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I Took My Wife's Last Name

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Josiah Neufeld for The Globe and Mail: It was my idea; Mona never suggested it.

I took my wife's last name
The official at the drivers' licence office squinted at me suspiciously, examined for a second time my birth certificate and marriage licence, and repeated, "You want to change your last name to your wife's?"

"That's correct."

"Usually it's the other way around."

"Usually it is."

He consulted the form on his screen and said slowly, as much to himself as to anyone, "Yes ... you can do that."

Of all the independences one sacrifices at the altar, a name might seem like a small one. Women have been leaving theirs there for centuries.

But I agonized over my decision to take my wife's last name when we married two years ago. I told my family what I was considering; my mother laughed doubtfully. "We'll have to have a family discussion about that," she said.

She's a strong woman who would never call herself a feminist. I think she finds the word angry, abrasive. She wanted my marriage to be as happy and life-giving as hers. She willingly took my father's surname, Thiessen, on their wedding day. But giving up mine, she feared, would herald an unbalanced union. And how would she explain it to people? It just wasn't done. She cried when I told her I'd made up my mind.

"I don't believe you did it," a relative said to me recently, "and I don't even want to know why." We left it at that.

People often ask me why I did it, with curious or wary glances. It's a good question with many answers.

I did it because I love Mona -- because I wanted her to know that I didn't expect her to become anyone other than herself. It mattered to me that we shared a name, so I reasoned I should be the one to offer mine up. And a combination name like Neufeld-Thiessen would only solve the dilemma temporarily. Eventually a child of ours would bring this unwieldy last name to his or her own marriage -- most likely to another hyphenee.

Mona told me afterward my choice made her feel loved.

When the topic came up before our wedding, Mona said she would find it hard to relinquish her name. She also told me in her gentle, gracious way how she came to accept herself as a woman, first as a Canadian girl growing up in Sudan and later as an adult woman living in Canada, a country to which she belonged but had never called "home."

When Sudanese acquaintances congratulated her father on his three sons, he told them his daughter was as valuable to him as any of her younger brothers.

When Canadians told her God was male, she prayed to Our Mother in heaven.

These were novel notions for me before meeting Mona. I never suspected that as a man I had been given an extra portion of power in the global allotment.

I did it because any form of power comes with duties. I'm obliged to take responsibility for my power, to learn its effects -- even unintentional ones -- to see what it does to others when I'm not watching, to use it in the best way possible. Sometimes to relinquish it.

So far the name change hasn't cost me more than a few hours of paperwork, some explanations to public officials and a few strained conversations with brittle relatives who think I've joined a matrilineal cult. I still feel like myself. My identity remains intact. Marriage will demand larger sacrifices than this, I expect.

I wear my new name as proudly as I wear the tiny woman with braided hair I carved from a piece of antler and hung around my neck as a wedding ring. Mona wears a miniature man. Both come from the same bone. I can't remember which I carved first, but I think the woman is the more beautiful of the two. Mona might disagree.

Perhaps I'm not noble, just a contrarian. Either way, I need a good title for my maiden name: "former name" is boring; "ex-name" sounds like a cast-off lover; "birth name" implies I was adopted; "unmarried name" evokes a monastic twin who hasn't called since moving to Tibet.

I'd prefer to keep in touch with my inner Thiessen. We lived together for 26 years and parted on good terms. If he's still nursing wounds, I think I've given him a fair chance to speak up. Maybe he'll surface with a midlife identity crisis when I'm 40.

Thiessen is a name I'm glad to have worn. If, after years of putting up with the newfangled Neufeld in their midst, my long-suffering family chips "Thiessen" into my tombstone I promise not to raise a fuss.

For now, I'm content that Mona feels loved, because whether or not anyone else understands, my new name is a declaration of love. And it's a choice I made because I'd rather learn to give my power away than wield it, oblivious, until it's too late.

