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What’s in a name?

Jenn GiacobbeJenn Giacobbe

Well, quite a bit, actually.

Taking your spouse’s name after you get married is a big decision. Some women (and it’s mostly women who grapple with this decision) have no doubt that this is what they want to do and see it as an important symbol of their new union. For others, as was the case for me, the answer was not as clear.

I’m the primary breadwinner in my household. And in some ways, this made the decision more difficult. I certainly didn’t value my union any less, but a name change would have career implications—lost contacts and traceability of past milestones—and this was the primary driver behind my decision of staying a “Giacobbe”. Additionally, not only had it been central to my identity for 30+ years, but I felt that trading in my name would mean severing the connection to my family.

Naturally, in my typical passive aggressive nature, I never raised these concerns with my husband-to-be until we were at City Hall. As we filled out the paperwork for our marriage license, my husband peered over to see what I entered, spawning a rather sensitive debate (which probably should have been discussed at home), “But seriously?”, I asked, “Why was it just assumed? Why can’t you change your name? Yes, I understand it’s tradition, but let’s be honest, we are not about to be the model of the typical American family.”

Ultimately “we” decided I would keep my name. But that decision continues to have ramifications, especially now we have children. A big reason why I kept my name was for family connection. Extending that logic, if our family does not share a name, have I broken our connection?

If our family does not share a name, have I broken our connection?

In the U.S., until the 1970s, many states required a married woman to take her husband’s name to get a passport, hold a bank account, or even vote! However, in several other countries such as China, Italy, many Spanish-speaking cultures, and Muslim societies, women do not change their names. In Scandinavia, it’s becoming increasingly common for men to take the woman's name, or for a couple to create a new name together. I think this is an excellent approach. Society is evolving and tradition should too.

In fact, once you look outside the U.S. and the U.K. (where name changing is also common), it can even be a detriment to take your husband’s name. Some close friends of mine, the husband Italian and the wife American, moved to Italy with their two children. Both quit their jobs, intending to stay in Italy for a few years. Since the husband is an Italian citizen, they assumed visas wouldn’t be an issue. This wasn’t the case. The problem? The Italian government required proof of her maiden name to issue her a visa. As the wife had taken her husband’s name when they married, she had no valid ID to prove she was the person named on the marriage license. In the eyes of the Italian government, the wife didn’t exist. Fortunately, she was able to stay as she could prove she was the children's mother.

One in six married women are constantly battling the administrative and cultural burden of not changing their name.

The number of women who don’t change their name fluctuates, depending on the politics of the time, but seems to run between 15-20%. That means roughly speaking, one in six married women are constantly battling the administrative and cultural burden of not changing their name, carving our hybrid identities, depending on the context. I resisted this for a long time, but once we moved to the suburbs the confusion was too much to bear. So now, to the parents of my children’s friends and most neighbors, I’m Mrs. Gai. At work and with friends, I’m Jenn Giacobbe. I don’t mind if people use the wrong one, but, remembering who I am in which situation is a challenge. When I travel, I have to use my maiden name as it matches my passport, I often get checks with the wrong name, and I have run into trouble signing my son out of school as the last name of his mother in his file doesn’t match mine. All of these things are constant reminders that I am going against the grain. And eventually it can wear you down. Over the years I have seen many friends, who originally took the same path as me, resort to changing their name because it was just getting confusing.

I applaud men like Marco Perego-Saldana for “not giving a sheet” and recognizing that if you want to share the same name as your spouse, it doesn’t have to always be the women who must change. Especially if it makes more economical sense, as in their case.

It will be interesting to see the impact same-sex unions have on this debate. Will one party continue to give up their identity? Do they need to? Will we begin to mirror the trends of other countries who seem to have survived without this requirement?

Speaking for heterosexual marriages, as more and more women become the breadwinners, let’s think outside of the box. And for those forward-thinking families, well done!

I'd love to hear from others who have grappled with this decision and what they ultimately decided to do. Either comment below or email me at jenn@pellucid.com.

Jenn Giacobbe
Author

Jenn Giacobbe

Chief Customer Officer at Pellucid Analytics. A veteran of building useful corporate products. Bringing smarter, simpler pitchbooks to bankers.

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