When we married we were twenty-two and I wore a red dress printed with blue and yellow flowers. He wore red jeans and a sherwani, a thigh-length Indian tunic sewn with intricate embroidery. When we married we were twenty-two and there was a bouncy castle, the only one that grown-ups are allowed on in the whole of South Australia. There was a koala sitting in the fork of a gum tree. My bridesmaids and I clasped no bouquets, but strings that held giant, round helium balloons that bounced joyfully over our heads. There was no white cake. There were no table plans.
When we married we were twenty-two and thought ourselves unusual, defiantly bucking wedding culture trends. ‘We had not yet discovered that we were as mundane and trivial as everyone else,’ writes Christos Tsiolkas of twenty-something conceit in his short story ‘Merciless Gods’. Yes, the foolishness of youth is revealed in retrospect. We were not, are not, so different from all the others.
When we married we were twenty-two and I took his last name.
It fit oddly, like a too-tight boot, Heinrich with its short sharp letters and quick harsh sound, a painting of his family that holds tight to its serious and blunt Germanic roots. Such a contrast to the flowing curls of Schebella (which I always wrote in cursive), the name I grew up with, with its soft, warm consonants and loose end.
Sometimes I miss my old name. It makes me think of my childhood bedroom that I painted crimson and purple, sunshine stretching in, Mum making cups of lemon-scented tea. A life for which I was not entirely responsible. The ease and comfort in the half-adulthood of living with my parents.
Adopting Heinrich, I told myself, was a symbol of leaving my parents’ house and going to live with S. And in many ways, that’s what it was; I lived at home until I married. And six months after the haze of dance and colour of our wedding, six months beyond the soft-edged glory of our honeymoon, six months of red-eyed negotiation of each other, I woke at the witching hour with an ache in my chest. I moaned sobs into my pillow, attempting not to wake the man I was now used to sleeping beside, and said goodbye to Mum and Dad. I mourned our relationship, as it had been, when I was a woman-child.
While I left my parents to create a new life with my husband, I now look back on that reasoning with a mixture of shame and disappointment. My lack of agency and critical understanding shocks me. Why did I really leave my last name behind?
Last October, Tracey Spicer wrote an article titled ‘Dear Mrs Clooney’, addressed to the internationally renowned lawyer formerly named Amal Alamuddin, who married George Clooney. Protesting Mrs Clooney’s appropriation of the famous actor’s surname, Spicer claimed the practice to be ‘an implied agreement of ownership’, an out-dated habit that is no longer a marriage requirement. She was speaking, of course, of the conventional, hetero tradition of marriage, as will I in this essay for the sake of depth. (A spousal LGBT relationship is not my experience so I will leave that essay to another writer.)
Spicer sees female name-taking as a direct affront to a woman’s liberty. And while I don’t agree that it necessarily correlates with a servile spousal role, Spicer definitely calls out the practice for what it is: a patriarchal, male-centric tradition whose history is rooted in possession and control.
Coverture was a legal doctrine founded in England in the Late Middle Ages, in which a woman became the property of her husband when they married. Within the law – which was carried to America upon its colonisation – a wife’s identity is subsumed; symbolically, two became one. Legally, one disappears.
A married woman no longer had legal rights separate to her husband: no possession of property, no education without his permission, and if she were to earn wages, the salary belonged to him. Coverture was a legal manner of controlling and oppressing women.
The abolishment of this practice occurred throughout the 19th century, when ‘married women’s property acts’ were passed in the jurisdictions and courts of England and America. Despite this, the modern habit of a wife adopting her husband’s name is a symbolic reference to this out-dated practice, and continues throughout the Western world.
This history casts a dark shadow of oppression over marriage as it exists today, and if I’m truly honest, I must admit this legacy’s influence on my Heinrich-isation.
When we married we were twenty-two and I took his last name, and now I am finding it hard to reconcile my current political ideology with my unquestioning surrender to patriarchal tradition.
I identify as a feminist. I write feminist things on the internet. I like to talk with my friends about the beauty myth, feminisation of the public space, and social expectations of domestic life. And just now, after three years, I am beginning to accept my compliance in the face of a tradition that originated to control women.
When we were married we were twenty-two and, God, I was naïve. Why didn’t the women in my life warn me? Many of the older sisters in my church community are marked by their husband’s names. Many of them have children, and I must admit it identifies them all as a family unit. They are ships sailing the world’s oceans, the waters unsure but the family vessel strong and safe.
‘When we have babies,’ I told my friends, ‘our last name will unite us as a family.’ The statement, I now realise, is full of normative assumptions: that we will want children, that we will be able to have children, that his name is the best to unite under. But why didn’t my friends whisper the caution that embracing his name is a quiet statement that he is more important? That his family name is the one that must be perpetuated? While the politics in my church can be progressive, for many, personal politics are not.
