If you’re married or getting married, you might be contemplating changing your name after marriage (or not changing your name!). And changing your name after marriage, if it’s something you do plan to do, isn’t the kind of thing anyone should take lightly. It’s a big deal logistically, it can be emotional, it can feel like a political statement, and it can be loaded with other personal considerations as well. And of course, whether you decide to change your name or not, everyone will have something to say about it. But I think changing your name — and some other things, like how we choose to parent, and really, how we choose to live our lives — probably shouldn’t be decided by what random people in society think.
I got married (and decided to change my last name and make “maiden name” into my middle name) over 4 years ago, but I’ve been thinking about the ~complexity of personal choices~ lately because we’re getting closer to having our second baby, so these kinds of things — personal choice, society, identity, family units, etc. — have been on my mind more lately (anyone else find themself thinking about the big stuff when in the presence of the miracle of life?). I’ve also been thinking that a lot of our personal choices as women — especially choices I make as a mom and as a wife — are wildly personal — and yet, they’re contextualized in a much larger social discussion, and also seem to be ripe for comment, criticism, and judgment from others. Here, I share some thoughts on why changing your name, and some other things, shouldn’t be influenced by society or others’ expectations.
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Changing your Name after Marriage
When my husband and I were getting married, I was conflicted about changing my name (to be clear, I’m referring to changing my last name. I was never contemplating changing my name entirely). On the one hand, a part of me wanted to keep my last name (Chhabra). On the other hand, I really liked the idea of changing my last name (to Rice, which is my husband’s family’s name).
On one hand, I felt a connection to my last name:
- I liked that I shared my last name with my brother (though I’ll admit that it wasn’t like my last name made me feel more connected to my family exactly. And my parents don’t even have the same last names as one another. It’s complicated.)
- I liked that my full name made my cultural identity (Punjabi and Indian) more visible (although it didn’t really make me feel more connected to my culture exactly; my family is Sikh, and typically, Sikh men are meant to use the last name Singh while Sikh women traditionally use Kaur — though this isn’t always the case).
- I liked that my name made me feel like me, even if only just because of habit — as a kid, teachers had always called me Punita Chhabra (albeit, in a butchered and mispronounced manner) my whole life; as a teacher, I was Ms. Chhabra. It had been my name forever.
- A small part of me felt like if I gave up my last name, it would make me a bad feminist. (Here’s an article by a woman who describes feeling something similar.)
I also liked the idea of changing my last name to my husband’s last name.
- If I changed my name, I would still feel connected to my family.
- If I changed my name from Punita Chhabra to Punita Rice, my Indianness would still be visible in my name (and on me; I wear my Indianness with pride), and I’d obviously still feel as connected to my culture.
- I would still be Punita — in name, and in self. And of course, I could always consider keeping Chhabra in my name as a middle name. (Also, something that might have helped me be open to changing my last name is that even though I was Punita Chhabra in the world, my family called me by a different first name, which is a common phenomenon among some Indian families; so to a degree, I was used to having my identity tied to two names anyway.)
- I decided changing my name wasn’t a reflection of my values regarding men, women, equality, and progress (although here’s a take insisting that it is.)
I also liked that if I changed my last name, it would be nice and simple to have the same last name in our family. My parents have different last names from one another, and while it was never a big deal, a part of me liked the idea of my new family unit — and that’s what you’re making when you get married, a new family unit — to have our own name. And, to be perfectly honest, I liked the idea of being Ms. Rice or eventually, Dr. Rice (I’ve never liked “Mrs.” so even if I changed it, it would still be Ms. or Dr. Rice).
In the years we dated before getting engaged, and then in the months leading up to our wedding, my husband and I had a lot of complicated conversations in which I volleyed back and forth between wanting to not change my name, to thinking about hyphenating it, to thinking about changing it entirely. And in the end, I decided to change my name from Punita Chhabra, to…
Punita Chhabra Rice.
So yes, I turned my former last name (Chhabra) into my new middle name, and I took my husband’s last name (Rice) as my own last name. In the end, the important reason behind why I was thinking of changing my name to Punita Rice was this: My husband really liked the idea, I was open to it, and the fact that it felt important to him felt important to me.
(Also, a friend asked if I changed it because it was easier to spell, and while that’s a funny question, I continue to use Chhabra in my name, so IDK, I haven’t really spared myself any effort).
The (extremely personal) decision was fraught with complex feelings for me already, but in the end, the decision to change my last name felt right to me, and felt right for our new family unit. (By the way, here’s Cherie on changing her last name, and here’s Anuja on why she decided to hyphenate her name.) But you know what wasn’t a factor in what I decided? What others would think.
What’s Right for You?
When I was thinking about keeping my last name as Chhabra, I was aware that my more traditional friends (and acquaintances, colleagues, anyone who heard about it, strangers on the street, etc.) might give me a hard time about it. Of course, this was never going to be a factor in my decision. After all, if I wanted to keep my name (Punita Chhabra), who cares what random people might think about it?
But the funny thing is, I didn’t anticipate that if I did change my last name after marriage, people would judge me or make comments. In fact, by choosing to go the more traditional route (the route of changing your name after marriage to your husband’s last name), I opened myself up to criticism from others:
As I shared in this post, about a month after we got married, a woman I worked with professionally openly expressed her disappointment in me for my changing my name. (Cue eyeroll).
