For years, a male reader who disagrees with everything I write has left voice messages, which always open with this: “Hey, Mrs. Connie Schultz Brown.”
If you look at my byline, you’ll note that my name ends at Schultz. Brown is my husband’s last name. For me, taking my husband’s name would feel like a cattle branding. Fortunately, he never has needed me to prove my love by altering my identity to mirror his. If we were any happier, we’d be Smurfs.
Such explanations do not sit well with readers like that guy, who insists otherwise. I finally called him last month to ask him why he keeps calling me by a name I do not use.
“Because that is your name,” he said.
“No,” I said, “it isn’t. And what I call myself is up to me.”
“Not when you marry,” he said. “In this country, a wife takes her husband’s name. Unless you’re ashamed of him.”
I wish I could tell you that this is a rare encounter in my life or that it happens only over the phone, but neither is true. It’s still amazing what some strangers feel free to say to a woman, even when she’s standing right in front of them.
Fortunately, I have found that men who think my name is their business are also easily discombobulated. This definitely works to my advantage. Whenever one of them says “you should change your name,” I usually just respond, “But I’ve always been called Connie.” Then I leave them to their state of confusion.
In our home, we have one of those so-called blended families. If you called our residence and our outgoing message listed all the names in our swelling ranks, you’d think you had just dialed a law firm:
You have reached Brown, Schultz, Gard, Torres and McDonald. To speak to Caitlin, press 1; to speak to Kristina, press 2; to speak to anybody who goes by “Mrs.,” you can press buttons all day long without success, ‘cause nobody answers to that around here.
I’m not saying it’s wrong for a woman to take her husband’s name. As with all decisions affecting women, it’s all about choice. Hers, I mean.
I do wish I felt more certain that this whole name-thing controversy is destined to become a nonissue as the younger generation takes over and debates issues that really matter. But recent events show otherwise.
The Wall Street Journal’s Sue Shellenbarger reported recently that the trend toward women keeping their family names peaked in the 1990s. During that short-lived independent streak, about 23 percent of newly married women chose not to change their names. In the 2000s, that number inched back to 18 percent.
One study showed that women who are likelier to keep their names are well-educated and in high-earning occupations. They also tend to marry later, in their mid- to late 30s instead of in their 20s.
This doesn’t really help me understand why several of my younger female friends — all of whom are older than 35 and highly educated — currently are struggling with their fiances’ insistence that they change their names.
“He really feels strongly about this,” I’m hearing, over and over.
Now, in such moments, I want to be the kind of older friend who smiles like a weary saint and asks calmly, ever so wisely, “Hmm. Why do you think he feels this way?”
Unfortunately, when it comes to my friends, I’m a bit sensitive to any suggestion that they should change anything about their delightful selves. So our conversations haven’t gone so well, which is entirely my fault.
These dear friends ever so tentatively mention that their soon-to-be husbands want them to alter their identities, and I jolt upright and morph into cartoon Connie, on high alert.
My eyes bulge like a winded pug as I slam the table and say a little too loudly, “What does he mean you should change your name?”
Judging from the startled faces of my friends, it’s clear I need to work on my delivery.
Here’s what I want to say:
The best marriages are full of compromises that move us toward each other but never ask us to leave ourselves behind. If you want to change your name to match his, then do it. If you don’t want to, hold firm and remind him of all the reasons he found you irresistible.
If that fails and he insists on making your name a test of your love, have him call me.
I’ll be nice. I swear.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. ©2011 Creators