What is in a name?

When Michelle and I decided to get married, we discussed a vast array of issues, from the small and mundane to the large and life altering. The idea was to come an agreement on as many issues as reasonably possible. This would prevent problems coming up later in life.

As a good feminist couple, name changes came up. My position was very strongly shaped by my cultural traditions and the value built into my familial name. I did not want to give up Bell. For me, it was a hill to die on. Until Michelle voiced opposition to it, I just assumed anyone I married would take my name as well.

With her help, I managed to unpack a lot of the baggage I carried concerning my name. The strongest component was that I connect really strongly with my father’s family. Because of their general closeness (both physically and socially), I developed relationships with all of them. This created an association in my mind, where all the good traits of the family are tied into the name.

During this discussion, a delicious irony dawned on me. A third of this close nit group of the Bell family are not “officially” Bells either. Through marital name changes, there already is a diversity of names in our family. And based on the genders and traditional leanings of our family, this will probably only increase as time passes. So any name we change to will not truly be out of place. It will simply be a different patterning the ever-growing, ever-changing quilt of our lives.

At this point, my concern was no longer deeply tied to what the name was. Whatever we decided would be acceptable, under the condition that we both changed to the same thing. This was and still is important to me. Not really for our own sake (though there is a lot of privilege that comes for doing so), but rather for our children. Knowing how our childhoods went, our children will get enough social handicaps without giving them parents with two sets of names. It is a complication that we should be avoid.

It was then a matter of choosing which name to go with. I was partial to mine. It had worked for two decades, why not a few more? Michelle did not mind her father’s name, but she identified far greater with her mother’s side of her extended family. There is also a certain symmetry there: she brings her mothers while I bring my fathers.

Thus a new name was born Lester Bell. But changing your name like that simply isn’t easy. The government does not like random name changes. Michelle changing her last name to a simple Bell to match mine? No problem though. Got to love institutionalized patriarchy. In order to give us official new names, it would involve jumping through some legal hoops and paying a nice pile of outrageous fees. Because that kind of money doesn’t grow on trees, we’ve been holding off until we were more stable.

This lead to two divergent solutions, and I am sorry to say that I took the more cowardly one. I choose what was convenient over what was right. I kept using my old name with the rational of that was my legal name. Michelle adopted our new one, because that is what we were going to be. Hers was the right path.

Even more so, Lester Bell is not just who we are to be. It is who we are now. We are a partnership, a merging of two families, who were themselves each a melding of two more, a string continuing backwards into time. I should have embraced the change immediately upon getting married.

There is no time like the present to start fixing our mistakes. If you have been paying attention, the author name on this blog has been changed for a week or so. Others have already been done as well, with more changing over time. This is mostly a matter of finding them and changing them. So if you see something that is not changed, let me know. I’ll get on that.

Just as our commitment to each other is not predicated on a legal marriage license, our identities are not tied to any legal name. We are not merely the sum of legal components; bureaucracy does not contain all our hopes, dreams, desires, our failures, flaws, and fuck-ups. We are more than that and always will be. So today I start fresh and fix one of those mistakes with a new introduction:

Hi, my name is Nicholas Lester Bell. A pleasure to meet you. What is your name?

-That is all.


One thought on “What is in a name?

  1. oh i love this so much.

    this was more of an internal debate for me, in naming grace, i struggled heavily with not wanting to lose my family name because i have always subconciously identified with the intimate quirks of my father’s side. therefore, it was incredibly important to me to pass that name along to her in some recognizable way, hence the birth of lonsdale-sumner, which is an odd combination i never thought i’d see. another family i know alternated last names for their children, mom, dad, mom, dad. i think there is much to be said about bringing family names to the table for debate and collaboration. well done.

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