My auntie asked me, ‘Why take his name?’ and I now know the reason is because everyone else takes their husband’s name. I didn’t care enough to question the status quo. But back then, I told my auntie that Schebella is the surname of my father’s family, of people who are kind but who work in banks and wear neatly ironed shirts. Schebella wasn’t my identity. I told her that I associate myself more with the Omer clan; my Mum’s side who are curly-haired and creative and hold chaos in their bellies.
She asked me, ‘Why not change to Omer, then?’ And I laughed. I laughed because I was so used to the concept of passing down the namesake of our fathers that the concept of adopting a mother’s name was preposterous.
One day in the early 2000s, my mum made my dad a cup of coffee when he arrived home from work. As she sipped her milky tea, she told him, ‘I’m thinking of changing back to my birth name.’
‘I was shattered,’ Dad said when I asked him about it. When they married in 1984, he felt neutral about whether she kept her maiden name, or changed to Schebella. She chose the latter.
‘It was just kind of the norm,’ Mum said to me in her defence. ‘Some people didn’t, but I chose to, and I think the reason I chose to is because it seemed that when we have children that everybody would have the same name.
‘I didn’t really think about keeping Omer. I was about the same age as you are now, when I got married, and I didn’t think about the repercussions. It was just like, “Yeah, whatever.”’
Mum’s raised consciousness of feminism in her mid-forties brought her to reconsider her surname.
‘I don’t think I would do the same now. Because it is giving up something of yourself.’
Dad was hurt. ‘We had discussed it before we got married, and I was okay if she kept her name, or she hyphenated it. But twenty years down the track, it felt like a rejection of me.’
‘He just bristled,’ Mum said. ‘I didn’t see it as a rejection of him, more of an embracing of me. But when I looked into it, he was so anti changing my name back. I guess one of the things that stopped me from going ahead and doing it, besides laziness, really, is I didn’t want to cause trouble. I didn’t want to make a fight.’
Dad’s objection was about more than the personal rejection; he sees their shared name as symbolic of what they’d built in decades of being together.
Even after just three years of being a wife, I can see this for myself. Marriage is a daily commitment, a choice to love your partner again and again and again, despite the fact he never folds his laundry and doesn’t like it when you leave teabags in the sink and sometimes you want to escape to a seaside tower and be by yourself forever. Daily choices of generosity and service over selfishness, of love in action, creates something together. It builds something: a family, a partnership, founded on kindness, laughter, acceptance and truth. Like a house, you have constructed it together; you live in it, and it can’t be easily dismantled.
And in some ways you are born anew when you step up to the celebrant at the end of the aisle, holding hands in front of a bevy of friends and family. Because a healthy marriage is wrapped up in mutual sacrifice and compromise, and decisions can no longer be made with only one person in mind. You can never forget yourself, forsake your true self, but marriage is a commitment to pursue selflessness in the name of love. And this new identity, this new life, can be symbolised by the adoption of a new name.
In many cases, women are the ones who ‘give up something of themselves’; men are not expected to lose an element of who they are to encompass their wives.
Ladies, our names will become dust. Our husband is the sun. We are the moon. We are not allowed to shine so bright.
When we were married we were twenty-two and at 9pm the bouncy castle was being deflated. My new husband and I hadn’t yet bounced together; we sent a messenger (a sister-in-law) ahead to the attendant, who kindly re-inflated the rubber castle for us. Hand in hand, we ran across the gentle lawn, up stone steps lit by tea lights. The night air smelt of eucalyptus and promise. I kicked off my cheap, gold ballet flats, S yanked at his polished cowboy boots. We flung ourselves around like children in the red and gold castle, our heaving breaths and relentless, exhausting laughter lit by a blinding floodlight. His sisters joined us. His groomsmen joined us. My girlfriends jumped on me. Everything was wrapped up in the magical celebration of creating a new life together. The euphoria of a new self with a new purpose eclipsed any critical nature, and the uneven balance of name-taking was unseen. I didn’t notice the system that expects women to adopt their husband’s name, the reversal of which is perceived as emasculating. I was blind to the implied power imbalance.
I have decided I won’t change my surname back to the one I was given when I emerged from my mother, slippery, a tuft of curls on my head. I have built a modest name as a writer under Heinrich, and also because the paperwork is enormously irritating (I only updated my driver’s licence after our third anniversary).
So I will keep Heinrich, the name that fits like a too-tight boot. It will be a reminder of my own passivity to a patriarchal tradition, of my ignorant acquiescence to the implicit ‘way it is’. May it be my eternal lesson to always question what is expected of me.