, while 20% chose to keep their given surname and 10% opt for a third route, such as hyphenating their last name.
“Brooke Hendrickson,” I said aloud. A lot of consonants. Maybe too many.
There I was, basking in a postnuptial glow, questioning my own name and identity to the point of existential dread. Isn’t marriage great?
In an attempt to sort out my own feelings (and procure some much-needed validation), I reached out to other married folks in Asheville to learn how they had handled the predicament.
To each, their own
Cellist and singer Melissa Hymen first met guitarist Ryan Furstenberg in 2010 at the Brown Bag songwriting competition before pairing up at a holiday party. The couple eventually formed a band together, The Moon and You, and married in September 2015.
When they first discussed the topic of changing her name, Hymen, who describes herself as a feminist with a splash of contrarian, says she didn’t appreciate the sexist historical underpinnings of the tradition.
“The idea that a woman has her father’s name until she takes her husband’s name is tied up in the transactional nature of historical marriage and the treatment of the woman in a marriage as a commodity, to be owned and traded for, say, a herd of sheep or a dowry,” Hymen says.
That assessment is correct, according to a 2022 story in Brides.com, which explains that under English common law during the Middle Ages, women did not have a legal identity and were considered property of their fathers or husbands.
Hymen and Furstenberg weighed their options. They asked themselves which of their last names was more difficult to remember, pronounce or spell. Unfortunately, she says with a laugh, that thought experiment ended in a draw.
Ultimately, Hymen says, her work as a full-time musician — a profession that relies on name recognition — drove her to keep her name.
“I feel like I’ve worked hard to build a reputation and standing in the community that I feel proud of and really lucky to have,” Hymen explains. “It wouldn’t necessarily cause big problems, but changing one’s name does open up the possibility of you getting lost in the shuffle.”
So far, the arrangement has “been totally smooth” for the couple, says Hymen, and allowed each person to maintain a sense of identity alongside their partnership.
Me, plus you
Meg Moore-Hubbard and her husband, Drew, were married in 2011 after growing up in the same southwest Virginia town. They say that the name-change discussion wasn’t part of the planning for their wedding and came much later in the relationship.
“I would love to say that I was really intentional and that’s how this all played out. But it was not at all,” says Meg Moore-Hubbard. “We didn’t really talk about it.”
Moore-Hubbard says while she initially planned to take her husband’s name, she dreaded the paperwork and logistics involved and avoided the decision for years. As time went on, she took up the effort again, but her thoughts about what she wanted had shifted since she’d begun working on a graduate program.
“I was feeling just a lot of societal and cultural pressure to change my name,” she remembers. “But I thought, ‘Wait — I’m going to get this master’s [degree], and the name that’s going to be on it is not my own.’ That just feels so messed up to me.”
She decided to join her name, Moore, with her husband’s, Hubbard, together with a hyphen. But what felt like a compromise wasn’t happily ever after: Moore-Hubbard says she expected her husband to also hyphenate his name to match, which caught him by surprise.
Today, both partners have matching hyphenated names and feel good about where they landed. She advises couples with marriage ambitions to start the conversation about name changes early to avoid any misunderstandings, as well as acknowledge that feelings might change as the relationship grows.
Say my name, say my name
Dance instructor Elizabeth Kellberg and her musician husband, Craig, married in 2019. The bride wanted the new pair to match, she says, and at first she was content to take Craig’s surname.
But as the couple continued talking, her husband came up with a radical concept. What if they created a brand-new name for their family?
The two began scouring for a new last name. But in the end, Elizabeth Kellberg says, they thought “it’d be really cool to combine our last names [Kellogg and Sandberg] so we still can keep our family in the picture.”
Now the world has the Kellbergs: a new last name, but one with roots. Kellberg describes her family’s reaction as “definitely surprised, but not in a bad way.”
As it turns out, creating a brand-new last name isn’t as easy as writing it down. Kellberg says she and her husband went through even more than the usual amount of paperwork and bureaucracy to get the job done, which included getting fingerprinted and checking in with both the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI.
Since the couple welcomed their first child into the family in 2021, Kellberg says she hopes her daughter will one day see their name as the ultimate collaboration.
“Everything we do is an equal partnership. We always communicate with each other and consult each other on things before we make decisions,” she says. “And so I feel like it just presents a more unified relationship.”
In the name of love
In surveying all of these parties, I saw a clear trend: There is no “normal” way to think about our names and whether to keep them, change them or find something in between.
“It’s absolutely OK to have separate names, and there’s something really lovely about sharing your name, especially when it feels equitable and like it was a conversation,” says Moore-Hubbard. “It’s finding what is right for you.”
“I just love that there are options, and people are really thinking about it and choosing what’s best for them and their family,” Hymen adds.
These women are totally right, I thought, as notions of history, family and love swirled in my head.
In the end, I did end up legally changing my name. But as for my byline — that will stay the same. How’s that for compromise?