What’s in a Name?

I have been married for nearly seven years, and have never been able to decide exactly what to do about my name. Every new bride in the United States must decide whether to keep her maiden name or take her husband’s. In effect, society views it as a choice between showing your support for family values or asserting your identity as an individual equal to your husband. The debate is fraught with cultural significance, and you’d better believe that you will be judged by everyone (including yourself) on which choice you make.

What happens to those of us who would rather not choose between the two? Well, that’s an interesting question. If you want to really complicate things, there are some other clever options to throw into the mix, like hyphenating the two last names, or the husband taking the wife’s name. I’ve even heard of both spouses picking out a new last name together. Romantic? Perhaps. Practical? No way. Yes, it’s sad that practicality would intrude on such an intimately personal topic as one’s own name. But it has happened to me. Just today, in fact, I came face to face with the eye-rolling consequences of my own inability to choose a name.

When Tony and I got married, I went down to the Social Security office and changed my name from Sarah Elisabeth Bringhurst to Sarah Bringhurst Familia. I thought it was the perfect solution to the conundrum. My maiden name would not be lost, but I’d have the same last name as my husband (yes, I was a fairly giddy new bride). And we wouldn’t have to do anything weird to our children’s last names. Actually, I didn’t really think about it much at all. I was living in Utah, and all my friends were changing their names. And it was also the exact same way my mother had done it.

Later, I was seized by a fit of feminism (this may or may not have occurred in the heat of an argument with my husband) and decided to change it back. But I never managed to make it back to the Social Security office to do it. In fact, I’m hopelessly behind on Social Security paperwork. Three years ago they made a mistake and inscribed my son’s middle name as Dominigue rather than Dominique. I guess they just could not fathom the idea of the letter “Q” appearing in someone’s name. I did go in once to change it, but even though they had originally gotten it off his misspelled birth certificate, and I had amended that already, they said they could not accept the birth certificate as documentation, and I would have to wait until we got him a passport. By the time we did, we were moving, and things were crazy, and I just didn’t feel like going back to the Social Security office for any reason. So out of laziness and my allergy to government offices, my last name remained Familia. But I was comforted by the fact that my passport still had my maiden name on it, except on some esoteric amendment page that nobody ever looked at and I always annoyingly had to point out to passport control when they said my passport didn’t match the name on my plane tickets.

Until this summer that is, when it was time to renew my passport. I went back and forth and back and forth over whether I should have my new passport done in my original name or my married name. I do almost always use my married name in normal life in the United States. But in Italy nobody changes their last name when they get married. So I was sick of explaining our bizarre American custom, or alternatively not explaining and just letting people think we we had some kind of Pharaonic fraternal marriage. But on the other hand, my maiden name is unpronounceable in Italy (just like in Chile, Syria, and a large proportion of the rest of the world), and it really makes me stick out as a foreigner. Whereas “Familia” is pretty much the best case scenario. People are always asking if I know what my last name means in the _______ language (read: Spanish, Italian, Swahili, etc.). We happened to be in Florence, Italy at the time I was renewing my passport, so that was pretty much a vote on the side of going back to my maiden name. But we were planning an imminent move to Ireland, which has the same conjugal naming convention as the United States, so it might make sense to go with the married name. I walked in to the American Consulate still not having decided which name to use. The man behind the counter noticed the empty spot where my last name was supposed to go, and made me fill it in. In the confusion of the moment, I decided that I would put my married name. I can’t even remember why. I think it was something to do with the fact that I didn’t have a spouse visa for Ireland, and even though EU regulations are not supposed to require one, some countries still do, and due to numerous bizarre scrapes and countless hours spent jumping through hoops in government offices, I have psychological scarring and nightmares about any red tape having to do with immigration. I wanted to have every convincing shred of evidence that I actually belonged to my EU national spouse. Besides, my children all have Tony’s last name, so I kind of don’t like being the odd one out. Anyway, whatever they were, they were all lame reasons, and now I wish I hadn’t done it. And passports are valid for ten whole years!

