My name is new (to you), but I’m still here: Marriage, divorce, and what we call ourselves
When I told the staffer at the window in the social security office that I needed to change my name, he smiled. “Got married?” he asked.
None of your business, I thought. “Divorced,” I said.
He froze in his chair and fixed his eyes on me. He slowly tilted his head sideways while he stared, as if I was someone rude he was saving up to describe later in the breakroom. I suddenly understood the literal meaning of someone pursing his lips in disapproval.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I said.
My name has been a sore spot since my engagement at age 22. One of the first things that made my fiancé unaccountably furious was my plan to use my given surname as an informal middle name, while legally taking his surname for all personal and professional purposes. He saw my wish to go by “Alaina Johns Mabaso” instead of simply “Alaina Mabaso” as an insult to his natural primacy in the relationship as a man.
Years into the marriage, the topic still provoked heated disgust from my husband every time he thought about it. Back then, I was so focused on pleasing everyone by getting and staying married that I wouldn’t have known a red flag for abuse if you had draped it over my lunch.
I’m not sure why I didn’t cave in on the subject, when I would punish and diminish and silence myself in so many other ways in the coming years, as his unpredictable fits of anger got worse. Maybe my choice was some kernel of the person I’d become.
When I wrote cards to people from the two of us, he would often refuse to sign them himself—but then would be annoyed if I signed the card for both of us with my name in front of his. He said people would think that he was not the head of our household, and that would embarrass him.
Meanwhile, adapting to his name carried special challenges for me. I am white and he is not, and I was born in the U.S. and he was not. We lived in the U.S., which (let’s face it) is a flagrantly racist and nationalistic place.
In general, U.S.-born Americans are not good with names. The tiniest hint of foreign flavor in a name makes their eyes squint and their faces tighten with anxiety. If you add to that the sense that the name of the person in front of you does not seem to match the color of her skin, you can almost smell the brain circuits smoking.
My married name had three syllables in it, and six letters: “Mabaso.” But ninety percent of Americans (especially white Americans) hearing it for the first time would cringe as if I had just addressed them in a foreign language and expected them to answer fluently. Every time someone else needed to take my name, from the pharmacy to the bank, I had instructions ready.
“My last name is Mabaso, and I’ll spell it for you. ‘M’ as in ‘mary’; ‘A’; ‘B’ as in ‘boy’; ‘A’; ‘S’ as in ‘Sam’; ‘O.’ Ma-ba-so.”
Then, the question.
“That’s an unusual name! Where are you from?”
I waited to see if their deep-down need to define and demonstrate my apparent other-ness would outweigh any embarrassment of overstepping propriety.
“But where are you from? What’s your ethnicity?”
Ever since I got engaged, my name (perhaps because of those differences between my spouse and me) has been a topic of unbridled interest among my acquaintance.
First it was whether I was going to take my husband’s name, and no matter what the answer was, someone was going to be unhappy.
If I didn’t take the name, I thwarted honorable tradition (and I know plenty of married women who suffer routinely in American bureaucracies because they do not have the same name as their husband, or their children).
If I took the name, I flew in the face of feminism.
I tried to take the middle ground by using my given name as a middle name, and my husband was furious.
I began building a decade’s worth of bylines under my married name—my first-ever professionally published piece, in a Philly newspaper, was by Alaina Mabaso. Since then, I’ve written (on average) at least 200 articles a year since 2007. I blogged on a platform branded with my name for nine years, attracting thousands of readers. My name was my Twitter handle and two of my primary work e-mails.
Professionally speaking, changing my name wasn’t a simple matter of notifying my office and changing my e-mail signature. Could I write professionally for ten years under one name, and then switch to another one? Would that confuse and inconvenience all my sources, editors, and readers—not to mention the future editors, clients, or readers who might go looking for my work and come up empty, because I have no history as “Alaina Johns”?
