Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The senselessness of double-barrelled surnames

Fred Khumalo wrote an interesting column in this week’s Sunday Times about how irritated he gets with the preoccupation among black women with double-barrelled surnames. And Juno’s posting below drives home the point – ‘Khumalo-Worthingham-Jones’, indeed.

I don’t find this phenomenon of joining a maiden name with a husband’s surname (it happens among white women too) ‘offensive’, ‘meaningless’ or ‘pompous’, as Fred does; but I do find it rather silly – not only for how unwieldy these names become, but for the more prosaic reason that not many marriages last these days. And once you've shucked your husband, let's face it, there's not much point hanging on to his name, is there?

If a woman wants to retain her individuality, why doesn’t she just retain her own surname? I did this when I got married. In fact, I went one step further: I gave my husband-to-be a choice – he could take my surname or he could keep his own, I didn’t mind either way. (He kept his own.)

And I didn’t do this to ‘assert myself’ or ‘celebrate my identity’, as Fred mentions. I kept my own surname because for 26 years I’d been called by that name, and I genuinely couldn’t see any valid reason to change it. When I discussed this with my husband before our marriage, he agreed, apparently very readily.

But it seems that what Fred calls our ‘phallocentric, patriarchal society’ is still alive and well, and manifesting even in the men we assume to be enlightened and whom we sometimes marry. I discovered this when my ex husband remarried, and his second wife tacked her surname to his to create a new, double-barrelled surname. (Interestingly, he didn’t take this new surname, choosing instead to retain his original, single one.)

When they too divorced (my ex husband turned out to be the much-marrying kind), she wasted no time in dropping his part of the surname like the proverbial hot potato. In view of this, I asked her why she’d bothered to create a double-barrelled surname for herself in the first place. She wriggled a bit, then said, ‘Well, he wasn’t happy about your not taking his surname when you married him, you know, so I thought I’d compromise.’ First I’d heard of it.

Even more bizarre, perhaps, are those women who do change their surname, and who then get divorced – but who nonetheless still keep their ex-husband’s surname. Why in heaven’s name would you do that?! Taking someone else’s surname implies an unbreakable bond – and what’s the point of retaining the titular evidence of that attachment once it’s kaput?

That said, some surnames are such millstones that women will do almost anything to shed them. My friend Z was born a Pijnappels and got married to a Milner just as quick as she could (understandably). Mr Milner died, and she remarried – but her new husband’s surname was Grubb, and she would rather have stuck pins in her eyes than burden herself with such a moniker. So she took the unusual step of retaining her late (first) husband’s surname – the subject of many emotional and heated debates in her home in the days leading up to her second marriage.

Clearly, this names thing strikes a deep chord for some people – such as for my ex-husband, who, apparently (although then still unbeknown to me) smarting about my decision not to take his surname, went off to the Department of Home Affairs to register our first child shortly after his birth. We’d obviously discussed our first-born’s name in detail: a forename that we both agreed on; an old family name from my side for the middle name; and my husband’s surname.

So you can imagine my surprise when the birth certificate arrived in the post a few weeks later and the middle name was not, in fact, the family name we’d agreed on, but my husband's father’s name (which was, in any case, enormously unsuitable; I won’t reveal his identity by telling you exactly what it was – and anyway, you might be called that and I don’t want to offend you – but let me just say that it was in the region of ‘Hank’). I threw a hissy fit and made him go straight back and change it. I carried that baby for nine months, screamed through a 22-hour labour and an emergency C-section, and didn’t sleep for the next six weeks. The very least my husband could do was not call the baby Hank.

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meggie said...

I am not sure how I feel about the last name bit, but have watched in horror as some poor kids have been called such cumbersome things as Stanislustful-Boobular, for last name/s. I suppose they can always change them once they reach a certain age, supposing they have the cash, but what a hideous burden to carry for 16 or 17 angst filled years.

Muriel said...

Stanislustful-Boobular??!!! That's enough to turn anyone into an axe-murderer!

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