Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Identity Crisis

Names are funny things. They can define you, without you even realizing it. They can tie us to the past, or make us hopeful for the future. Though never married, I've had my share of identity crises in my lifetime. For example, while my friends and family call me Jo, that's not actually my full name. I go by my full name at the office. Which tends to make my work friends in social situations very confused. Last week I went to a happy hour where a co-worker introduced me by my full name to his wife. She gave her name and I replied "Jo, nice to meet you". Enter weird look on co-worker's face.

And then there are those pesky middle names. The ones that parents seem to use to make some sort of tribute. Mine was to my father. My middle name is the feminine version of his name. A constant reminder of his absence in my life.

Maybe some of you even started life with a first name other than the one you use now. My mother and aunt (twins) were born Elizabeth and Dana. But after adoption, their first names were changed as well as their last.

Shakespeare said "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Now, that may be true. But one has to wonder if we would have as much of a fondness for them if they were called some hideous-sounding name. A name doesn't have to define us, but it's hard to make a case that it doesn't affect us.

Those that follow Kabbalah have placed such an emphasis on a name that there are websites dedicated to helping you find out if your name is right for you, along with helpful resources on making the change legal. Now, with all the celebrity press on Kabbalah, I'm inclined to think they're all nutters. But I can understand how changing your name could change your perspective. There are also a multitude of websites dedicated to helping you decide how to change your name (or not) when getting married. It's not unusual for a woman to keep her maiden name professionally, and to use her married name socially. I suspect it's a way to keep these parts of you separate; to maintain two distinct identities. The loving wife and mother. And the woman who will kick your ass in the office.

Like everyone, I was born with a last name. This was the last name of my father, and my mother who married him shortly after she got pregnant. It is the legal last name I have now as an adult. But it wasn't always that way.

In the late 70s and early 80s, last names didn't count for too much until you went to school. By the time I entered kindergarten at four my mother and father had become divorced, my mom had met my step-father (though hadn't married him yet), and we'd followed him to southern California from up north. And so I began school with my mother's maiden name.

A couple of years later my mother married my step-father and all of my school, medical, and other records began to reflect his last name. It was this name that I carried with me from childhood through high school. Me, my mom, my step-father, my sister, and my brother. We were a famiy. Neatly packaged with one last name. I didn't always feel like I was part of the inner-family-circle. Being seven and eleven years older than my siblings made me feel more like the built-in babysitter and part-time mom (when our actual mom would take a self-imposed hiatus for days at a time). But at least I had the name.

Then, at sixteen, I reached the teenage right-of-passage that is the driver's license. "Mom, I need my birth certificate so I can get my driver's license." I have no doubt that some sort of drama ensued where she (a) had no idea where it was and (b) blamed me for not giving her any notice that I would need said document. Eventually it was located. Complete with my last name at birth. Which was not the name used on every single record I had, or the name I identified with.

"Mom, do you have the paperwork for my name change?" I quizzed delicately, hopeful to avoid another tirade. "What name change?" Interesting. I continued, but I already have a sense where this is going. "My birth certificate doesn't have the right last name. You couldn't just start calling me by another name." Baited breath. "No one ever asked for any paperwork." Right.

So, at sixteen, my options were these; pursue a legal name change to match all my records or switch my name back to "legal" last name. Which, at this point, is the name of my father who I don't actually speak to. I just wanted a fucking driver's license. At that age, I wasn't keen to pursue mountains of paperwork, so I went with my "new" legal name. There was a lot of consolation in that, while I didn't speak to my father, I was very close to all of my aunts, my uncle, and my grandparent's. I could identify with sharing their last name. And so it was.

All of this transpired around Christmas break of my junior year of high school. I returned to school that January. I think I must have gone to pick up my grades or some transcripts and gave my newly minted driver's license. "I'm sorry, I can't release these records to you. The last name is different." Shit. "What about my school ID?" I tried. "Why does your school ID have a different last name than your driver's license?" I could have tried to explained the situation, but it felt futile.

I proceeded to work with the school to change all of my records over to my legal name. I'll never forget the first day that the new name made the roll call sheets. Teachers, confused, called out the name printed on their sheet. "Here." I answered to their puzzled faces. Classmates had a good time making jokes about me getting knocked up and married over the holiday. Good times.

My only other foray into another last name was during the engagement. We had ordered some things for our new life together. I'd planned on taking his name, and it was the first time I had seen my "new" name in print. I remember it being exciting. It was like getting to grow into this entirely new person.

In the end, it wasn't meant to be. But I do look forward to the opportunity to make someone else's name part of my own. To merge our lives. To continue to build on this great life I've made for myself.

Though I suspect I may hold on to my name in the office. Just so I can feel like the ass-kicker will live on. What does your name mean to you? Hasta, sabbaticaljo

1 comment:

  1. wow, that is crazy to have to change your name unexpectedly as a teenager. Great post and I think we do sometimes let our names define us. Even though I was really young when I married, I came from a pretty well-known family, the kind who's reputation proceeded us and just speaking my uncommon last name could gain me instant credibility in certain circles. I really struggled taking on my husbands name at 21, but I did it anyway. Now, my professional name is my husbands name, and its as much a part of my identity as the old maiden name - maybe moreso, because the reputation attached to that name (at least that name when it refers to me) is all about the one I've built, while my maiden name was more about my parent's reputation.