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Editorial: What’s in a name?

I recently got married to a wonderful man. His last name is Dillon. Upon our return from our wedding, a friend dropped off a beautiful cedar sign for our home that read “The Dillons.” As I accepted the gift, I felt both gratitude and surprise.

I recently got married to a wonderful man. His last name is Dillon. Upon our return from our wedding, a friend dropped off a beautiful cedar sign for our home that read “The Dillons.” As I accepted the gift, I felt both gratitude and surprise. Were we the Dillons now?

In 1979, my parents got married and my mother kept her maiden name, Stoker. When my older brother came along, he and my mom became Stoker-Lavelle, and my father remained a Lavelle.

My name, Elizabeth Anne Stoker-Lavelle, is a mouthful. It barely fits into the boxes on legal forms.

But I love my name for what it represents. It says that I come from a family where equality is more important than tradition, where my identity includes both of my parents and their families.

Moreover, my name is unique; as far as I can tell there are only  three Stoker-Lavelles in the whole world, and they all lived in my house.

While a hyphenated name worked for my family, this solution merely passes on the tough decision – naming your family in a way that recognizes the equality in your marriage – to the next generation. 

This brings us to my current situation. Since childhood, I have been asked what I would do with my name when I married. I still don’t have a solution.

I could change my name to Dillon. It is a name that belongs to my husband’s close-knit Cape Breton family, whom I adore. It would be easy to write and pronounce; it would make us a unit on paper.

But if I take his name, I would be giving up everything that my maiden name represents.

I could add his name to mine, if I can come to terms with having an unwieldy five-word name and passing one on to any future children.

Other choices exist. A few rare men adopt their wives’ surnames. Some couples invent their own last name by merging two surnames into one. Some women preserve their maiden name by adding it to their middle name, or passing on their maiden name to their children as first or middle names.

Some women keep their maiden name at work, but change their name legally; others choose to simply keep their own name while their children take their father’s last name.

For couples who plan to have children, there are conveniences to having one surname. Some women say that having the same name is important for picking up children from school. What if they are not recognized as their husband’s wife or their child’s parent? What if they run into complications while travelling internationally?

My suspicion is that in the modern world, these fears are mostly unfounded. Families today take every shape and form, and modern institutions are accustomed to families made up of foster parents, grandparents, step-parents, same-sex parents and unmarried parents with names that differ from the child’s. 

There are also many countries in the world in which women do not, as a rule, take their husband’s name. To my knowledge, women and children from these countries travel together freely.

Although the practical reasons for having one name may be less important today, there is symbolism in a family name that is difficult to ignore. When I saw that “The Dillons” sign hanging in our kitchen for the first time, I felt a tug at my heart. I liked the unity that was so neatly conveyed there.

I wonder, can we be the Dillons if I am still a Stoker-Lavelle? I want the best of both worlds, but at some point, in each family, a choice must be made. 

For women who have built their careers before they marry – most of my peers – it is not a simple choice. Changing one’s name can have professional consequences. Many married women I know say that they felt like they were losing a piece of themselves when they took their husband’s name. Changing one’s name also entails plenty of paperwork. One friend told me this was a major factor in her decision to keep her maiden name. 

And while I hate to mention it, it is a fact of modern life that marriages don’t always last. I know plenty of divorcees who have had to do the messy work of unwinding their name from their husbands’, while the ex-husbands could go back to work, their names intact and personal and professional lives neatly separated. 

When a woman takes her husband’s name, she solidifies her commitment to him, and marks her transition from singlehood to married life. I won’t dispute that.

But if a modern marriage is a partnership, should not both husband and wife make that same commitment? What are we communicating to little girls when we tell them that they can grow up to be anything, and that they are equal to boys, while showing them that women ultimately lose their names to their husbands?

For me, and for many women in my generation, there is just no easy choice.

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