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.PlayCourtesy Kathyrn Flagg
WATCH Married in the Mall

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.

"I believe that tracing family lines is somewhat important and always going with the paternal name makes tracing easier," according to Nitzschmann, who said it's important for children to share the same name as their parents.

Some of the judgment that accompanies a woman's decision to name-change is reflected in a recent survey at Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research in the Netherlands.

Researchers have suggested that women who change their name at marriage make nearly $400,000 less during their lifetimes than women who do not. They were judged by others as older, less educated and unmotivated compared to those who kept their own names -- even if they were the same age and background, according to a 2010 study in in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

Those who took a husband's name were viewed as "more caring, more dependent, less intelligent, more emotional, less competent, and less ambitious in comparison with a woman who kept her own name."

Women who kept their maiden names were seen as "less caring, more independent, more ambitious, more intelligent, and more competent."

Many women keep their maiden names as a mark of independence. Still, an overwhelming 90 percent of all brides drop their surnames, according to the Lucy Stone League, named for a woman who refused to take her husband's name in 1855.

The arguments in favor of changing are that life is generally easier, both psychologically and practically, when all family members have the same name -- traveling internationally, registering in schools and even dealing with other parents. Monograms for towels are simpler.

If you have a bad last name, a new name can repair that -- or not. This writer was acquainted with two friends who abandoned perfectly good maiden names for these married ones: Judy Foody and Dolly Jolly.

"I just like the way my name sounds with my fiance's last name," said Gillian Grissom, soon to be Gillian Locke. "It's only one syllable, which I think sounds nice with a three-syllable first name."

"I was a little surprised that the feminist in me didn't speak up any louder than it did," said the 25-year-old from Dallas, Texas. "But I don't feel like the feminist part of me is really getting compromised by changing over names. Taking a new name feels more like a milestone than a loss of identity."

But for Mary E. Mendoza, who grew up in Texas, the daughter of Mexican-Americans, identity is everything.

"For me, keeping my name is important and I have decided that I won't ever change it," said Mendoza, a 27-year-old Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of California-Davis. "First, it reminds me of where I come from and I share it with my grandmother. Changing it feels like it would take that away. Third, because I plan to publish, I don't want any changes confusing people as I try to make a career for myself."

Find Your Own Family Name, Say Flowerhead?

In a growing trend here and abroad, some couples are creating new identities.

In Sweden, the government gets more than 7,000 requests a year for name changes, including newlyweds who want to create unique names for their families, according to a recent report in the New York Times..

One couple, Sofia Jonsson and Karl Andersson, both of whom had common Swedish names, changed to Wetterlund, which was her grandmother's maiden name. Others adopt English-sounding names like Swedenrose or Flowerland.

"The reason for most changes is you want to stand out, be individual," said Jan Ekengren, director of the Patent and Registration Office, according to the newspaper. "Olla Andersson meets Eric Svensson — they want to start something together."

Of the 100 most popular Swedish names, 42 end in "son," because of an old Nordic practice of using the father's first name, and the suffix "-son" for a son, or "-dotter" for a daughter.

"From the time of the Protestant Reformation, Scandinavians without titles and lands were given their father's names -- for example, Jansson means 'child of Jan,'" said Kathleen Osgood, 59, who teaches comparative literature at the University of the Arctic. "In Iceland, this tradition continues to this day, with the refined twist of 'dottir' for girls; for instance, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the daughter of Finnbog, was Iceland's fourth president from 1980 to 1986."

Osgood, who lives in Northfield, Vt., is of Anglo-Nordic descent and was never given a middle name. When she married, she took on her husband's family name and became Kathleen Osgood Dana.

"In my family, women did not have middle names, so it was easy to keep my father's name when I got married, and easy to return to it when I was not," she said.

After her divorce, she kept her husband's name because she had published under the name. But in the end, she legally returned to Osgood.

"It felt like the right choice in the end," she said. "Professionally and personally, I like having my own name back."

Divorce can present other name dilemmas.

One 26-year-old law student, who did not want to be identified, dropped her middle name and took on her birth name and husband's name, with no hyphenation, when they married in 2005. She always made a point of signing all three names.

The couple divorced in 2008, but she kept his surname because she shared it with their 2-year-old son. Now, she is engaged again and will take on her new husband's name.

"It was tough to decide since it is such a hassle to change names," she told "However, I don't very well want to go around married to a man I love and adore, with the last name of my ex-husband."

"My fiance is very traditional and wants me to change my name," she added. "He is also planning to adopt my son once we're married, partly so he will have the same last name as well."

As for the Whelan-Wuest family, the three sisters have had different minds about giving up their wonderful, but problematic name.

Ellen Whelan-Wuest's older sister Catherine -- the one whose nurse started the craziness at her birth -- gave up the double-barreled name to be just Catherine Merritt.

"She didn't think she had to apologize for being traditional if a Renaissance woman like Michelle Obama could do it," said her sister, Ellen.

"But I don't know what I'll do," she said. "By the time I get married I'll have been Ellen Whelan-Wuest for at least 30 years, so how do I reasonably switch?"