The reality is, changing my name wasn’t a simple decision for me, but in the end, it was what felt right. And I’m not alone in finding it to be a complicated choice — for a lot of women, changing your name can be a complicated decision to make. As Sejal Kapadia Pocha, a writer in the UK shares,
“I really wanted to find a solution that would honour both my feminist and family values, but I was left disheartened and torn. The truth is, there is no brilliant, flawless, female-flag-flying and practical solution all women can take up. Some of us will find that one of the above will work, and others – like me – will settle for the next best solution … It does not mean my husband suddenly has more power over me or our relationship … We must be careful to not label ‘keeping your name’ as THE feminist way. It isn’t so black and white.”(More from Pocha on the complexities of changing your name here.)
Of course, others’ opinions didn’t, don’t, and shouldn’t matter when it comes to making decisions for ourselves and/or our families. When the choice is between doing what is right for you, vs. doing what society wants, or expects, or needs, what’s the right choice?
There are absolutely instances when we should put the needs of society ahead of our personal desires, particularly when the goal is to make the world a better place, benefit others. Should I do what I want? Or should I do what society needs me to do? When you want to litter, you shouldn’t give in to that desire. You may not want to shower regularly, but you should suck it up and do what’s right for everyone around you. In those instances, you should do what society needs you to do, and think about your responsibility towards others, even if those responsibilities are at odds with what you want.
I think a good rule of thumb is, if it’s related to you and your partner, to your children, to your health, to your body, to your identity, to your values, to your truest self (assuming your truest self doesn’t want to harm others), it’s probably wiser to lean into what feels right to you, and not what society expects you to do. This is probably truest when it comes to doing what feels right for you and your children.
Society vs. Your Family
When it comes to making choices as a parent, if you ask yourself “Should I do what others think I should do? Or should I do what I know is right for me and my family,” the answer is obvious: you put what’s right for you above what others expect. And it’s funny that people think it would be any other way.
For instance, my friend Jessie, who previously shared (in this post) how she’s heard plenty of judgy comments since becoming a stay at home mom, shared that after she became a stay at home parent, someone actually commented to her:
“So I guess you’re not a feminist.”A comment my friend Jessie heard, in regard to her choice to be a stay at home mom
Face, palm. I can’t believe people say things like this, or think like this (seriously, do people think parents will put what random people in society want over what’s right for their families?). If as an autonomous human being, you choose to be your child’s primary caregiver, how, or why, should that make you inherently anti-feminist? I get that for women in particular, it can feel like making choices that are traditional or old fashioned means opening yourself up to public discussion / debate, or even shaming. And that some people equate choosing to be a stay at home mom with somehow harming any progress women have made. (Even though that’s… not how that works).
Luckily of course, others’ opinions don’t impact Jessie’s choices. She doesn’t give up what feels and is right for her own families in order to placate others’ ideas of what she should do (or others’ ideas of what a good feminist is!)
It’s good to be aware of the societal forces and constructs that influence and inform our personal values, and yes, there are times when the personal is political. I do understand that personal choices can feel like a form of complacency or resistance with any problematic (or imperfect) social norms.
But that does not mean that every personal choice we make — from serious, high-stakes decisions (being a stay at home mom vs. being a working mom), to the innocuous (choosing to wear your hair long vs. choosing to wear it short) — should require us to put social progress ahead of our personal values and what feels right. That feels oppressive.
When it comes to family, and choices around our identities, maybe it’s okay to put ourselves ahead of society. And obviously, there are instances when what’s right for us and what’s best for society merge naturally; sometimes we’ll go against the grain, and since personal desires aren’t always at odds with societal expectations, there will be times we’ll happen to go along with it. But in most of the big decisions in life, we shouldn’t be making choices based on what others think we should do.
Things Society Shouldn’t Influence
Each of us has conflicting personal and desires about any given personal choice (and sometimes cognitive dissonance we have around those choices) — and obviously this is even more true for high stakes choices. And our complex feelings may at times be made further complicated by our awareness of political and social issues surrounding those choices. And of course, others’ tendency to weigh in on our personal choices (or even shame us for them) can add another layer of confusion.
But there are things you shouldn’t decide based on what society thinks (including changing your name or not changing your name). In fact, here’s a nice list of choices, similar to changing your name when you get married (or not changing your name when you get married) that you shouldn’t make based on what other people think you should do…
Things you’re welcome to do, but shouldn’t do just because society thinks you should:
- Having a Korean skincare routine as your form of self-care
- Cutting all your hair off OR wearing your hair long
- Curling/straightening/relaxing your hair
- Wearing makeup OR refusing to wear makeup
- Abstaining / waiting for sex until marriage
- Avoiding getting to know your body and fertility signs
- Changing your name after marriage
- Hyphenating your last name after marriage
- Keeping your maiden name (not changing your name)
- Having a medication-free birth or having a medicated birth
- Being a stay-at-home-mom
- Being a working mom
- Being a STYLISH working mom
- Being a work at home mom
- Hiring childcare, hiring a cleaning service, hiring a clown
- Breastfeeding your baby
- Weaning your toddler
- Buying every box of disposable diapers ever made
- Doing infant potty training / elimination communication
- Keep your kids in diapers until you and they are ready
…and again, to be clear, you can choose to do (or not do) any of those things. But whether you do or don’t do any of them, it shouldn’t be because of what others think, you know? Ultimately, when it comes to personal and family decisions, while you have to be aware of social forces and influences on our values, you really just have to do what you want. And of course, you have to have faith and know that whatever you decide to do, people will comment.
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P.S. – I wrote about how stay at home mom shaming is still a thing (that needs to stop). And here’s an article from a few years ago in which the author argues why women shouldn’t change their names. And also, in case you’re getting married and want to change your name entirely — first and last — here’s some inspiration.