My name was distinctive. It was my professional brand, built over many years. So that, in part, is the answer to why, more than two years after my divorce was finalized, I still had my ex’s name. I had to explain this all the time, because people never stopped asking me.
I still get frequent nightmares in which I relive aspects of my married life, and nightmares about marriage in general. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t touch bridal showers with a ten-foot Cuisinart attachment. Wedding ceremonies still make me tearful and panicky. I sit as close to the back as I can get. Nowadays, more of my friends seem to be heading for divorce than for the altar (hello, mid-30s), and this only increases my bitterness about marriage.
The scorched earth of your brain is a strange place after you emerge from years of verbal and emotional abuse from a spouse. Recovery is not a straight line. I wondered if saying my ex’s name every time I called my insurer or scheduled with my accountant is a form of daily micro-trauma on its own, miring me down when I was trying to make a new life. I wondered if my ex’s stubborn offense over putting his name first in all things was still hanging around my psyche, whispering to me under my dread of switching the name on all my bank accounts, IDs, W-9s, bylines, and social media accounts.
And what would taking my given name back accomplish? It’s my dad’s name, which he and my aunts and my grandmother got from my grandfather, after my grandfather got it from his father, and which my dad gave to me and my brother and my mom (who gave up her father’s name). When all your practical choices are the name of a man in your family, does it matter which one you use?
Why do the conventions of marriage restrict us this way?
A man who yelled at me in the Philadelphia vital records office helped me realize our marriage traditions aren’t the real problem.
I was submitting a form to request a duplicate birth certificate, having misplaced my original following the divorce and several moves. When I walked into the grim little office, took a number, and found a seat in a plastic row of chairs facing the service windows, the man sitting next to me asked if I had brought cash.
I looked at him without answering. “Because you need a check or money order. They don’t accept cash fees anymore,” he went on.
I had called ahead and knew this. My checkbook was in my purse, but I didn’t feel like I owed this info to anyone else.
“Thanks for the tip,” I said.
The man looked annoyed when I didn’t say more.
“Are you here to pick up your documents? Or are you filing a request?” he asked.
I looked at him. Was he wearing a badge or uniform? Why was he asking me these questions when instructions were writ large on posters around the room? Why was he interested in whether I was carrying cash or picking up documents?
“Do you work here?” I asked.
It was a mistake. His anger propelled him out of his chair. I was disgustingly rude. He couldn’t bear to sit next to someone so rude. He stomped across the room, took another seat, and continued to yell at me in the otherwise quiet space.
I sank silently into discomfort that was as frustrating as it was familiar. This is what happens when a strange man I don’t want to talk to approaches me, and I don’t answer him exactly the way he’d like. I don’t know how many times I have hurried away from men shouting insults and curses at me until I can get around the next corner, because I said “Leave me alone, please” when they propositioned me or demanded I smile for them.
It was fitting that this happened again while I was trying to get my birth certificate (in case I needed the document for my legal name change). You could call marriage the problem. But it goes so much deeper than that. The license those men have to yell at me is the same license I lack to figure out my own identity and my own name, on my terms and my own schedule, without years of demands and questions from other people who must define me (and every woman) in relation to someone else.
Now, as I finally talk to friends and colleagues about my choice to go back to “Johns,” many of them say they were surprised I didn’t do it a long time ago. They can’t understand why I hung onto the name for so long. As if it’s all so simple to remake your whole life, right down to your name.
Single, married, divorced, your dad’s name, your husband’s name, your ex’s name—the feeling of always standing on shifting ground, not belonging to yourself, always disappointing someone, the face behind a Social Security office window tilting in scorn because I am not a newlywed: that’s being a woman in America.
From here on out, I’m going to be a woman named “Alaina Johns.” Someone gave the name to me. Now I’m choosing to take it back, for better or for worse. And go on from there.
Below is an added bonus. If you notice a woman has changed your name and you're wondering if it's your business to know why, consult this handy flowchart. I wrote it, and it was created by my good friend Thomson Kao.