On Choosing a Name

4464205726_662b4d3ce2_bby Beth Burrell

Long before Adele had my ear, and she’s had it a lot  lately, Carly Simon did. Worried as a college senior that I’d one day be swallowed up by marriage and lose my identity, she sang my truth in her breakout hit, “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Would Be.”


You say we’ll soar like two birds
through the clouds
But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf
I’ll never learn to be just me first
By myself

It was a real, but bleak picture of marriage, ‘couples clinging and clawing, drowning in love’s debris.’ I worried marriage was the road to ruin. Everything I believed told me that women were owed the same choices and chances as men, and marriage didn’t seem the ticket. I was headstrong, and terrified – of what I might become, and worse yet, what I wouldn’t.

Five years later, I was married, and three years after, a mother. Everything I thought I knew was re-written day after day. I thought I could do it all, though days passed when I felt I barely did anything. But one thing that stayed the same? My name.

I’d made the decision when we married to keep my maiden name (I hear now that ‘birth’ name is used too). In any case, I knew I wanted to keep my name. It was my name. And by the time I married in 1987, I was a journalist with a byline I didn’t want to lose. About this, I have no regrets. But it isn’t lost on me that I kept the name of one man (my father), while not taking the name of another man (my husband).

When our children came along in the early ‘90s, we opted to give them my husband’s last name as their last name, and my last name as their middle name. And about this latter choice, I do have some regret. My kids know this. I’ve told them they have my blessing if ever they want to change their middle names – my older two even have the same initials. I think of the wonderful relatives whose names we missed carrying down.

Somehow this subject came up over Thanksgiving. As some of these decisions draw nearer for my kids (none are married), they ask why I did what I did, and how I came to be where I am. We were talking about the choices that generations of women faced 50 or 60 years ago, the ones I faced 30 years ago and the ones now facing my two daughters, ages 23 and 18. My older daughter, now working full-time, said she’d recently shared with colleagues that her mother had kept her last name and that it was her middle name (also that my dad had not given me away at my wedding). They cheered this.

Not everyone does. I understand this, and thankfully with age, I appreciate women who’ve made other choices. Spending years in my kids’ schools volunteering, I often had to identify exactly who my kids were since our names were different. Sometimes I confess feeling a bit like the odd one out, like in the game: what’s wrong with this picture? In my quest to stay an individual while married, had I set myself apart from my family? (I found myself taking solace when I’ve taken our pets to the vet and they’re given Burrell as their last name).

As fate and my choices would have it, I became primary caretaker at home. I never expected this, but there it is. I can’t begin to articulate all the how’s and why’s here, but I’m grateful to have had the choice and somehow between my husband and me, to have made it work. Needless to say, it wasn’t without trade-offs.

Perhaps somewhere in my 20-something unconscious mind, I knew the odds of this choice were good. So my worries about the repercussions and my fear of being ‘caged’ were perhaps well-founded. Maybe that’s why I clung to my name. I needed some daily reminder that here I was, that no matter what I was doing or not doing, it was me, me doing it.

I feel somewhat comforted listening now to Adele on her new ‘25’ album, sing of her regrets in “Million Years Ago”.

I know I’m not the only one
Who regrets the things they’ve done
Sometimes I just feel it’s only me
Who never became who they thought they’d be.

Really, Adele? And to think I don’t even know your last name.


Beth head shotBeth Burrell is a journalist who has worked primarily in daily newspaper reporting and in school communications producing parent newsletters. She currently freelances from her home in Merion, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia.



Image: Hello, my name is anonymous by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

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One thought on “On Choosing a Name

  1. Beth,
    I love that you wrote about this. The decision of whether to change my last name was a challenging one for me as well, and I wrestled with it for a while. But in the end I decided I wanted to share a last name with my children, and even now that I’m divorcing, I don’t regret making that change. Of course I respect and understand why women make different choices. I just wish we had a system like Sweden where upon marriage, both individuals make a brand new, unified name.

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