I’ll admit that I’m what you’d call the “black sheep” of my family. For years, I didn’t see myself getting married. I wasn’t too keen on having kids and I had no desire to change my last name for anyone — whereas nearly every other woman in my hometown was pregnant, married, or both by the time she was 20 (including my younger sister).
Things changed in December 2016, however, when my boyfriend (and third grade crush) proposed. We’d only been together for six months, but Joe decided to pop the question anyway. Although I felt like we were still too young to get married, I said “yes” without an ounce of hesitation. Whether this was because I wanted to please my family or because I was too smitten to think about anything besides being Mrs. Joe Britt is up for debate (but it was probably a bit of both).
Six months into our engagement, I surprised Joe by getting a tattoo of his name (first and last) on my left hip. While he was ecstatic, my conservative family was shocked, to say the least. I didn’t care what anyone thought about my new ink, but I was a bit confused by something that the woman behind the counter at the tattoo shop said to me: ”You want to tattoo your future last name on your body?”
At first, I thought nothing of her comment about my new name and responded with a quick, “Well, I’m not talking about the average Joe.” Later on, I mentioned her comment to my fiancé and his response left me speechless. He said, “I thought we’d hyphenate our last names. I’d be honored to be a Shiflett,” my maiden name.
I didn’t know what to say. Hell, I didn’t even know this was a conversation we’d be having. And the closer it got to our wedding date, the number of people asking me what I was going to do about my last name only grew.
I guess my vow of independence had finally sunk in for my family members. It took me a few years, but somehow I’d managed to convince all of them that I was my own woman. I did everything on my own, despite their words of doubt and discouragement. I successfully left my small hometown in North Carolina at 17 on a mission to live and work in New York City, where I continued to reside.
Even so, I’d grown up in a southern family and assumed no one would care about my opinion on taking my soon-to-be husband’s last name — because, in the south, there is no question or conversation about whether you’re taking your spouse’s name or not; it’s just what you do. In fact, I thought I would start an uproar should I had so much as whispered the possibility of keeping my name.
I knew that would mean paperwork and informing every publication I’ve contributed to as a writer, but for me, changing my name would seal the deal. (Like we were really married or more married, somehow.)
My friends in New York didn’t understand my decision (though their concern was mainly an issue of inconvenience: “What about your career?” “Why not just hyphenate it?” And my personal favorite, “What if it doesn’t work out and you get divorced? Think about that headache.”) They were already thinking about divorce before I could say “I do.”
To my surprise, even my mom was confused. “I didn’t think you’d want to change your name,” she told me with a shocked look on her face. “After you’ve worked so hard to get where you are now.”
But here’s the thing — changing my last name didn’t mean I would become “the property of” my partner, nor did it mean I was giving up my career or the life I’d built in the city (everyone thought I’d leave my job to return to North Carolina, which made me question whether they actually know me at all).
Sure, I’d have to contact each and every employer I’d worked with up to that point and explain why I needed my last name changed in my byline or on the masthead, but I didn’t care. What're a few more emails, right? I wasn’t turning on the feminist movement, and I definitely wasn’t submitting to a life of wifedom.
For me, changing my name was an act of love, and maybe in some ways, pride. Taking Joe’s last name meant starting a new chapter in my life and — when we got our puppy, Biscuit — a new family. We are the Britt family now — it’s just me, Joe, and Biscuit, but we are a family.
And, for the record, even if we did get a divorce, I wouldn’t switch back to my family name. Here’s why: The choice to change my name is very much how I view tattoos. Each time I experience a truly life-changing moment, I get a tattoo. Taking Joe’s name was one of those moments for me, and like the tattoo, I won’t regret it even if it ends badly. Joe has become an unforgettable piece of my life and I would never want to erase that.
It may sound silly, but whenever I make reservations or RSVP to an event, writing my last name, “Britt,” gives me that same tingle that I felt for Joe back in third grade — scared, liberated, and unconditionally in love.
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