I am at a stage of life where lots of people around me are having babies. Giving the baby a moniker for life seems to me a great responsibility. Some people want distinctive and unique, others aim for versatile with nicknames, others still prefer classic and timeless. Before we go further and for the avoidance of doubt, I will clarify that I am not having a baby, but I am in the process of choosing a name.
As those who know me well will have already assumed, I am also not getting a pet. Having re-encountered singledom, London life and a long-lost thrill of spontaneity, attaching myself to any form of dependent at this moment in time holds little thrill. To misquote 27 Dresses, my current idea of a pet is a rock*.
*I reserve the right for this to change at a moment’s notice.
Lastly, I am not being allowed to name my nephew on his impending arrival.
No, my consideration with names has to do with getting divorced. Sometimes the white elephant in the room, divorce throws up a myriad of questions. Not least – my name. Some people have assumed I’ll change it back, some that I won’t, a lot of well meaning ‘what is your title/surname just so I don’t get it wrong because I’d like to send you a card?’ questions, and presumably it’s not even crossed a lot of people’s mind!
The latter would be entirely justifiable as it wasn’t something I had thought deeply about until recently. Even though many people had asked me, I had assumed I would just keep my married name. I’d coasted along nicely with my Mrs title and his surname. As a teacher the change of my surname would have been more intriguing to my class than a lack of wedding ring and therefore not worth the hassle. This was until I decided to turn my life upside down with a career change.
One of the triggers to think through this as-you-were-before scenario was when I bought my train pass.
“Er…” What to say? I hit a brick wall and ended up with Mrs in the nano-second I had to think it through.
It got me thinking though. I don’t feel like a ‘Mrs’ anymore, because I’m not. I’m no longer married. While I loved changing my name when I got married, and being Mrs H, my hesitation before answering any question requiring title and name suggested to me all wasn’t right. Simply put, I don’t like to be Mrs when I’m not.
So as a knee jerk reaction, I changed my credentials at work to Ms, because I didn’t feel like Mrs. But that didn’t fit me either. For one thing I have always struggled with how to say it (which is never be good if it’s your name) and secondly I feel, for me personally, that either I’m Mrs or I’m Miss. It’s one or the other. I don’t mind if people know I’m single or married, but I didn’t want them getting a mixed message.
So as you will probably have concluded by now, this left with me Miss. Or Lady… Or I could do a PhD and gain ‘Dr’ to avoid the problem entirely but that takes a) a long time and b) a lot of work. Alas I do not have the rights to a title such as Lady, so Miss it was. Having finally reached a decision I was happy with on title, I then ran into the quicksand of surnames.
The familial ties and pulls of a name are incredible. Historically we look back at surnames that carry through generations. Surnames are how we find our ancestors when we trace our family history, and how we deduce their working lives. Even Biblically, people had appendages on their names to identify them from others – too many Simons meant you needed a second name (Simon Peter) or an identifying characteristic (Simon of Cyrene). Surnames now are a matter of course, everyone has one. Mostly, although now not always, surnames are patriarchal – they feed back through the father’s line, connecting generations of families. If I had children, I may have felt different about my surname, wanting to be associated and attached to them through that common bond. But I don’t. There is no longer a husband who ties me to that name and with whom I might continue it. While I still love my parents-in-law dearly, my ties to their name have been severed.
Equally I am fortunate. Bringing my life before God, and choosing (sometimes reluctantly and with much kicking and screaming) his attitude to what life has handed me, has also gifted me something. I do not have an acrimonious relationship with my ex-husband. That isn’t easy. Divorce gives abundant potential for point-scoring and recriminations. But cordiality sustained, there was nothing that inspired me to rid myself of my married name as soon as I possibly could. I had no strong feelings either way on the surname itself, it had neither positive or negative connotations – it was simply my name. Yes I had it because of him, but I’d since made it mine.
In researching further, I stumbled across a frequently asked question on a website about name change at the point of divorce. It questioned whether one’s ex-spouse could force you to change your name. The answer was clear, a little tongue-in-cheek and feisty (and I therefore liked it). It said names are made up from the 26 letters of the alphabet, and no one owns that, so no one owns a name and no one can make you change it. So with that in mind, I could have whatever I wanted! How freeing!
At this stage I opened the playing field to a few close friends and my brothers…I accept votes on the following suggestions but these votes will not be counted and if I could charge, I would.
Ruthy Rainbow (alliterative, little bit alternative for me.)
Ruth Kaleidoscope (had to let autocorrect do the work here and I can’t spell it even with an English degree.)
Cleopatra (coming atcha? If you’re of a certain age that will make sense, and if not it makes me feel old. I’m neither an Egyptian Queen with cropped black hair, nor do I have an ability to sing. The singers also feature on the Year 5/6 Sex Ed video I’ve had to watch one too many times, so maybe not.)
Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock (the latter two are from Friends, I can’t say the second without attempting a (dreadful) American accent and I don’t wish to be named after a Speedo.)
So dear ones, thank you for your..’help’? But no thanks.
Having considered the potential hassle of name change, and decided I was probably being lazy if ‘it’s a bit of a pain to change it’ was my reason to remain Mrs H, it came down to a few key thoughts.
Where do I belong?
How do I want to be known?
Who am I now?
When I got married I belonged with my husband. Together we became a new family unit and changing my surname to his felt completely right. I became a part of his family as much as he became part of mine. One of the great tragedies of divorce is the tearing apart of two families. While I still care for his family, I can no longer be part of it, and therefore their name doesn’t hold those ties. I belong, as in part I always have, to my Mum and Dad and my brothers. They – among others – are the ones who were there for me and supported me. When I mentioned reverting to my maiden name, my brothers’ response was loving and simple – you choose, we’ll support your decision.
Their other slightly less moving comment was ‘I never think of you with a surname, you’re just Ruth’. Which is actually what I want to be known as. I just want to be known as me, not someone with a back-story to explain on meeting, but just me. I don’t mind having a back-story, but I would like to choose when and whether I tell people. I’m not someone’s wife, but I am still someone’s daughter and sister, and I’d like to be known like that.
My main reason for not wanting to change back was that I am not the same person as I was 5 years ago when I last held my maiden name. What I came to realise though, was that in taking my name back, I wasn’t choosing to go back to being that person. Instead I was choosing to return to my family fold, and to establish myself as a different person from Mrs H. I was choosing to be identified as single and be content in that. I was choosing to forge my new identity with an old name. Those who remember the old name have been with me through thick and thin and often still refer to me by it anyway (indeed, my name has never been changed in some people’s phones). Those who’ve never known it won’t associate it with my teenage self but as my new identity.
I fully anticipate that within the next couple of years I will be dubbed with a further title, not just of Aunty but because Ruth is so singularly hard for little people to say. ‘R’ itself is a hazardous letter often resulting in ‘w’, and when coupled with ‘th’ (‘f’) I feel my name may resemble more of a dog’s call..but that’s one of the many parts I’m looking forward to.
For now, I’m excited to embrace my new-old identity. Being single, being part of my family, being entirely myself.