As a people-pleaser, that sad, desperate affliction many women are familiar with, the idea of having strong opinions about almost anything seems incomprehensible. The thought that someone, somewhere may disagree with one of my choices makes me want to hide in the soft comfort of agreeableness, and this tendency rears its head as I consider whether to change my last name.
The question was first posed after Sam and I became engaged. We had come together with his family in the North Carolina mountains, all under one roof to surprise his mother for her birthday. My new fiancé’s brother’s wife, who married into the family at nineteen, asked if I had thought about changing my last name.
I hesitated before answering her, weighing my options, looking out at the just-visible Appalachians in the October evening. She adopted Wolf as a surname after marrying Sam’s brother, and I didn’t want to make my response heavy with judgment about her decision.
“I’m not sure,” I said, feeling the temperature of the room after saying so, wanting to say more but holding my tongue to see how she reacted. She simply nodded, and fortunately, that was the end of the conversation.
To become obsessed with something so suddenly is jarring. At times, it feels like I will be swept away by the current of it. For thirty-two years I have been an O’Connor. It’s part of my identity, a core tenet of my life just like my appetite for books or my steady smattering of freckles. And yet, the idea of taking my husband’s last name causes a certain heart-fluttering response that I find amusing at times and disappointing at others.
Living a life based on other people’s opinions is a dangerous game. I am a prisoner of this former boyfriend’s pickup, a passenger without a say in the physical space of the truck cab. Without a car of my own, I am dependent on him to, among other things, cart me around on weekends. He lights a cigarette, his misshapen fingers curled around the Marlboro Red like a claw. Upon exhale, he pushes a button, and the passenger window slowly descends. The smoke disappears but not before enveloping my hair and clothing in a nauseating embrace. “You don’t mind, do you?” He says. “My window won’t roll down.”
“No,” I say, “it’s fine,” forcing another bland smile, another mild acquiescence when really something deep inside me is choking.
I talk about the name change issue with my book club, my mom, my mentor. I read articles from wedding websites with titles like “7 Things No One Tells You About Changing Your Name” and “How Do I Tell People I’ve Kept My Maiden Name?” I even, in a moment of paralyzing weakness, stoop so low as to take an online quiz: “Should You Change Your Last Name After Marriage?” Sadly, the results could only be retrieved after submitting an email address, so due to an already overflowing inbox, I quickly close the browser tab.
At brunch, we sit with bottomless mimosas and mason jar coffees. The topic: marriage, or more specifically, adopting the husband’s last name. “I think it’s romantic,” a friend sighs, clutching her mimosa and offering her opinion like a confession. “Really romantic.” Alarm bells ring throughout my body, manifesting as tightness in my chest and a wave of adrenaline. Romantic?! I want to scream. To surrender the identity attached to your last name and take on a whole new one, simply because historically, that’s what society has expected women to do?
I want to question her, encourage her to tease out her thoughts and perhaps give some indication that she has thought about this on more than just a surface level. Instead, I take a sip of my coffee, which leaves a slightly burnt taste on my tongue, and nod in a nearly identical fashion as the rest of table. I am one of only two women not married or engaged, and all eight married women took their husband’s last name. Being so outnumbered seems disorienting; I can’t imagine initiating a discussion about this when everyone has made the same decision. The moment passes and all that’s left is my raw tongue and a pressure on my chest, as if my body is expressing what I cannot.
A common thread running throughout my engagement, and now my marriage, is the extraordinary care with which I answer the question of changing my name. Always adjusting the answer if the woman I’m speaking with adopted her husband’s name after marriage, and, by the same coin, altering my response if she didn’t. These people-pleasing tendencies run so deep in all areas of my life that it’s taken years for me to become comfortable having political conversations with other people, including people with whose views I agree. The internal pressure to be agreeable, put on a pleasant mask, is almost insurmountable.
Deep down, I worry that giving in to this cultural expectation would mean I’m a bad feminist. That I’m somehow disappointing previous generations who didn’t get the luxury of choosing whether to take their husband’s last name.
Another former boyfriend, another failed opportunity to address my ever-present need to be liked. This time, I am without a center of gravity, a being drifting into the orbit of any remotely attractive man who shows attention. He is distant, curt, and something in me is overcome by the desire to conquer him, to conquer this skinny boy in his punk t-shirt and ripped Converse. On his twin bed with the twisted sheets, he plays me a tape of his band’s first recording. No words, just groaning guitars and a punishing drum beat. I am hyper aware of his eyes on my face, and I understand that this is part of it. My enthusiasm and encouragement are part of my performance: the supportive, adoring girlfriend. He follows the movement of my lips as I smile in approval; his watery eyes urge me on, coaxing more out of me than I can give. An hour goes by and he’s still staring, waiting desperately. In a final burst of energy, I lavish praise and attempt to pick out a few positive details from the unintelligible noise. This performance will repeat itself for each new song verse, every new recording. And instead of shaking him wildly, telling him I don’t understand this, I don’t understand it, I don’t understand you I plaster a smile until the curtain goes down.
Shortly after my move to Nashville, I go to dinner with a new friend. It’s early in the friendship, part of that slightly awkward phase that feels like dating. My new friend is also engaged. After trading stories about our engagement and details on our upcoming weddings, she mentions changing her last name.
“What’s your new last name going to be?” she asks, dipping a tortilla chip into our shared cup of salsa.
Instead of avoiding the question or outright answering her, I speak up. “You know, I’m actually not sure if I’m going to take his name or not.” I set my fork down and wait in hesitant silence.
She nods vigorously. “Yes! I think that’s awesome. It’s 2018. Do what you want, girl.” The loud crunch of her chip puts a fitting punctuation on her affirming statement. The conversation continues, but not before I’m struck by how easy it was to be honest about my feelings. Thankfully, she responded well, but even if she hadn’t, I’m left with a sense of pride at my growing ability to say my truth out loud.
One of my first thoughts, when faced with this choice months before the wedding, is to ask my partner what he wants. After a moment of consideration, he admits a slight preference for us sharing a last name, although he’s quick to reassure me that either decision is fine. Due to a large amount of personal introspection and self-improvement work over the last few years, I did not immediately announce a decision to change my name, as I would have done had this conversation occurred five years ago. Instead, I take his views into consideration and continue down the road of indecision.
After the wedding, it took four months before I finally arrived at my decision. I wrestled with the idea that feminists can still change their last name, or keep their last name, or adopt an entirely different name without having to explain their choice to anyone.
Yes, sometimes I still feel like a “bad” feminist for adopting my husband’s name. But when I see Katie Wolf on paper, I experience a growing sense of pride in my new name. It feels like my husband and I are a team, a family unit, in a way that I didn’t feel before. And although I did expect some disappointment from friends who have kept their maiden names, I’ve learned announce my decision with confidence. I am no longer swayed by the current of other people’s opinions.
Katie Wolf has found a home in Nashville, TN after living in eight states and twelve cities over the course of her life. She lives with her husband and two cats and is working on her first novel. Her work will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Magnolia Review. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @katieowolf or at katiewolf.co.