Mary Rose Calderone Haas. Seven syllables, 21 letters. It never fits all the way on a plane ticket. Situations that require me to pick three initials still cause me anxiety given my two middle names, so count me out of all trendy monogrammed accessories. My name confuses all the nurses and ED staff, and it looks rather awkward in the EMR. Yes, the struggle is real.
How did I end up with a comically long name, you ask? In September of 2014, I married my husband and found myself faced with the complex question of whether or not to adopt his surname.
Many female physicians like me find themselves in a similar position, especially when they begin medical school with their maiden names and later marry. In the US today, the majority of women do decide to change their names, but the percentage of women keeping their maiden names has risen in recent decades from 1% in the 1970s, to about 20% in the 2000s. Women who are highly educated and high earning are more likely to keep their maiden names.1 In one study, most female doctors at Harvard Medical School had plans to keep their maiden names after marriage, especially if they planned to marry later in their careers.1
Fewer decisions have caused me such a great deal of angst. After all, a name is more than just a name. It serves as a powerful symbol of identity, embedded in a web of cultural connotations and expectations.
A name carries with it both the legacy of our ancestors and a way to trace back our own achievements. Even early on into my career, I had worked tirelessly to achieve a certain level of academic productivity and a reputation intimately tied to my maiden name. A simple Google search would reveal the accomplishments I had worked hard to build during my undergraduate and medical school years – a manuscript published from my research, a leadership role I had proudly held, a regional symposium I had planned. When I considered leaving behind my maiden name, it felt as though a great treasure was at stake, the fruits of my past I hoped to protect and carry forward.
While studying intensely for exams during medical school, I would longingly imagine the sound of my maiden surname preceded by the coveted title of doctor, motivating me to achieve my goal. Medicine was my first love, and Dr. Calderone was all I had ever imagined being called.
Studies evaluating narratives of women making this decision have noted the tension they experience between the needs and interests of the self and those of the family and spouse.2 I felt this firsthand. I feared disappointing my parents, who had invested so much into my education. They openly expressed their wishes for me to carry forward our family name, especially as the first female physician in my family. On the other hand, my husband and new family viewed a name change as a sign of unity with them.
As a career-minded woman, I wondered how my decision would affect the perceptions of others, a concern that is not unfounded. One study demonstrated that women who took their husbands’ names were perceived as less ambitious and more communal than women who either kept their maiden names or hyphenated their names.3 Another study reported that women with hyphenated names were thought to be more friendly, good-natured, industrious, career-oriented, and intellectually curious, compared with the average married woman.4 These studies, although older, illustrate that a woman’s decision to change her name may very well influence others’ opinions of her.
When I considered the logistics of a name change, the thought of battling through mounds of paper work and long waits at the secretary of state overwhelmed me. The list of things I would have to change seemed endless: my driver’s and medical licenses, social security card, USMLE exams, passport, credit cards. In the words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins – “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”
After agonizing over the options for months, I ultimately decided to take on my husband’s surname, and to add my maiden name as a second middle name. Originally, I considered simply replacing my middle name with my maiden name to simplify things. However, my middle name originated from my beloved late grandmother Rose. To lose her name in mine was to let go of her legacy as a strong-willed matriarch, and I couldn’t bear to see it go. I owed it to her and to my mother to maintain and protect it.
I accepted that the change might make it more difficult to trace back my accomplishments, that it would present me with the challenge of forging a new track record of success tied to my new name, and that it would not entirely appease my parents. However, after a great deal of self-reflection about my personal beliefs and values, I realized that it made the most sense for me personally. It allowed me to honor my past while embracing my future as a new family unit with my husband. For that, seven syllables and 21 letters is a small price to pay.
Since changing my name, not much else has changed about the essence of me. I have continued to grow and develop as a woman, a daughter, a wife and an emergency physician. My relationship with both sets of parents has only continued to strengthen. I have continued to pour energy into the things about which I am passionate, and have accomplished things now tied to my new name. Although inconvenient, the name change process was less painful than I expected.
Changing your name is both a difficult and personal decision. Understand you are not alone in your struggle to decide, the conflicting tensions you may feel among the expectations of your existing and new families, your attachment to your maiden name as a symbol of your past. Do what makes you the happiest. One cannot deny the power of a name. However, a name does not define you. You define it.
- Kopelman RJ, Shea Van-Fossen RJ, Paraskevas E, Lwater L, Prottas DJ. The bride is keeping her name: a 35-year retrospective analysis of trends and correlates. Social Behavior and Personality 37.5 (2009): 687-700.
- Nugent C. Children’s Surnames, moral dilemmas: Accounting for the predominance of fathers’ surnames for children. Gender and Society 24 (2010): 499–525.
- Etaugh, Claire E., Judith S. Bridges, Myra Cummings-Hill, and Joseph Cohen. “”Names Can Never Hurt Me?”” Psychol of Women Q Psychology of Women Quarterly 23.4 (1999): 819-23. Web.
- Forbes, Gordon B., Leah E. Adams-Curtis, Kay B. White, and Nicole R. Hamm. “Perceptions of Married Women and Married Men with Hyphenated Surnames.” Sex Roles 46.5 (2002): 167-75. Web.
- Humphries, LA. Dr. Maiden Name Will See You Now. Harvard Medical Student Review. 4 Jan 2015. http://www.hmsreview.org/?article=dr-maiden-name-will-see-now
- Hamilton L, Geist C, Powell B. Marital Name Change as a Window into Gender Attitudes. Gender & Society 25 (2011): 145-175.