“What should I call you?” It seems like a simple question, no? After all, I was a 36 year old woman when this question was asked by my daughter’s pre-school teacher. I should know my own name. I am about to talk with her class of four-year-olds about how important hand washing is for keeping healthy. But it turns out it is a complicated question. My worlds are colliding. I am wearing my white doctor coat at my daughter’s school. At a school where I am known as Mrs. Barrios. My work identity of Dr. Haughey is a bit of a secret here. Most of the other parents and teachers know I am a doctor, but the complicated issue of an actual name to call me is complex.
I have just spent the weekend at New York Comic Con, surrounded by superheroes and their alter egos. The costumes were magnificent, on both sides of the dyad. There were Clark Kents and Supermans, Wonder Women and Diana Princes, Batmans and Bruce Waynes and even some Cat Women and a Selina Kyle. True, there were far more of the dramatic superhero versions, but the true fans also enjoyed the subtleties of eliciting the details of the “plainer” version of their favored character.
When I married, it seemed very clear to me I was not going to change my name to my husband’s last name. My husband jokes that I just didn’t love him enough. I love him plenty and deeply, but had already gone through a strange transformation with my name. Somehow, upon starting internship I was not most commonly called “Marianne” as I had been for my whole life, but now “Dr. Haughey”. It felt a bit fake at first. The name seemed to fit me as awkwardly as that weird long white coat. The coat was clean, without coffee stains, with pockets filled with all sorts of handbooks and notes to help me actually fill the role of “Dr. Haughey”; hopefully among all those pieces of paper I would find the answer to any life-threatening questions that might arise. (This was before smartphones and Google.) I had adjusted, with difficulty, to this new name and reality by the time we married. During my fourth year of residency, which is when we married, I was turning my head when people called “Dr. Haughey” immediately, rather than not really connecting with the name. I had even published under this name, so felt odd about going through another change to my identity.
I discussed with my husband that this choice might prove more challenging once we had children, but I felt confident that we would negotiate any challenges. As the children entered pre-school and the teachers assumed I was called Mrs. Barrios, it felt awkward and unnecessary to correct them to my true legal name. So, I continued to share the name of my husband and children in this new setting for us. I grew more comfortable with my alter ego presence, but I was never sure which was the more real name, or even the more real me. Was one role the super hero, the other the alter ego? If so, it was impossible to tell which version had the superpowers. Was it when helping my daughter cry out a skinned knee and being able to hold her in a way that calmed her tears? Or was it being present in the moment I had to share bad, life altering news with a patient during a shift in the ED? When the teacher asked what she should call me, I was flummoxed.
As the four-year-old faces were turned up towards me from their seats on the carpet, excited to hear from this white-coated person they recognized, I realized there was common ground in the two names, just as there was common ground in the superhero/alter ego paradox.
“How about Dr. Marianne,” I said. I was introduced and then we started talking about washing hands to fight germs. You know, just another day for a superhero.