Marriage Mayhem: Do I Change My Name?

PHOTO Colin Davis and Kathryn Flagg of Vermont are engaged to be married and she will keep her own name.
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Ellen Whelan-Wuest is a mouthful -- her name, that is.

Her mother, Maria Whelan, a 1970s feminist, couldn't part with her birth name when she married Jack Wuest, whose last name she deemed unpronounceable, a "downgrade."

As Ellen tells it, an "evil nurse" questioned the ridiculousness of calling her elder sister Catherine Mary Whelan Wuest, and in the "throes of post-partum depression and first-baby anxiety," the new mother agreed to hyphenate.

"I hadn't even been born and my whole life got complicated," said Whelan-Wuest, who is 27 and earning her master's degree in public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

Over the years, she has been alternately called, "Wurst," "West," "Waylan" and "Whekan."

But despite the misnomers, Whelan-Wuest can't even imagine being anyone else.

"When I have to decide if I take my husband's name, I don't know if I can give mine up," she said. "And it's a serious dilemma."

For decades, tradition forced women to take on the names of their husbands when they married. But the expectation that a woman would keep her own name became just as rigid after the liberating 1970s.

Today, a new wave of feminists in their 20s, who have been raised with more social and economic equality, say they feel they have a choice.

But it's a tough one, and that decision often leads to inevitable judgment by friends, family and employers.

Do you keep your maiden name, one that you won't share with your children? Or do you hyphenate with your husband's last name, condemning your children to the likes of William Whelan-Wuest-Whatever?

Or, like a growing trend in other parts of the world, do you create an entirely new name, cutting the family tree cold?

Kathryn Flagg, a 25-year-old MFA student at University of Wyoming, became engaged to her boyfriend in December and is weighing the decision right now.

She was the kind of teenager who "doodled" her pretend married name for each boyfriend. Flagg was raised in a traditional military family where her mother took her father's name and the family shared it, "like sort of a team."

"I'd be sad to give that up," said Flagg, a writer.

Flagg's married name would be Davis, giving her the same name as another writer with more notoriety. "I'd Google and my name wouldn't even show up."

"One of the things I struggle with is it feels very much like I am identifying with one camp or another, depending on what I choose," said Flagg.

"I feel very strongly that I want to be respected as someone who values independence and feminism," she said. "These are core values I have held for a long time. But, by the same token, If I take his name, is that a reflection on me as a woman?"

Flagg wants "nothing more than to be married," but she also doesn't want to risk having her professional world think she's "throwing in the towel to be a housewife."

Claudia Nitzschmann, 29, an English translator who lives in Germany, said she would have happily taken her boyfriend's name before their recent break-up. And to her, that seems just as liberated as women who keep their names.

"In our Western societies women are free to choose," she said. "If they choose to get married despite no real need to do so, why not go all the way and assume the name of their husband? Call me a crazy romantic but I like the idea of name change."

Keeping Husband's Names Simplifies Genealogy

Sometimes keeping the husband's name has a better ring to it. And with children, it simplifies the lineage.

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