Now we’re back in Italy, where I guess I must seem like some stone age woman clinging to her husband to have taken the extreme step of changing my name to be the same as his. And today, we went into the Anagrafe to do the paperwork so that I could finally officially become a resident of Italy. It’s hard to do anything in Italy (like, say, getting health car, buying a car, opening a bank account . . . little things like that) unless you’re registered at your local town hall as an official resident. We were supposed to wait until I actually had my Permesso di Soggiorno (residency permit) in hand. But the handy dandy Questura website still lists it as “in process,” which may mean anything from they haven’t started working on it yet to it actually being in process, or even that it’s sitting on their shelf completed, waiting for me to pick it up. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell which without a personal visit to the Questura, which means an entire morning standing outside the door, fighting and begging for a number so I can stand and wait again until the number is called and then finally ask my two-minute yes or no question. And because they now have the website, they no longer entertain phone calls. This is called Technology and Progress.

So I decided to just take in my receipt for Permesso to the Anagrafe, because it looks pretty official all by itself. It has a real signature, a real photo, and a real blue stamp. The only thing that makes it look a little less official is that it only has a photocopy of the marca da bollo (official tax seal). Well, that and the fact that it also does say at the bottom (but in tiny print!) that it’s not valid as a real Permesso. I hoped they wouldn’t notice. Anyway, it was worth a try, since it’s already been over three months and I’ve heard of cases where people don’t actually receive the real Permesso until it’s already expired a year later.

And in fact, the lady at the Anagrafe was very nice, and took everything away to photocopy it, and said we just had to wait twenty minutes, and it would be all done. I was silently congratulating myself on the happy accident of having come in the afternoon when she didn’t have a superior to ask why my document didn’t look quite official enough. And then she came back and pointed out that my passport has a different name from my codice fiscale (Italian Social Security card). Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! I shook my head at myself and knew nothing was going to end up getting done today. The name on my codice fiscale, which I obtained two years ago, came off my old passport. And now I have my new passport with my married name, which is also the name on my Permesso. And so here I am stuck in Italy with two names. Unfortunately, it’s illegal in Italy to change your name unless you can prove that it’s such a bad name it causes you embarrassment. Well, the situation is certainly embarrassing, but I don’t which government agency (if any) will be willing to change my name in their database. The nice lady at the Anagrafe is going to email us tomorrow to tell me what can be done. If all goes well, I’m hoping to convince her to just fling it all to the wind and permanently change my name to Napoleon Bonaparte. Then all my problems would be solved.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

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  • November 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm
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    I had the same trouble when we married. I really *REALLY* like my maiden name, but it’s the way of the American people (or is it christendom?) to take the husband’s name. I tried to coax him into taking mine, and he all but laughed in my face. I tried to talk him into us both taking his grandmother’s name (since the line died off with her), but that was a no-go, too. If I luvvved him, I had to take his name. I was resentful, but I did it.

    Fast forward 12 years, and I wanted my last name back. I called many a lawyer to find out how to do it, because it cost me nothing to take his, it shouldn’t cost me anything to take mine back. NOBODY in Michigan knows if this is possible. It drives me crazy… and yes, I still have his last name. Which I’ve always hated. (((sigh!)))

    I notice, though… you seem to be undecided on your son’s name. Some of the time it’s Raj and other times it’s Dominique. I get (now) that both are his names, but I don’t follow which you use and why/when…

  • December 12, 2010 at 1:50 pm
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    Interesting. I faced this same dilemma. I didn’t add my husband’s name to mine until after my first child was born for the reason you mentioned (being the odd one out). And then I just added it to the end so I have four names. I treat my maiden name like a second middle name. It’s worked out really well for me!

  • December 3, 2010 at 9:44 am
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    If you do things the Italian way, the funny thing is that you end up being a different person in and out of Church, where you are known only as having the same last name as your husband!

  • December 3, 2010 at 6:19 am
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    i went through the same thing.. just got married in italy and i kept my last name.. normal here in italy..my relatives are writing everything with my husband’s common last name. oh well… it is so much easier for documents and i do believe it is a feminist choice;) right on!

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