Adventures in Egalitarian Marriage, Part One: Mrs. Who?

“Is your husband home?”

I wasn’t prepared to answer that question.

If my neighbors’ wide, gently sloping rooftops with huge antennae sprouting out like pine branches hadn’t been enough to make me feel like I was living in the 1950s, that question totally did it. I had just been asked by a door-to-door salesman if my husband was available. Whose planet was this!? I glanced down to make sure I wasn’t wearing an apron or a baby.

This was the first of a barrage of weird experiences that have been happening for about a year and a half now. I must have finally reached the threshold at which nobody thinks I’m an undergraduate and therefore everybody thinks I’m a married woman. The two worlds could not be more different.

Husband and wife sit on the floor, dreaming of the day they can afford a new couch. The husband seems to have pawned theirs for an iPad from the future.

When I left my fundamentalist church, I expected to find a world taken over by feminists. I had no idea what that would have meant, but I was pretty sure things would be different. I thought maybe people would call me by my own name. I thought I’d be able to sign contracts without anybody asking what my husband thought.

I never thought I’d be 26 and explaining to utility providers that no, this is not, in fact, Mrs. Stuart or the Stuart residence, but they are welcome to come and hook up Mr. Stuart’s cable service tomorrow afternoon.

More and more mail has come to us addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Stuart, or the Stuart family. I don’t know who these mythical people are, since my fiancé’s mother doesn’t even share his last name. One of the strange effects of growing up in a fundamentalist community where there is absolutely no discussion of families having different names is not really what an incredibly name-centric culture we are. When my mother took my father’s name, it certainly made things simpler – but only because our culture attaches enormous importance to the ability to conveniently identify families using just one word. Even though I’ve been with my partner for five years and lived with him for more than half that time, it’s only recently that it’s become glaringly obvious to me that there’s anything surprising about being Mr. Stuart and Ms. Sierra.

Family names are suddenly everywhere to me. “Jones Family” plaques jump off the Home Depot walls and lodge themselves in my brain. I throw out heaps of junk mail addressed to whole families as though they’re individuals. As I’ve discussed before, I have no intention of changing my name after marriage. This experience doesn’t change my commitment, but it does clue me in to the incredible inertia of the family name. I’m going to have to do a lot more explaining than I expected.

I may not be married, but I sure as hell do not consider myself “single” – an idea that I’ll be exploring more as I write this series.

But for now, where does all this pressure come from? Here are the situations where I’ve bumped up (often unexpectedly) against the assumption that I must be Mrs. Stuart:

  1. Filing taxes. This gets weirder every year. If everything in our household is shared, why should it matter to the government that we’re not married?
  2. Changing our address. My fiancé and I moved recently, and had to file separate “individual” changes of address with the post office. In this case, it didn’t matter whether or not we were married. The actual requirement for filing a joint change of address was sharing a last name. Which means that we’ll have to file separately every time we move for the rest of our lives.
  3. Oddly enough, I always expect to encounter this problem when we pick up prescriptions for one another, but that’s the one case where it doesn’t happen. Go figure?
  4. Dealing with household utility providers and their sales folk. They seem to be trained to use “Mrs. Stuart” as a matter of politeness, which makes correcting them really amusing. “Am I speaking to Mrs. Stuart?” they’ll ask. “My name is Sierra. How can I help you?” I’ll respond. What ensues is five minutes of profuse, blustering apologies.

So there you have it, folks. What makes keeping your name upon marriage “complicated”? Who are the agents of this strange identity theft? The post office, the phone company, and the IRS. Maybe it’s time to write some letters.

  • Mogg

    Hi Sierra, I’ve been an occasional reader via Libby Anne’s blog, but first time commenter.

    As a female who has technically lived alone (been the lessee or owner of a house in my own right, with any house mate I might have paying me board), for something like 9 years, I have always found it amusing to play with people who make this assumption, particularly cold-callers from overseas who are breaking Do-Not-Call laws to sell me mobile phone plans or tax dodges. It goes something like this: “Am I speaking to Mrs Mogg?” “No, she doesn’t live here.” “Er… may I speak to the owner of the house?” “Speaking.” “Errrrr…… Are you Mrs. Mogg?” “No, I’m Ms. Mogg.” “May I speak with Mr. Mogg?” “No, my father doesn’t live here.” “May I speak with your husband?” “I’m not married.” “May I speak with the owner of the house?” “You’re speaking to her.”

    Generally at this stage they get confused and decide it’s not worth their time. It’ll get even more confusing when they cotton on to the fact that my partner recently moved in, my name is not his, he’s not my husband, and I’m the owner of the house but he isn’t. I’ve enjoyed the first couple of pieces of mail that have been addressed to both of us, though, especially as one of them was from my fundamentalist sister and brother-in-law.

  • from two to one

    Loved this one, of course! I STILL get tons and tons of mail addressed to Mr. & Mrs. Hisfirstname Hislastname and it drives me nuts. Even though I’ve changed it specifically more than once at some places, I STILL get this assumption.

  • Alison Cummins

    Nope, don’t have that problem.

    I live in Quebec, where since 1981 there has been no name change with marriage and where 29% of couples are unmarried anyway. People in my social circles often don’t use the words “husband” or “wife” even when they are legally married. Mail comes addressed to us individually by name, or to “occupant.”

    I think my beloved did once receive mail addressed to “Mr Cummins,” but that’s very unusual.

  • lucrezaborgia

    Some people, when they get married, create a new last name for themselves. It’s not required that your married name be one you already have.

  • Bix

    My mom kept her name, and sometimes people would call and ask for Mr. My Mom’s Last Name. She’d say “there’s no one here of that name” and hang up.

