My name is long, unwieldy, and commonly mispronounced. It is a double-barreled and intimidating mess of letters. When I first meet people, they typically opt for “Dana,” not as a means to be casual or chummy, but as a way to avoid tripping over those two words which are problematic by themselves, and near impossible as a hyphenated union: Udall-Weiner.
When I say my name, I sometimes feel embarrassed, arrogant: Who do I think I am to insist on keeping one name and adding another? Who do I think I am to ask that others learn to pronounce not one, but two, mouthfuls of moniker?
But I can’t imagine being just Udall, or being just Weiner. Each feels incomplete without the other.
Apparently, using a hyphen may hinder my career prospects, or at least that’s what a psychiatrist recently implied when he said that my name must be “awfully difficult” for my clients. Though his comment was brazen, condescending, and patriarchal, he had a point: my name presents a challenge. I’d like to think that I have more faith in others than he does, because I trust that people will eventually get it. (And they always do.)
There may be clients who are deterred by my choice to hyphenate because of their own implicit associations. Perhaps they assume that I will be a hairy feminist with floppy, unbridled breasts and a bean bag chair. Or that I will be shrill and unyielding, staunch in my feminist stance and critical of those who chose a traditional path.
Because we all make countless, unconscious inferences when it comes to women and names. We draw conclusions (accurate or not) about ethnicity, nationality, religion, socio-economic status, education, and political ideology. It’s what we do.
The psychiatrist, like most men, hasn’t had to face the issue of name; the issue of what to call yourself after you have chosen a partner or spouse; the issue of whether past and future can be combined, or whether, when walking forward through one door, another inevitably shuts behind you. He has not had to respond to the tug of the old family name, the subtle voice that quietly whispers, “Hey, remember me?”
Men are granted one name that follows them throughout life; they are not encouraged (explicitly or not) to suddenly drop their family name on the day they say “I do.” They don’t have to consider demoting, from last to measly middle, the name that’s accompanied them from diapers to diplomas. Or to think about hyphenation: the awkward, dreaded, politically-loaded and frequently-mocked choice to unite two names with that quiet and unassuming little line that somehow speaks volumes.
If our culture thinks that women who hyphenate their own names live near the outskirts of acceptability, those who hyphenate the names of their children might as well live off the grid in a yurt. Such women are considered bizarre, self-centered (for who would do that to her poor child?), and anachronistic.
Though people may tolerate the fact that I’ve chosen to hyphenate my own name, they can scarcely contain their scorn at the idea that I might make the same choice for my daughters: “Oh, but you wouldn’t give your daughter a hyphenated last name, would you?”
To which I say, “No, no, of course not. That would really be too much; that would be going overboard.”
And I mean these words when I say them; at some point, practicality impinges upon and constrains ideology. Besides, what happens when the child with a hyphenated name gets married? How many hyphens can you really manage, anyway?
But I also say those words because I know I’m expected to. Because it’s bad enough that I’m one of those women who hyphenates her own name; because I can’t imagine enduring the confused looks and thinly-veiled derision that is surely heaped upon mothers (and fathers?) who saddle their children with a conjoint surname.
For many women, the change from maiden to married name is not tinged with ambivalence or sadness. Maybe they prefer their husband or partner’s name to their own. Maybe the change feels exciting, as it represents a fresh start, or makes public a private exchange of vows. Or maybe it allows women to leave behind their single selves, the people they used to be, before they were married, stable, and grown-up. Perhaps it signals that a woman has snared her prince charming, that she’s followed the rules and engaged in the expected act of marriage (second only to the expected act of having children).
On the other hand, maybe shedding the maiden name merely reflects convention and ease.
It is possible that I am reading too much into the whole business, that I’m conflating identity with name. Because I am me, essentially me, regardless of what I call myself. But maybe, on some level, holding on to my name serves as a reminder that I choose to commit not only to my husband, but also to myself. And that I didn’t lose myself in marriage and motherhood, that I am still Dana Udall, the girl who played goalie and climbed trees and thought she’d become the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Because those pieces of myself are worth remembering, and maybe a hyphen can help.
Did you change, keep or hyphenate your name? Are you happy with your decision, and would you do it again? Are names important?
Source of illustration.