It would have been so easy at the time of the divorce.
All I had to do was check a little box on the forms and the courts would have changed my name back to my maiden name.
Well, perhaps in a legal kind of way, but not in an emotional one.
A name is a complicated thing, isn’t it? We have little or no control over the name we are given at birth and usually we grow to accept that name. We rarely question if it is good or bad, it just IS. It was set for us and we settle into it.
When I married in 1981, I had enough of a taste of modern life to know that some women were keeping their last names after they got married. When I mused aloud that perhaps I would keep mine, my husband-to-be let me know he did not like the idea at all.
So, even though it was not exactly the last name of my dreams, I did what my sisters had done, my mom had done, and countless generations of women had done. I dropped my maiden name, took my husband’s last name and I didn’t look back.
During the divorce, I rationalized keeping my married name. Everything I had and every organization I was associated with knew me with that name. It had been thirty years. My career was built around it, my house was in that name, and all of my bank accounts and credit cards were in that name.
I considered my children, who weren’t really children anymore. My sons were 19 and 24 at the time. Their world had pretty much exploded. Would my change of name only add to their sense of confusion and loss? I wanted them to know I was still very much their mother. I wanted that identification with them that a common last name would give me.
And then there were the purely irrational reasons. Part of divorce is the division of assets-- a ruthless process of taking any and all things we had together regardless of emotional attachment and dividing them down the middle. I had the crazy thought that if I changed my name, my ex-husband would, in essence, be getting our sons.
I see now that I was in a pretty stunned state at the time and honestly, with my sons leaving for college and my husband leaving the marriage, I didn’t know who the heck I was anymore. I clung to that name because it represented who I thought was. My role as a wife and mother was connected with it. As I stood on the edge of this new life, I did not know what else or who else I was or could be. I kept the name because at least it was familiar to me, unlike the new life I was facing.
A year or so after the divorce, I reviewed my situation. I had been through some pretty intensive therapy to help me move into a new life. I had worked to understand what had happened in the relationship. I started to take on financial and household tasks that at one time I would have considered too overwhelming. I had totally renovated my house so it bore only a passing resemblance to the old one and I had moved into a new relationship.
I knew I should feel like I had moved into the future as a different person. Still, there was something that was holding me back. I thought about it. I still had that name—that name that was mine, but not really mine. It was the name given to me by someone who didn’t want to be associated with me anymore. It was a name that, well, didn’t fit me anymore. I thought about it for a long time and decided that maybe it was time to change my name back to my maiden name.
I called the only two people in the world who could have stopped me: my sons. My older son, a Sociology major and kind-of-new-age guy understood immediately and didn’t skip a beat, “Go for it, Mom,” he said.
I called my younger son, a pragmatic boy who doesn’t show his emotions readily. “Well,” he said, his voice halting and unsure, “I could have a problem with that, Mom.” I held my breath. I was sure this was the opportunity to discuss the emotional toll the divorce had taken on him. This was going to be the conversation where he expressed his true feelings. I had been waiting for this and was ready.
I went into my therapy-mom-mode. “Tell me about that,” I said, my voice soothing and reassuring. “Well,” he said, “I have you down as back-up for my rent if I ever miss paying it and if you had a different name, that could really screw it up.” I couldn’t help myself; I laughed and I assured him I would be there to pay the rent no matter what my name. “Oh, well then,” he said. “It’s all cool then.”
So I did it. I went to the courthouse and changed back to my maiden name. I was engaged to my fiancé when I did it but I explained to him that though I loved him very much, I just wanted my own name again and I intended to keep it even after we were married. He understood and was wonderfully supportive. When the papers came officially declaring that the change had been made, I was happy but I was also scared.
This was my opportunity to create myself without the pre-formed molds of wife and mother to fall into. I had gotten married when I was 21. I followed all the dictums of society and now here I was, but who was this person? This was my chance to find out again. I was scared to death that I would find out that the old Betty was not there anymore and that this new, old name no longer fit me either. Could I get back to the essence of who I was? Was that girl I once was still within me? I felt lost. Then, I found my first camera.
I was unpacking some storage boxes that I had not opened for years and years when I saw it: my Kodak Instamatic X-15.
If you are a photographer, you probably still have most of the cameras you have ever used. They become a part of you. You remember the intricacies of the buttons, the weight of the body in your hands, the sound of the shutter, and the way the viewfinder almost seems to mold itself to your eye. My mother had purchased this camera for me when I was in eighth grade. I smiled as I held it in my hands, feeling the lightness of it, the way it fit into my hands again so easily and naturally.
Then, I opened it to peer into the dark body and there, back in the hinge I saw it: my name, my full maiden name written in my mother’s handwriting. She had been afraid I might lose the camera and this was her way to assure it would be returned to me. I stood there, and knew right then and there that the essential person I am is written in my soul—it always has been.
That girl that held that camera all those many years ago was still the person who held that camera. A verse from Jeremiah jumped into my head, “ Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.”
My mother, a victim of dementia, does not speak much these days, but in this little sticker, in that ink, I heard her voice loud and clear. “Of course you know who you are. It’s inside of you. It’s always been inside of you.”
I think we all go through stages and changes in our lives that question who we are. At the time, we may confuse who we are with what we do. We may cling to old versions of ourselves because we fear we can’t create new ones or get back to the essence of who we once were before the roles and responsibilities covered it up.
Getting back to that essential being takes times and effort. You may have to look through some old boxes of thought you’ve kept the lid on. You may have to open some doors that have long been shut and you may have to peer into some pretty dark places, but that person IS there, waiting for you to come and find him or her again.
As for me? Changing my name was not easy, but I am so glad I did it. It was exactly what I needed at this stage in my life. Each time I get a credit card changed, or write my return address with my new name, I feel lighter. I feel like I've shed something that wasn't mine to carry in the first place.
This comparison might be outdated now, but with my new name it feels just like I’ve got a fresh roll of film and I’ve advanced it to number one.
I can’t wait to see what develops.