  • Whatever name you like

    The post office has a point. They sort incoming mail by surname. They don’t care about family relationships, just which surnames they have to deliver to at that address. My friend’s blended, multi-generational family had five names in use and the post office needed to keep track of them all.

  • Jayn

    I’m still trying to tie my thoughts on this together (and after five years I finally took his name this summer). The one area that’s really tripping me up is how I considered myself ‘Mrs. Smith’ even while I had my maiden name, but I doubt he would have seen himself as ‘Mr. Newell’. Hell, back in university we called one of the male professors ‘Mr. Jane Doe” as a bit of a joke, because his wife had a higher profile on campus than he did. But that was only really funny because it’s usually not done that way.

  • Karen

    Back in 1980 I thought seriously about changing my name with my marriage, and ultimately decided that I was tired of my last name being misspelled and his name didn’t lend itself to misspelling. So I changed my name. Damn, was I wrong. So I’ve endured another 32 years of people misspelling my new last name…

    Among my age cohort, I know only one woman who kept her pre-marriage last name. I worked with her husband, and we chatted about it once… and it turns out she invited no end of financial and institutional trouble (in Halifax, CA) by doing so. As far as I know, she still goes by her pre-marriage name. I’ve lost track of them with time, and never asked what last name they chose for their children; hyphenating the two names would have worked well for them.

    This naming thingy is tricky. I’d rather go by my ancestral Norwegian scheme of Karen Luthersdatter, and if we’d had children they’d be Michaelson or Michaelsdatter. It’s still patriarchal (BUZZ!), but at least women can have one name their whole lives.

  • Karen

    OOPs, even I screwed it up! It should be Michaelsen or Michaelsdatter…

  • Karen

    RE:filing taxes: my husband firmly, loudly, obsessively believes that government should get out of the marriage biz altogether. You want to have the secular benefits of what we now call marriage? File a form that declares you a civil union. You want to undo the civil union? File some forms that describe how you’re going to split up shared assets, and maybe have a court help sort out issues with children. Marriage? Divorce? Those should be religious concepts, sorted out between you, your partner, and whatever church you attend. Period. I can’t say I disagree with him, though I don’t feel strongly enough about it to monopolize dinner conversations on the topic.

  • jerry lynch

    My father was a wife-beater but this does not define him; he was in other areas a gentle and generous man, admired and loved by many. What this situation did for me was to make me a radical feminist. More on that later.

    I remember the few times the police showed up at the house and the men joked and laughed in the dinette about “hysterical women.” The police would leave, commisserating with my father. This effected me to my very core. I also recall my mother screaming my name in the middle of the night, after they had returned from “having a good time,” to protect her. At eight, when this first began for me after my older brother left, my ninja skills were naught. I us stood there either wailing or ineffectually pounding my father’s stomach to stop. He would laugh, get down to knee, put his strong arms on my shoulders, and tell me, “Someday you’ll understand, now go back to bed.” And I would.

    Perhaps understandably, for most of my life I could not relate well with men. My dearest friends and the people I wanted to be with were always women. I am definitely guilty of making them “good” and men “evil.” Only when I got into recovery for alcoholism, did I began to find men that were “not so bad.” But women remained exalted. And, strangely, that did not work well for intimate relationships with female lovers. Curious.

    All this may seem far off the point but I really am getting there.

    When the feminist movement started, I was about a century ahead of them. Or completely lost. The various subtle and gross methods of suppression of women that posed as societal norms I found absolutely abhorrent. Makeup, fashion, name-changes, chivalry, madonnas, religions, kitchens, pay grades–all of it seemed so very ugly and enslaving. Yet many women were forced to find their place in this madness. A certain maturity has entered about being feminine. There are definite differences between the sexes. But most of what the norms of society offer is not an avenue of expression; it is a loss of personhood.

    At eighteen, I was the Best Man for my older brother’s marriage. I always took Carol, his wife-to-be as a unique and formidable individual: Intelligent, strong, witty, wise, giving, and confident. She had a college degree in Art and was in her own right an accomplished artist. I was in awe. (Yes, she was also very attractive, maor for a kid my age.) This was 1964. Of course I should have known, not even thought about the fact, that she would take our last name, yet when she did it really throw me. This delineated a line in my consiousness. How this commonly held custom so bothered me at such a tender age in those times surprises me now. I was not that conscious about almost everything else in life.

    The Feminist Movement cannot hold a “cake and eat it too” attitude. Equality has a definitive path. This does not mean having a leveling macho attitude. It does not mean ripping a held door from a male’s hand and calling him, “Pig!” It does not mean that any protest or conflict against the subtle and not-so-subtle suppression of women. It means standing in the unique character of the feminine: of the heart first, amenable to change, accepting of difficulties, hating football (oops, how did that slip in?), forgiving (though not a doormat), of value (without “needed” decorations), creative, imaginative, and sexy without a price (be it flowers or first through an open door).

  • Diane

    My husband and I had to submit proof that we were married to our employer so that they could continue keeping us on the health insurance plan we’d been on for a decade or so already. There was some change in the rules or something. People who had the same last name did not have to submit proof–only those of us with different names. That really made me mad. I could have listed my brother as my husband and gotten away with insurance fraud, but I had to submit proof that I was married to the guy they’d already been insuring for years.

    Beyond that, though, I haven’t really had any problems. I actually like it when we get sales calls because we can identify them right away when they ask for “Mrs. Husbandsname” or “Mr. Wifesname.”

  • pagansister

    Having a last name that was the center for some ridicule as I was growing up, I was happy to change my name when I married in 1964. Don’t regret it—and even though I’m not ashamed of my “maiden” name, my married name is easier to live with! My daughter, who married in 2010, chose to change her name to his, but kept her birth last name as a middle name. (We didn’t give either of our 2 children middle names). I didn’t feel I lost my identity when I marred and changed my last name.