At my friend's wedding, my boyfriend asked me if the bride was taking her new husband's name. She was, and I had mixed feelings about it. I scoffed and made a comment about ownership and Puritanical customs. Tony, my boyfriend, said, "Maybe when we get married, I can take your name."
My heart soared, and for the first time in my life, I thought a happy ending romance was possible for me. This was a game changer.
I like to joke that I went on "1 million first dates" living in New York City for a decade. At one point, I started giving my dates nicknames like Yoga Imposter, Square Pizza, The Widow's Peak and Ice Cream Pants. When I moved to Nashville and could count all my friends on half a hand, I reactivated an online dating profile. My first date was with Tony Youngblood. Could that be his real name? I Googled. It seemed to be real.
Since childhood, I have been proclaiming that I'll always be a Ciccarone. I have worn those four phonetically impossible syllables with pride, despite the human race's inability to spell and pronounce it correctly. When I taught college composition, I would write it phonetically on the syllabus: chick-ah-rone-E. Not only was it politically important for me to keep my own name, I liked it. It was original. It made for easy nicknames: Chick, Chicky, Chickster. In a New Orleans bar stall, someone wrote, "Ciccarone makes me moany." It set me apart from the rest, and all Ciccarones cling to the specter of originality.
This pride grew as I got older and my Facebook friends list became more unrecognizable. Who were all these people? The girls I grew up with were tossing out their old identities for new ones that sounded bland and ordinary. An Occhuizzo became a Couch. A Jimenez became a Russo. And the hyphenations seemed even worse. Myers-Letson. Larkin-Skell. Battaglia-Brown. These names bore no sign that these women were meeting life in the ring with their gloves on. No. I would be like my college women's studies professor and remain my very own.
But in the back of my mind, I still thought, "Ciccarone. My father's name." When did it become tradition for a woman to ditch the name of the first man in her life for the new man? And would changing my name be a betrayal of the man who first loved me? Is that just an entirely creepy thought?
Social programming be damned — I didn't plan on falling in love anyway. I used my small inheritance to move to Nashville, promising my mother I would never, ever need the money for a wedding, because there wouldn't be one.
But as I watched my friend and her husband walk through sparklers and get into their "Just Married" car, I liked the sound of Erica Youngblood more and more. As I loaded up a U-Haul again a few weeks later to cart all my secondhand furniture over to Tony's house, I began to give my newly wedded friend a little more slack.
The intellectual gymnastics, however, continued to be exhausting. I started interviewing every married woman I met. How did it feel to let the name go? Why not the hyphen? To those who kept their maiden names, did it take anything away from the symbolic bond? Was it less romantic?
I started to resent the fact that I had to make a decision at all. And although Tony's initial suggestion was charming, I don't expect him to actually do it. To complicate matters further, while he's all for me keeping Ciccarone, I wonder what his homespun Kentucky family would think if I do.
There are professional factors, too, especially here in the Google Age. An artist friend told me, "It's hard enough making a name for yourself to begin with. If you change the name, you're screwed!" She kept her original name for her professional life, and legally made it her middle name.
I hadn't previously considered this option: Erica Ciccarone Youngblood. No hyphen, and I get to nix the bland "Leigh" my parents picked out. Then I remember my grandmother's formal cursive writing on envelopes and how she always threw in my confirmation name for good measure: Erica Leigh Cecelia Ciccarone. Youngblood. This is getting ridiculous.
Tony hasn't formally proposed yet — another hard-dying patriarchal tradition — but I know the decision looms in my future. So what will I choose? I don't know, but thinking about it brings up a hell of a lot of feelings about what it (still) means to be a woman in our society.
The question of identity is one that women are well-equipped to handle, but — like it or not — the name is a question of identity. And there's no easy answer.