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122 comments so far | Post a comment now
dethskwirl August 7, 2009, 1:49 PM

overly emotional nonsense. you are not a man. you are a guilt-ridden, momma’s boy starving for attention and thought that this would garner you national acclaim as the courageously lone non-womanizer in a male-centric world, blah, blah, blah. when, in reality, no one cares and just thinks you’re an effeminate douche with an identity crisis, so you had to use your own column as a platform as if its journalism touching on a pertinent social issue. marriage was last year, health care is now … at least try to keep up to date when your piggy-backing the news.

jeepy argh August 7, 2009, 1:53 PM

Shut up, Stephanie.

Real Man August 7, 2009, 1:54 PM

Are You kidding me? Marrige is a religious and social tradition. So is the man of the relationship actually being a MAN. Does she open doors for you and pay for things when you go out too?

Thomas August 7, 2009, 1:56 PM

A lot of haters out there. I see the guy’s point. He wants to compliment his wife by taking her name. What is wrong with that? A better way would be to tell her she did a good job cleaning the house. Or to say dinner was great before asking her to get out of the way so you can watch tv.

Earl August 7, 2009, 1:57 PM

Get ready. One day, no matter how well-adjusted and loving your marriage may seem now, you will find out that your wife is cheating on you.

Actually, considering your pathetic choices and need for approval, she’ll probably tell you she’s going to be getting something on the side and expect you to go along.

Anonymous August 7, 2009, 2:00 PM

Dressing in a skirt won’t solve the worlds gender issues.

Brailingtonford August 7, 2009, 2:02 PM

You should have included the part where you told her in your gentle, gracious way how you came to accept herself as a woman, first as a Canadian girl and later as an adult woman living in Canada, a country to which you belonged but had never called “home.”

Peppy Pepp August 7, 2009, 2:06 PM

Uh, I quit reading this half way through and started reading the comments. Curiosity caused me to go back and pick back up just before the part about how you wear a doll around your neck; that is awesome and from the same bone no less. Did you get that idea from Gladiator? I’m assuming that none of this is true and that you’re a genius for fabricating such a story. No man would be able to think of it; no woman would write it…

Anonymous August 7, 2009, 2:07 PM

snippity snipsnip

ogie August 7, 2009, 2:07 PM

when you were at the DMV did you ask if it was legal for you to change your last name to Mangina?

Anonymous August 7, 2009, 2:09 PM

You sir, are a wuss

Anonymous August 7, 2009, 2:10 PM

Obviously some deeply psychological scaring during childhood on the woman’s part, and too many sticks and nuts for breakfast on the man’s part. But, Hey…as long as they don’t pass on any more abnormality in offspring, who cares…right?

Dimmie August 7, 2009, 2:10 PM

I’ve printed out this blog page and I’m giving it to all nephews as a warning of what happens if you listen to women and try to be “sensitive”. Hell, why not just change your last name to “IHaveAMassiveVagina”? This dude is the most whipped guy on the planet, and I used to live in San Fran.

anonymous August 7, 2009, 2:17 PM

QUOTE: “don’t understand why you would ever give up your families name. I just don’t get it.- brandon”

Yet women are expected to do exactly that. Even women who may be the last child of their family line.

I see no issue with a man taking on his wife’s name.

Andrew August 7, 2009, 2:19 PM

This guy just guaranteed that his wife will eventually lose all respect and end up banging some plumber she meets.

Sure, she’ll think its cute and endearing at first, but slowly when she realize she married a whipped boy, she’ll go looking for a real man.

Sharp August 7, 2009, 2:25 PM

Surnames are not nearly as significant as they were many generations ago. Surnames used to signify ownership or clans. The fact that women are still expected to change last names this day and age is amazing.

Neither women nor men should have to change their surnames.

Jeffy August 7, 2009, 2:26 PM

This is stupid.

Rabidcanary August 7, 2009, 2:28 PM

This is why terrorists think they can push us around. Why do you hate America?

Wow August 7, 2009, 2:30 PM

Dude, why don’t you just admit you enjoy suckin on p3nis too? By your logic, its another thing you guys can share. Put on a pair of her underwear and a skirt too while your at it.

How do you look at yourself in the mirror?

EricNY August 7, 2009, 2:35 PM

What a girl…

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