Orientation, The Inner Landscape, The Minister's Wife

Being Mrs. Johnston

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.

Mrs. Johnston“Mrs. Johnston?”

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.

22 thoughts on “Being Mrs. Johnston”

  1. Oh, it gets even “better” — I rejoice in the designations “John ]Conductor]’s Mother-in-Law” and “Lena’s OTHER Oma”… which, in the right locations, garner all kinds of consideration!

  2. I. so. get. this. Following being Mrs. M, part of being “me” again was not taking my brother’s name (my maiden name) or keeping my ex’s name. So, loving alliteration I found a last name that went well with Serena (begins with 3 and contains 3 syllables)

    1. My birthmother invented an entirely new last name. I so hear that. There have been times I have wondered about reinventing myself as Martha Songbird.

  3. At one point I considered changing my name–it was all the rage in the 70’s. But I have always liked my name. It was different, like me. Names often denote what male either fathered us, married us, etc. It also denotes a lineage. But I came to realize that it was my job to make that name something I could be proud of. I have and I have never regretted not changing my name. No one knows how to pronounce it, but what the hey. It always begins a conversation.

  4. Spitting *** at the idea that your freshman brother would be the identifier for you. Pah.
    I am not Mrs. Pritchett, but when my husband of that name was sick, I happily answered to it. Whatever worked at the time, I went with it.

  5. I have a hard time answering to “Mrs. Schnaath.” I was a Rev. before I was married and so Mrs. always feels strange. The one “not my name” that I do love though, is when my 20-year-old daughter’s friends continue to call me “Mama Schnaath.” That has become a keeper.

  6. I hypernated because I always wanted to remember who I was …….. where I began – and who I had become. The kids have their Dads last night and my maiden as their 2nd middle to be included in both family circles. When they call or Mrs ….and Ms…… I simply say I am a simple fiesty Maine girl and you may call me, Mari! pronounced Mary – but I changed the spelling my self since I am way to fiesty to be a just plain Mari!

  7. Names. ::sigh::

    Hi. I’m Andy’s sister. 25 years later and I meet someone who went to school with us and recognition dawns only when they can identify me as Andy’s sister. But I’m not bitter. 😉

    I took my spouse’s name because I was in love and I thought the hyphenated version sounded goofy (Long-Lamb) and Long was my Dad’s name anyway, so why should I claim that. I also thought I had an out on being Mrs. Lamb–I never wanted to be Mrs. Lamb–I would be Dr. Lamb. Nope. At church and among my kids’ friends I am Mrs. Lamb and to say, “It’s Dr., Dammit” (even without swearing) seems pretentious at best (but maybe I should get over that and claim it).

    So I’m Mrs. Lamb, and I don’t know what to do with it. I so wish I had kept my name when I got married. Or changed it back when I finished my degree. (Thanks for letting me vent :-))


    1. I regret my names. Of course, I didn’t pick them. I don’t care for the first or the last. Or the middle, for that matter. I’ve never felt that they fit. But I didn’t want my husband’s, either. (His last name is a chopped-off version of the “real” family name after the family decided it didn’t want to be Italian any more.) So I still have the ill-fitting names I was given. Am I too old to change them at 52? I think maybe so. Or they should be less important, or something.

      I dunno. It’s a label. Meant mostly for the convenience of others.

      Hey, Wendy, did you know that MR & MRS LAMB is the mnemonic to help first year law students remember the common law felonies? That’s all I could think of when I read your comment. Murder, Rape, Manslaughter, Robbery, Sodomy, Larceny, Arson, Mayhem, Burglary.

  8. I have had various iterations of my name at different stages of life too. Sometimes, just to be a little wicked, I would play, “Actually it’s…” with phone sales reps. “Mrs. Hillaker?” “Actually it’s Ms.”… “Ms. Hillaker?”… “Actually it’s Gitane.” [insert a couple of attempts by the sales rep to pronounce it correctly, which almost always ended badly, even with me repeating it over and over.] “Is this Claudia Gitane?”…”Actually it’s ClayOla.” By the time we were through, the poor sales rep was too tuckered out to pitch anything. These days, I have fun adding another one: “Mrs. Gitane?”…”Actually it’s Rev.” and off we go!

  9. I’ve taken my husband’s name each of the three times I was married. My present (and final – three’s the charm) husband offered to hyphenate our two names – one way I knew he was finally the grownup I had been looking for. As an adoptee, there was yet another layer of complexity in the name thing – I learned when I was about twelve that I had had another (very different) name before I was adopted. Raised some interesting questions about identity. I finally came to the conclusion that Ezra Pound was right : “what thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” Names don’t matter quite as much to me as they used to…but I understand the emotional, spiritual, and political implications involved in names for many of us.

  10. So much richness here. when I was growing up, I was “one of the twins” or “which twin are you?”. In my last parish, where I was there for six long years, one of the elderly members up until the day I left, in spite of my name being on the front of the church, in the bulletin, newsletter, etc. called me Paula, even in a group where people were calling me Karla !

  11. One of my daughters was married for several years, then a divorce was required. At that time she actively did not like her natural father, nor her step father’s. So she legally changed her last name to my maiden name -she really loved her grandfather and is still proud to use his name. I am proud also.

  12. Sometimes I jsut get fed up with everyone I’m connected to, and threaten to become HOLLY. Like Cher, or Shaq, or Prince. But I do love when i get mail at church addressed to “Holy Yeuell.” Finally recognition of my awesomeness!

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