My last name is a Romanized monstrosity hailing from a place that was once the armpit of Armenia. In speech, it tramples everything in its path like a Mongol horde on a medieval pillage.
No woman in her right mind would hold on to it after marriage. On an annual basis, I probably spend hours repeatedly spelling it for people. I order pizza under the name "Smith." It's a nightmare on the radio. Rather than attempt to spell it, listeners to my show on WBT often describe me when they send comments to the management, which no doubt makes them cringe.
And then there's the name's history, which has a dark side. The Catholic Church lists the earliest historically known Servatius, later canonized as Saint Servatius, as an Armenian relative of Jesus and St. John. He's credited with bringing Christianity to the Netherlands in the Fourth Century, largely through his zeal for persecuting -- the Vatican prefers the term "prosecuting" -- Arians who disagreed with him. Another numbskull, Dr. Robert Servatius, did the generations of Servatiuses after him the favor of zealously defending Adolf Eichmann at the Nuremburg trials, which apparently also made quite an impression on generations of Jewish people. That occasionally makes for an awkward moment at social gatherings when I attempt to explain that the distant branch of the family he came from fell off the tree so long ago that no one can say for certain where it was originally attached.
Now's my chance to ditch "Servatius," to kick it to the curb, to be Mrs. Tara Killian. It's a beautiful name, and it could be all mine. There are lots of great reasons to do it, even if I kept Servatius professionally and took the Killian name legally. Problem is, I just can't bring myself to do it. I left the question open in my mind for a long time. I tried to approach it logically and rationalize my way into it. I've felt selfish for the dread I feel when I contemplate letting it go.
But I can no more cast it aside than I could lock the door of a house my family had lived in for generations, hand the keys to someone else and casually walk away without a backward glance, as if it meant nothing to me. A lot of people can, and that's fine. But I'm one of those who'd pour her last cent into keeping that house, even if doing so made no rational sense. Like that house, this name is my link to everything I treasure most in my life up until this point. It's my shared link to those I've loved the most from birth and those who came before them and made them who they were. It's because I'm so family-oriented that I can't just cast my name aside like yesterday's garbage.
But I'm apparently part of a shrinking minority on this issue. A Harvard study published in 2004 showed that just 13 percent of married women kept their maiden names in 2000, down from 23 percent a decade earlier.
The feminists on the Lucy Stoner League Web site (Stoner was the first American woman to keep her name after marriage) say a paternalistic society is still pressuring women into assuming the identities of their husbands, into subjugating their identity to his. There may be some truth to that, but they are missing a big part of the picture.
Now that it's acceptable -- and increasingly expected -- for women to have jobs outside the home and to do the things men do, most women probably don't feel the need for a big feminist showdown over the name-change issue. What's influencing these women, I bet, is the same thing that made this such an agonizing decision for me -- the flicker of hurt across my fiancé's face, quickly masked, when I first told him that I wanted to keep my name.
For much of the male population, their name isn't some superior identity they're forcing on their wives, but a thing of great value to them that they are offering only to you. Turn them down, and they take it as a powerful rejection, even if it wasn't intended that way.
Until now, I had no idea how charged this question is for most people, particularly for men. I figured we'd settled this as a society in the 1980s and 1990s when we started hyphenating everything. But apparently we haven't. This is a politically correct society, and none of the men who've asked which name I'll take have condemned my choice. But that surprised flash of disapproval that streaks across their faces before quickly disappearing tells me all I need to know about what they really think, and that my estimation in their eyes had just taken a hit.
A 1997 study of 10,000 men found that the overwhelming majority, regardless of race, income, religion or political affiliation, viewed women who kept their surnames as more likely to work and less likely to attend church, enjoy cooking or make good wives or mothers. Ouch.
That this old-fashioned quirk still exists in our society, and that the pressure on women to conform to it is so strong, is a rarity today.
Despite that, I'll keep on working, cooking and spelling S-E-R-V-A-T-I-U-S for people for a long time to come.