What's in a Name?
Deciding to take your husband’s name is romantic. Actually doing it is difficult
When I was engaged, people had a lot of questions. “How did he propose?” “Have you set a date?” “Where are you getting married?” “Can I see the ring?” Now that I’m married, they’ve only got one: “Can you spell that for me, please?”
Sure. It’s G-R-A-B (as in “boy”) E-N-S-T-E-T-T-E-R. We Grabenstetters have to spell our name so often that my three-year-old niece who is currently mastering the alphabet thinks that the letter that comes between “A” and “C” is pronounced “bee-as-in-boy.” I should have known what I was getting myself into when I started dating my future husband and he always wanted to use my name when we made reservations at restaurants. But the phonetic difficulty of my new identity didn’t really start to soak in until a few days before our wedding, when we went to pick up our wedding bands from the jeweler. After forty-five minutes of frantic searching, they admitted to us that they couldn’t find our rings anywhere. To my credit, I made it to the car before collapsing into snot-filled stress sobs and giving my husband-to-be a pretty sobering glimpse into the future. Several hours later, the jewelry store called to inform us that it had found the rings, which, for some reason, had been filed under the letter “R.” For “Ragbenstetter.” That was the first time I second-guessed my decision to take my husband’s last name. It wouldn’t be the last.
My next round of doubt came a few weeks after the wedding, when the honeymoon was quite literally over and the logistical work of becoming Jennifer Grabenstetter began. New bank account. New driver’s license. The deed to my house. All of the utilities that were in my name. Several credit cards. Medical records. Prescriptions. The last name that my two cats were listed under at the vet’s office. I waited in line at the Social Security office. I waited in line at the DMV (twice). I lost hours of my life listening to the melodic tones of customer-service hold music. I mailed away check after check in exchange for official copies of my marriage license, which everyone seemed to need before they’d accept me with my new name.
It would take more than an official piece of paper to help me accept myself as someone other than the person I’d been for twenty-five years. In fact, three years later, I’m still not quite there. I can feel my old name trying to leap off the tip of my tongue when introducing myself to someone new. It lurks in the muscles of my hand that were trained to sign it in cursive in the second grade. It remains alive and well in the vocabulary of my high school and college friends, who can’t bring themselves to call me anything else. It’s immortalized in print atop the stories published in the early, heady days of my journalism career. When someone who has known me all my life says, “Married or not, you’ll always be Jennifer Lyn Thompson to me,” it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside, which in turn makes me feel sort of terrible. It feels disturbingly like betrayal. But whom am I betraying? The family whose last name I’ve deemed no longer worthy of my personal stationery? Or the husband whose last name I can’t quite commit to?
I didn’t expect it to be like this. I had never been one of those women who had qualms about taking their husbands’ names. I didn’t see it as an issue of feminism or independence or an archaic, proprietary claim. To me, it was just the right thing to do. It seemed romantic and symbolic—the act of giving away a part of yourself to a new family, a new future. I thought I’d be ready to separate myself from the name that belonged to a teenage girl with silly crushes and assume the identity of a woman who was capable of being a devoted wife. Not to mention that “G” comes way before “T” in the alphabet. That has to come in handy, right? Sadly, as it turns out, there aren’t that many times in one’s adult life where you are asked to line up alphabetically, so that one was sort of a wash. But I was right about one thing: it can be incredibly romantic to share a name with the man you love.
There is something in the way he looks at me every time he hears me explaining to a curious stranger that “Grabenstetter” has its origins in the town of Grabenstetten, Germany, that makes my new name feel much more like a blessing than a burden. And there’s nothing better than the little smile that involuntarily forms on his face when he notices I’m wearing the necklace with the tiny gold “G” on the dainty chain. I bought it only a few months ago. It took me more than three years to find the right one. I didn’t want to wear a new monogram just because it’s cute and trendy or because it’s what you do when you get married. I wanted it to be the perfect one—unassuming, authentic, and old fashioned—just like the guy who gave me the new initial (and twelve other letters to go with it).
In a fun twist, he and I now have the same initials: JTG. For him, the “T” stands for Thomas, a name he shares with his father. For me, it stands for the family name I couldn’t quite let go of. On one hand, keeping “Thompson” as my middle name means that my full name is obscenely long and will likely never fit on a standard legal document ever again. Which, in turn, has led to many more hours lost to confusion at airline check-in counters and frustration with online billing systems. On the other hand, it has become infinitely easier to Google myself (searching for “Jennifer Thompson” used to return a lot of results that belonged to a very intense-looking female body builder), and I’ve finally been able to settle a seven-year-long dispute with Los Angeles County about a parking ticket belonging to another Jennifer Lyn Thompson.
It may have taken me three years, but I am happy to be Jennifer Grabenstetter. And Jennifer Gragbenstetter(according to my debit card). And Jennifer Grabben-stetter (according to my 401(k) provider). And Jennifer Grabensetter (according to my place card at a recent wedding). And Jennifer Grabnenstetter (according to the nameplate given to me at my office). And even Jennifer Ragbenstetter (though I’d prefer not to talk about that experience again).
Besides, being asked to spell or pronounce my name is nothing compared to the other question you start getting asked when you’re three years into your marriage. “So, when are you two planning to have kids?”
Answer: I don’t know, but I do know that we’ll give that kid a first name that’s really easy to spell.