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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
Anonymous August 7, 2009, 3:54 PM

The deal has always been, we get to keep our last name, and they get to torture us slowly for the rest of our lives. It works, so stop rocking the boat.

And to all the hyphenees out there…how wonderful for you. What happens when two of you meet, get married and have kids of your own? Does Johnny get 4 last names? Generations from now, will everyone be expected to have 16 hypens? Silly.

Let’s just skip to the head of the line and barcode everybody - much easier to index the database that way.

eric bennett August 7, 2009, 4:01 PM

Good for you. Whatever makes you both happy. How about “bachelor name” instead of “maiden name?”

j August 7, 2009, 4:01 PM

Does she make you tuck it in while she wears a strapon?

CJ August 7, 2009, 4:05 PM

How does it feel to know that your wife must be lusting for a real man? I give it a year before she’s humping the mailman. You are totally GAY.

zima lover August 7, 2009, 4:09 PM

I just think you are the most wonderfullest, caring and warm man alive.

I only wish you weren’t married to that dreadful woman! You really should think about dumping her and coming over to our side fella!!!

I would love for you to take my name. Heck in Canada we could be married !

jade ivy August 7, 2009, 4:23 PM

someone is secretly “bottom”

Anonymous August 7, 2009, 4:26 PM

Wow. I hope this is fiction, if not you’ve got some serious self-loathing going on.

anonymous -- but male August 7, 2009, 4:27 PM

Seriously? You’re not kidding here? I’m all for equality and all. Maybe both of you should have chosen to keep your own names…maybe you both could have hyphenated your collective names. But for a grown man to willingly give up his own family’s most precious legacy…the family name…to me seems absolutely ludicrous. I’m sure you love your wife. I’m sure she loves you. But for the sake of men everywhere, stand up and act like one. Twit.

Phil August 7, 2009, 4:30 PM

Help I’m confused.

So instead of giving your children your FATHER’s name you are giving your children you wife’s FATHER’s name?

Your wife found it hard to give up her Father’s name but You found it rewarding to give up your father’s name?

This magnanimous gesture somehow corrects for the “extra portion of power in the global allotment” all us men were allocated by being born male?

Fluoric August 7, 2009, 4:38 PM

Wow, what a progressive guy, Journalist and emasculated, impressive social resume. You are a not worthy of one once of respect. You may feel somewhat popular/liberated since most of the women here support you (granted they are most likely fat and undersexxed) but I can absolutely guarantee that once they really got to know your spineless nature, they’d be wishing for a real man and get right on your case permanently because you won’t stand up for yourself.

My advice, get ready to be cheated on 10 years down the line. Good luck with your “life choice”

GrowUp August 7, 2009, 4:41 PM

This isn’t touching, or some great form of self sacrifice. According to the article, she didn’t want him to do it. He just thought it would be a good idea and EVENTUALLY she came to “feel loved”…

On the surface this looks like some sefless, caring manuver, but in the end this was his own selfish idea that she never signed off on.

Don’t believe my theory? Then why is he parading around his grand self sacrifice on the internet for all to see? If he was sincere he wouldn’t need to advertise to a world full of strangers.

feltonflyer August 7, 2009, 4:42 PM

whipped (heavily)

Maria August 7, 2009, 4:54 PM

I think this is awesome, but I’m also tired of watching people who do what they feel is right explaining themselves away over and over just because 99% of society disagrees with what they did. Whatever happened to telling everyone, “It’s none of your business, and who cares what you think?” and answering “Why?” with “Because.” All the over-explaining sounds defensive and like you don’t feel confident in your choice, whether you are or not.

Urinal Gum August 7, 2009, 5:09 PM

I think the best strategy is to combine the two names into one new name. Some friends of ours will be the Hobeaus (pronounced “hoboes”). My girlfriend and I will be the Tarmiels (pronounced “tar meals”). Getting married is fun!

alex August 7, 2009, 5:16 PM

obviously your father didnt beat enough sense into you after he caught you playing with those barbie dolls when you were 5

Gemini6Ice August 7, 2009, 5:38 PM

Dimmie — Gemini6Ice *is* my identity as much as my given name (if not more so). You’ll find more google results with it (all pertaining to ME) than you will with the other.

jbk August 7, 2009, 5:50 PM

Way to rationalize the worst mistake you ever made. I’m guessing you’ve been punched in the face many, many times.

Jeff August 7, 2009, 5:58 PM

You are the most whipped person on the internet.

Josh August 7, 2009, 6:06 PM

I guarantee you have a belly-button ring.

dear lord August 7, 2009, 6:20 PM

That hardest part about being good is being good and not telling anybody about it.

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