An exploration of surnames, beliefs and actions.
I married my wife on May 29th, 2016. And as of that day, I have legally changed my name to match hers.
This decision was made over many months and many, many conversations. I share this story so that others can explore how I felt throughout the process on their own time, because I’m sure it will scare the shit out of many as it definitely has for me.
The Short Story
The brief explanation of why goes like this:
- She hadn’t considered changing her last name from Broberg
- I felt strongly about our family having a shared surname
That’s it. I proposed my name change to hers.
The Long Story
Life decisions can be simple, but it wasn’t in this case. The longer story centers around the ambitious goals of alignment between my beliefs and my behaviors.
I believe in the symbolism of a family unit — with common names and no ambiguity to them. The Smith’s. The Jones’. The Williams Family. There’s comfort in the simplicity here: an age-old convention that signifies a family unit. I like it.
I also believe in what Judaism has taught me about family. I was born to two Jewish parents and loosely raised as such. My bris, bar mitzvah, the occasional seder; an attempt to avoid the deliciousness that is pork. None of these traditions really hit home for me, but the bigger theme of it all did. Judaism is a shared history that cannot be undone by name changes.
I also believe in equality of the genders, best explained by feminist minds throughout the years. I learned it early on and it stuck with me (my mom was a bra-burning NYC hippie) and my belief grew as I studied. I was forever changed by a college course that explored how gender influences everyday concepts. I fell in love with the empathy Simone de Beauvoir taught me. I recognize a world that reinforces the male gaze. I see a history that revolves around a man’s worldview. For all these reasons and more, I want to be part of a gender-equalizing future.
But that’s all background to a more immediate need. My now-wife and I got engaged and we talked about the name thing. I proposed options.
Honestly, if our last names didn’t sound like shit hyphenated (Brender-Broberg is a mouthful), we would have done that. It’s just not in the cards for us. So what then — become “The Brenders” as is customary? She felt, more so than I, that a name was part of identity. I respect that. I felt strongly about considering unconventional approaches. Changing to a neutral last name? Wasn’t our thing. So I proposed another choice: why not change my last name? What a cool idea. There are some immediate wins by doing so:
- It aligns with my beliefs (creates a family unit, defies gender norms)
- It puts an idea (her and I are equals) into action (equal consideration for who’s last name we take)
- I like that it sounds more Jewish (bonus)
Let’s go with that. We agreed.
After the decision was made, though, my excitement turns to fear. It hit me, hard: what am I giving up? Who am I distancing myself from by doing this? My last name is of great importance and unimportance and I haven’t explored all the pieces just yet.
We spoke about the pros and cons for a good 6 months. My certainty waxed and waned throughout. I lost count of how many times she asked “are you sure?” during the process. I made list after list. Here are a few of the major notes:
Con. I fear it causing pain to my Brender family.
My family has not been the strongest unit of measure in my life, but it’s been a beautiful one nevertheless. My immediate family puts in effort to stay in touch. My extended family is distant but reachable. As the wedding day got closer, I went into a panic. I feared it would cause pain to my loved ones. Will my father feel ashamed? Will my brother feel disowned? Will my aunts and uncles still see me as family?
Con. I fear I’m shoving myself into another’s family tree.
My father-in-law has two daughters. I just married the oldest. Is it presumptuous to take on their name as my own? Is it fair to their family?
Con. I fear what would happen in a divorce.
The idea of changing my name back to Brender if the worst were to happen is a particular kind of pain. I wouldn’t be the first in my family — I have a long line of divorces in my family tree — but I would be the only one with a blog post behind it. It’s scary and it’s worth stating it as such, even though I will work hard to make it a word I never use again.
Pro. It aligns with my belief on equality.
By all fair observations, we look like a classic gendered couple. I pursue the stereotypical male breadwinner role that I’ve always wanted to pursue. My job moved us across the country, away from her family and job, for my career. All these observations are fair, but not the full story. She wanted a change of pace, which our new city offers. She wanted to own a house, which we could afford after the move, with her savings and my job change. I do the dishes in our house. We share most everything else. The outside view looks divided by gender, but this view is inaccurate by the way we live our lives. But looks, whether shallow or not, tell you something about the actions taken. Changing my name is a significant way to show I believe her to be my equal.
Pro. It sounds more Jewish.
It’s funny to say, but there’s history here. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and all it has taught me. That heritage is not tied to the name though. To the best of my family’s research, my last name is a fake, purchased by people escaping persecution at a time of immense hatred. So while my surname leads somewhere between the trenches of one war and camps of another, it’s incredibly likely that it’s not mine anymore than any other. The people, the heritage, and the history is mine. No name will change that.
Pro. It’s consistent with my view of family.
I think of how my family has always extended beyond last names. I was raised in part by my stepmother. We shared no blood and no name — she and my father didn’t marry until a good 10 years into their dating — but she parented me in ways only a mother can. My mother has married again and she is no less my mother with a different last name. My sister is still my sister no matter her last name. Shared experience and shared effort determine family, not names. Is that inconsistent given all this about a family unit? You bet. I can’t explain it all away, but I do see creating a new generation of humans with a person to be a slightly different concept of family than staying in touch with the family you have at birth. You may not agree.
Time for Action
Pro, con, con, pro. The list is not as important as the feeling and I feel this course of action is the right one for me. Officially, my name is Matthew Brender Broberg. So that’s my story. It’s a story I can be proud of.
I have slowly shifted things online to match my new name. I will enjoy my nickname of “Brender” in a totally new way.
This all comes down to a conversation about alignment between beliefs and actions. Stating “I believe” is powerful, influential and important. Acting is infinitely more so. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I hope it inspires other men to consider a name change. I know a name change alone will not bring about gender equality. The name change is a small part of a life-long goal that puts equality into practice everyday.
I love the outside view of it, too. I imagine a future where I “make it” as a technology business executive, making reasonably absurd quantities of money and leading hundreds or even thousands. And I’ll do so with my wife’s last name.
Interesting reads to follow: