Listen to this story
After two years, I’m changing my last name back to Olson from LaFave. No, this isn’t a story about divorce. I’m still happily married and building a company together with my husband. This is a story about equality.
The End of The Line
I remember when I was a little girl, girlfriends of mine would sign their name with the last name of whatever boy they had a crush on at the time. “Jeremy is sooooo cute. Jeremy Williams, I totally want to marry him.” They’d go on signing their new signature as Mrs Jeremy Williams.
Think about this for a moment, young girls fantasizing about the day that she will replace her own identity with her husband’s name. I was never this girl. I thought this was all quite weird.
I grew up in a small town called Ijamsville, Maryland about an hour from Washington D.C. Rolling hills of farmland surrounded my home, where the only stop light was for the train that would roll through each evening. It’s a more traditional place. A place where it’s the norm for women to take their husband’s last name, that’s just sorta how things go.
Though the more time I spent out of that little town, the more I realized it’s not just the norm there, it’s the norm everywhere. We as a nation and most of the world still have deep patriarchal roots — where the descent is traced through the male lineage. According to the NY Times, only 20% of married women keep their maiden name. Even in progressive San Francisco, California, where it’s more common for women to keep their name, those families still tend to give the child the father’s last name.
Our naming system may be one of most influential threads in the fabric of our culture perpetuating a patriarchal system.
My father, Bill Olson, was one of three children, one daughter, and two boys. My uncle was gay and didn’t have children. He tragically passed away in the early nineties from the AIDs epidemic. I know my dad must have felt the pressure to carry on the family name. My father wanted a son to carry on the name. Instead, my father had four girls. And somehow we’ve created a system, where by having girls, it’s the end of the line. I can remember hearing this so vividly growing up. It’s the end of the line for the Olsons. I always felt disheartened that as a woman I couldn’t carry on my family legacy.
How utterly dispiriting that we have created a world and naming lineage where a married woman cannot carry on her family’s name and legacy. When a girl is born, we speak, feel and act as if it’s the end of the line. That she is not equal to a man in this way. Perhaps the most ironic part is that it is the woman that physically carries and births a new generation.
Taking the Traditional Path
I met my husband, Rob LaFave, when I was 18, he was 19 and we met in a leadership program at Virginia Tech. When we started talking marriage early in our relationship, I hadn’t considered what I’d do, sorta assumed I’d change my name. Fast forward 11 years — Rob and I have built two companies together, moved across the country, and after 6 years engaged we finally got married in 2013.
When the time finally arrived to make the decision for my own name, there wasn’t an easy answer. I felt personally conflicted for a while, (as I came to learn, many women do). Ten years after our first conversation about marriage I had grown up a lot and shaped my own identity.
Before our wedding, we took a 2-month long trip through Southeast Asia. We stayed for a week in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. I recall sitting at a local cafe. There I sat across from him, sticky behind the knees, the ceiling fans swirling a cool air across my face, scribbling into my journal.
“I think I’m going to write a piece on why the pre-wedding honeymoon is the way to go,” as I suck down the last few drops of my Thai iced tea.
“Really?” he says. “Why is it all that different?”
“Well, we get to work through any remaining anxieties about the wedding, like the whole name thing.”
He looks up from his book, “You’re still dealing with the name thing?”
I had to make a decision. Scribbling into my journal, I compiled a list, the good and the bad. The pros and the cons. My identity, my family connection — these things I felt I was losing. These things had been swirling around in my head, they weren’t a surprise. They were simply now on paper.
And then I wrote, “It doesn’t feel equal.” It doesn’t feel equal. That equality thing surfaced again.
We have always been a unit. Two whole people, more whole together, but always equal. Without him making the change too, it was out of balance.
I race through the list of alternatives. Keeping our own names, hyphenations, new last names.
Frustrated with no obvious solution, I step back a moment. Why am I getting married in the first place? We’ve been together 10 years. We’re practically married. Why did we decide to get married anyway?
Family. Marriage for us is about a union that will allow us to enter into a new phase for us. Family. Creating a family unit. A family united by one name. We must pick one name and we did.
Changing My Mind
May I introduce, “Mr & Mrs Rob LaFave!” My heart sunk. Wasn’t I supposed to be happy in this moment?
I decided to take his name in the name of love and family. But looking back now, after making the change, that wasn’t enough. You often don’t know what something will feel like until you actually live it. This was the way for me and my name. But everyday with my new name felt incongruent. For the first year, I tossed it up as newness, like breaking in a new pair of shoes.
I learned during this time that you may do something for love, but if it’s incongruent with your own values, it will resurface. It will not go away.
For the two years after our wedding day, the examples piled up. The awkward transitioning of social handles and my public identity, not being able to recognize high school friends social profiles after they’d changed their names, and watching one of the most powerful women in our country Hillary Clinton, not using her maiden name as her last name. It’s Clinton for President, not Rodham. Women’s own identities were disappearing. In fact, the concept of removing a maiden name from your public identity is so engrained in our culture, it’s the top contender for a secure password reminder at banks and in online forms. When I came to better understand our own history, as recently as the 1970’s, state laws in the US still mandated that a married woman needed to use her husband’s name to vote, open a bank account, or get a passport.
Changing My Name
After two years with my new last name, LaFave, I knew for sure it was time to turn back. I shared this with Rob, and he was understandably hurt.
But I asked him to see it from my perspective, would you ever change your name to my name? “No”, he said. “I wouldn’t”.
So together we came up with an option we hadn’t considered the first time around (inspired by our friends Ted & Fiona). A name that celebrated our individuality but also showed our shared commitment to this new family we had created by joining together in partnership. We’ll each keep our last name and take the other’s name as our middle name.
Emily LaFave Olson & Rob Olson LaFave
Choosing this more equal naming structure to me is symbolic of why we choose partnership at all. Man, woman, gay or straight. We choose someone to heal us, to help make us whole. We are looking to incorporate within us what the other person has, the masculine and the feminine. Although I believe our society has valued the masculine over the feminine, making it difficult for many men to accept this.
For this reason, Rob and I have chosen a shared naming convention, one that symbolizes the equal impact we have on each other by merging our lives. As for our children’s last name, we’re not sure yet what the path will be. We have some ideas, and if you have pursued this path yourself, we’d love to hear what’s worked, from parents who have lived it.
My hope is that for any woman that tried her married name on, like a jacket, and finds that it doesn’t quite fit the way she thought it would, that this be encouragement to return to your maiden name. You have the freedom to change your mind if you want. It’s a choice you have.
But it is just that, a choice. Many women have shared with me, that they wanted to take their husband’s name, it was a chance for a fresh start, a chance for reinvention. More power to you if that’s what’s best for you.
My hope is that my future children will look back at this time that their parents were willing to go against the status quo to choose gender equality. And they’ll look back with novelty, oh what a time, when men and women weren’t equal. Because by the act of changing our names, symbols to represent equality, we were one part of changing the world to be just that. Equal.