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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
Anne August 7, 2009, 6:50 PM

You broke an ingrained cultural tradition there, one with no practical benefits whatsoever which was still clung to desperately by a large number of people. I’m terrifically proud of the entire human race right now to know that someone can deliberately turn against a tide like this.

I took my husband’s name. It made him happy, and I was never terribly attached to my father’s name, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice for me. I’ve always wished I could have my mother’s name, but that was never given as an option.

Thank you for sharing this.

Kairen August 7, 2009, 6:55 PM

If you say that when you drop dead and YOUR family wants to put Thiessen on your headstone, that’s fine.

Well, obviously you are counting the lovely Mona out - if she were still with you she’d be the one picking out the name on your tombstone.

I think your family might have picked pu$$y anyway.

RJ August 7, 2009, 7:14 PM

Okay, the article is certainly not bad. I can see where people might have issues with how it’s written, but so be it. However, the repetitive, ridiculous comments of the ignorant, insecure masses leave much to be desired. Oh, how DARE this guy do something against social tradition. He must hate his father for giving away the PRECIOUS family name. Please. This is not the fifth century. Get a grip.

JohnnyBoyGomes August 7, 2009, 7:21 PM

I just shared this article with my wife and she and I spent a good half an hour mocking you. Dude, it’s like this…..your woman can’t respect you if most males around you don’t (take a look at the comments on the page if you dont believe me.) For all the b*llsh1t “Rosie the Riveter” posturing many women take, MOST will take the “knuckledragger” over the hypersensitive man any day of the week. Trust me…no amount of enlightment will overpower gender roles based in biology….she’ll be cheating in a year, guaranteed. Good luck, buddy.

ps….You’re a guuuuurrrrrrrrrrrl.

TiredWings August 7, 2009, 7:35 PM

its because of nuts like this the civilized world is going to hell. It is time to go back to the 50’s. Back before the divorce rate was sky high, and single parent kids leading the crime stats…..and Men were Men…..

JohnnyBoyGomes August 7, 2009, 7:42 PM

If you really want some culture shock, check out the comments posted on the Canadian site that originally hosted this drivel. They can hate the US all they want but we are the ONLY reason that the Soviets didn’t turn their country into a parking lot for their tanks during the Cold War. What a lot of emasculated fruits….Jesus!

Random August 7, 2009, 7:47 PM

There are lots of options to show union. Name is just a part of identity. I have an aunt and uncle that kept their own names, three different sets of friends i have met in my life that made up their own last name and the both changed it, (none of the couples know eachother either), a friend that took his wifes last name (her last name was actually pretty cool, added incentive), and my sister just got married and took her husbands last name. There are lots of ways to do things. For those who commented before about this guy being less of a man for taking her last name, that is rediculous and i am sorry you define yourself soley upon your last name.

Anonymous August 7, 2009, 8:33 PM

Whatta Non-Dairy Dessert Topping For Cats!

Brutus August 7, 2009, 8:48 PM

Neufeld? More like Neutered.

Barn August 7, 2009, 8:58 PM

I wonder if his wife pees stsnding up and is named Bruce?

Old fashioned guy August 7, 2009, 8:59 PM

To tell the truth I really feel sorry for your marriage. The act of taking the name of the husband is much more than just giving up your name. It symbolizes that you are putting your trust in the man that you are going to spend the rest of your life with. You are leaving the protection of your father’s house and coming under the protection of a husband who will provide for your needs physically, mentally, and spiritually. When you take the name of your wife you are telling her that you don’t really care for her enough to take on that burden. She has to look toward her own well being and frankly it’s this type of mentality between husbands and wives that make for short marriages. In my view a woman who doesn’t take her husband’s name is not committing to the marriage and a man who doesn’t demand that the wife take his name has no intention of staying with her when things start to get rough. People are not taking marriage seriously anymore. It was my understanding that women wanted strong men who could provide and protect them and their children. if you can’t be proud enough of your husband to take his name then maybe you shouldn’t be marrying him, and if your forcing him to take your name then, ladies, you deserve the (wo)man you get. As for a man changing his name to that of his wife’s I can only say that you dishonor you fathers and entire family who had hoped to raise you to be a real man. Stand up, be a MAN, and show some pride in yourself and show your soon to be wife that there is something in you to be proud of.

benjamin August 7, 2009, 10:31 PM

Your mother was crying because she realized that she failed at raising you. I noticed that you failed to mention your fathers reaction anywhere in this article. Perhaps you were raised by a single mother which would explain so of your behavior.

Another Josiah August 7, 2009, 11:10 PM

What the hell is wrong with all the guys making these Neanderthal comments? Why does a guy deciding to take his wife’s name make him less of a man, or suggest that his wife will leave him for a “real man” (whatever that is)? The tradition that a woman takes her husband’s surname is completely arbitrary, and not even universal. (Are Chinese men not men, because their wives don’t take their names?)

The knuckledraggers who wrote these comments should think about why they’re so threatened by a guy who chooses something different.

Seriously!? August 7, 2009, 11:32 PM

Seriously!? You take HER last name? Seriously?

John August 8, 2009, 1:35 AM

The article says the wife wanted to keep her name not force the husband to take hers: that was the wusses idea.

BlackIce August 8, 2009, 3:24 AM

I’d offer to lend you some nails and a hammer but you wouldn’t know how to use them, but rest assured - your wife does and is nailing your testicles to a wall.

Bob Smith August 8, 2009, 8:20 AM

There is significant social and scientific evidence that in marriages like this, the woman will almost certainly cuckold the man.

In otherwords, if your wife is pregnant, it almost certainly won’t be yours. Your wife isn’t be unreasonable either. Millions of years of evolution will force her to do that.

And honestly, who could blame her for that? Would you really want a son who is so weak?

Another Josiah August 8, 2009, 12:11 PM

Can you provide a citation or link for any of that “social and scientific evidence”, Bob? Or is that just you trying to justify your prejudices?

Why is it considered “weak” for a man to choose to go against an arbitrary social convention? If anything, I think it would take some strength to stand up against the scorn and abuse seen in these comments.

Facepalm August 8, 2009, 1:20 PM

The author is the manliest man alive, and all the haters are at war with their masculinity.

Wayne August 8, 2009, 6:21 PM

At least Mona will have a babysitter to watcher her kids when she goes out with a real man

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