All three of my daughters have now had their names legally changed from Danley to Danler.
When I was a photographer a few years ago, I spent a lot of nights in hotels around New England. One morning, while enjoying breakfast in one of these hotels, a news story came on the television about a state, California I believe, that had passed a law allowing men to change their name at marriage without charge, as women had always been able to do. The couple who was the subject of the story were blending their last names, which I thought was a neat idea. And it got me thinking: Why is it only women who change their name? Isn’t our tradition a bit outmoded? What message(s), if any, does it convey to our progeny?
After several discussions with Kirsten and the girls, we decided to change their name to Danler: a blend of Danley and Uhler. It had a nice ring and was better than either a hyphenated mess or Uhley.
Making it legal
It costs $105 to petition the court to change the name of a minor in Maine, which has at times been a lot of money for us. Since 2008 we have referred to the girls as Danlers and thought of them as such (we even purchased danler.org). Therefore, making it legal wasn’t a high priority. However, we wanted Skye to have her legal name be Danler before starting high school, so after five years of procrastination we submitted the paperwork for her and the following month for Jenna and Hayley.
Last month Kirsten and I took Skye to the York County Probate Court in Alfred, Maine for our hearing. Kirsten wasn’t feeling well so sat in the car. Skye and I stood before the judge together. As he was reading through the documents Kirsten had submitted, he said, smiling, “Interesting. I see what you’re doing here.” He granted the petition. I was elated. Skye, however, seemed a bit apathetic. When I asked why, she said she’s long considered herself a Danler, so nothing’s changed for her. I get it.
A month later the whole family returned to the courthouse to appear before the same judge. Like before, he reviewed the documents. This time he said, “Cool! Very creative.” Then he asked us why we’d moved to Maine and told us he used to live in Kansas (where we lived prior to moving here) when he was in the Army. The whole thing lasted only a few minutes.
I hope when the girls think of themselves they realize in a very cognizant way that they are the progeny of two people who each have rich ancestries of which they are a product.
There are several reasons we decided changing the girls’ names was the right thing for us to do. The most persuasive should be obvious: the tradition of buying a wife who then becomes the man’s property is outmoded and highly misogynistic. The name change, which is a vestige of that tradition, should be universally abhorred among those who value women and a progressive, equal society.
Closer to home, I had heard my mother’s uncomfortable experiences concerning her family name. Her children are the oldest grandchildren of her parents, yet none of them have her family name, which is perversely important to at least one of her four younger brothers. A name, apparently, is significant and a determinant in tangible things like inheritances, etc.
And even closer to home: Some years after we had decided to change the girls’ names, but before actually making it official, one of my daughters announced quite proudly her nationality, which she said she had researched on the web. When I asked her for what name she had queried, she replied, somewhat puzzled by my question, “Danley.” When I asked her (with Kirsten standing nearby) if she had looked up “Uhler,” she knew immediately her folly. Had she also looked up “Longacre,” my mother’s name, or “Leigh,” Kirsten’s mother’s maiden name? How about “Smith” and “Yarborough,” my grandmother’s names? She got the point. People associate who they are with their given name, and when we pass down only the father’s name we consequently and symbolically sever the mother’s branch from the family tree with each generation. This is a tragedy.
This last point serves as the counterpoint to those who are concerned about the difficulties future genealogists may face by inventing new names and giving them to our offspring. We are already changing half the populations’ names at irregular times in their lives. The problem exists in our current tradition and is in fact made simpler when the name is changed at birth, and only at birth. I don’t think research will be difficult post-Internet, which isn’t relevant to the argument anyway: every name change adds complexity to future genealogists. List the parents names on the birth certificate and give the child a different name which will endure their lifetime. Problem solved.
I hope my daughters never change their names again. Relationships should last for as long as and to the degree they are naturally and easily of value to us, and no longer. Changing one’s name is a big deal, at least to me. To do so simply because we’ve fallen in love and changed our relationship status seems naively wishful at best. The big and interesting question is why we feel like a relationship status requires a change of name? Why is the practice so one-sided? Do women feel the need to belong to someone so desperately that they are willing to waive any expectation of reciprocation? Is it a sign of insecurity for men to require such a drastic symbol of commitment? Do we forget or ignore or, worse, excuse the history of the tradition, which is inarguably misogynistic?
For the record
Skye and Hayley took the opportunity to drop their middle names, which I encouraged. Jenna, unsurprisingly, elected to keep her middle name, Christina, because she thinks it’s beautiful. She’s right about it being beautiful (she’s named after my little sister). She’s my little contrarian (a good thing). She had given it much consideration and refused to back down in the face of significant paternal protest. 🙂
Petition Granted and Ordered Kirsten Uhler, Cogitations, May 2, 2009