Today, my wife and I went for our routine eye-check. Both of us were told by the optometrist that our eyes were getting worse with age, that we should eat food with plenty of antioxidants, and that we should wear prescription sunglasses whenever we venture out in the sun.
In addition to these scare tactics, which we’ve gotten quite used to, something a bit awkward happened. During my wife’s eye check-up she was asked by the optometrist, who she had never met before, why she had a different last name from me.
On the surface of it, it seems like a rather harmless question, rather low on the hierarchy of inappropriate questions a person has to deal with it during the course of a day. And yes, it is certainly less demeaning than requiring a woman to state her husband or father’s name, as is done for official documents in India. Thankfully, the United States does not officially condone such patriarchy, and so my wife’s first inclination (and indeed, mine) was to brush the question aside.
Yes, it is a personal choice. I get that. But not asking yourself why someone had no qualms before asking a personal question is to tacitly approve of the default- that women are expected to change their name upon marriage. As a man, of course, I’ve never been asked a similar question, and the idea that I would change my last name, would probably not even occur to anyone. Even so, I’m compelled to do the same thought-experiment. What if the default in society was that the husband changed his last name when he got married? How would I feel about it?
My wife had more earned degrees that I did when we got married. She had a real job with a real income, while I was still a graduate student. Even so, had I been asked the question at the time, I would think of changing my own last name as a nuisance. I’d have to get an affidavit filed and new documents. Changing a name isn’t the same as writing “2013” instead of “2012” on emails after the New Year, and I find that hard to remember as it is. But at the core, more so than the nuisance factor, I’d have to grapple with the expectation that I would give up a part of my identity. Would I do it? Probably not.
It is true that my wife had her father’s surname. It is also true that our son has mine. The hospital in Virginia where he was born had done the right thing: they had not pre-populated the surname field of the birth certificate. Just before our son was born, my wife and I discussed what his name would be, and we both decided together that he would have my last name. I can say honestly that I would have been fine if my son had been given his mother’s surname: I’ll be fine if he changes it in the future. My point is that it isn’t my decision to make unilaterally. It isn’t about me. The father’s contribution in raising a child isn’t greater than that of the mother. On the contrary, if the life of my boy is any indication, the father has a more peripheral role in a child’s early upbringing. If anything, my wife was being exceptionally generous in agreeing to my surname.