When my first marriage ended, I went back to my maiden name. It seemed to make sense at the time. Although I had three children, I did not have a career and was only about a year’s worth of credits into my seminary education, where I was already using all three names. I wanted to take back something that was mine in a positive way after many years of feeling I didn’t matter much.
That was not an uncomplicated decision, and I confess some portion of it was motivated by anger, as if shedding a name I had worn unhappily would restore me to a prior state of wholeness. In fact, I had struggled with being Martha Spong, because everywhere I went I was my father’s daughter. Not that I didn’t love my dad, or admire him. I did. But there was no space to be a separate person. There was a lot of that in my life.
My favorite awful story about deriving identity from others is this:
I am a Senior at the College of William and Mary, greeting girls at sorority rush, and one of them says, “Are you Tommy Spong’s sister?”
He had been at the College for two weeks.
My father’s daughter, my brother’s sister, my husband’s wife, my children’s mother — finally, from the ashes of disappointment and bitterness, I hoped to arise and craft my own identity.
(I’ve done this more than once.)
Of course, no matter what my last name was, legally and officially, my children’s friends called me Mrs. Their-Dad’s-Last-Name. I appreciate the effort of young people to speak respectfully to adults, whether they are being picked up at an airport in an emergency or getting a ride from someone they’ve known since kindergarten. I let it go by.
The worst place for this mis-naming has always been the doctor’s office, and I speak generically, for there have been many over the years. You would think that in the 21st century, in a setting where families of all sorts of configurations present themselves for care, there would be an awareness that even in opposite-gender, intact families, parents do not always have the same last names as their children.
K avoided this by keeping her married name after her divorce. Unlike me, she had undertaken her seminary education, been ordained and established a career in the church using her married name. When we started talking about getting married, we discussed the trend among couples like us to hyphenate the last names. I indicated that I was all finished changing my name (see above parenthetical), and besides, hers wasn’t hers in the first place. I invited her politely to take mine if she wished. She indicated that while my name certainly had glittering associations in our field of endeavor, that seemed like an added layer of complication in a setting where coming out was pretty dramatic for all concerned, not to mention see above about establishing her career and so forth, not to mention the convenience of having the same name as her child, which based on my own experience, I totally understood.
Admittedly, I have a bit of an old-fashioned wish that we could all have a name together. I admit that the three name formulation my spouse uses on Facebook (First, Maiden, Previously Married/Professional) makes it sound like she’s still married to the former spouse. But I’ve come to accept that it’s her identity, the one she established for herself, not about her relationship to someone else. Isn’t that what I always wanted for myself?
Then I went to the pediatrician to drop off Mr. Dimples’ summer camp health form, and the nice nurse asked me to just wait for it. I leafed through a magazine in the waiting room, and then I heard a vaguely familiar name being spoken.
Finally, I turned my head. A more abrupt nurse said, “She’s talking to you.”
To get a form signed, I did not argue with the misunderstanding.
And no matter where that name came from, my present reality includes frequently being identified in relationship to K. I am new to the area. Our friends are for the most part her friends. Her work is the center of our universe. As I seek my place in her church family, in worship or in study or in service, I am connected to her. If I speak in Sunday School, I reflect on her. And when I wait while she leads a meeting, wondering what’s happening on the other side of those doors, my identity is tied up with hers in ways that names can’t quite express. No one there would call me by her name, but it often feels like being Mrs. Johnston.