I pressed my name into a screen and out came a small slip of paper with a number. It was like being at the deli counter. Instead of sliced turkey, though, the workers were handing out new identities and Social Security benefits.
I should have had lunch.
Usually, waiting—for a light to change, a reply text, Christmas – is not my strength. But this time, I didn’t mind.
The ink was dry. The marriage was over. My married name felt uncomfortable now, but it had never never really fit. It was like wearing a sweater that was too tight, hoping that over time it would stretch into something more comfortable, familiar. Instead, all it did was itch.
Taking my husband’s last name was something I just always assumed I would do. Like so many other girls in class, I had matched my crush’s name with my own, scrawling “Mrs. Cutest-Boy-in-Fourth-Grade” in notebooks. My friends’ mothers had their husbands’ last names. When my mom and my grandparents caught up over Sunday coffee and gossiped, they would say things like, “You know her. She used to be a Kelly.”
But then she got married. And now she wasn’t anymore.
We planned our wedding at a time when “Future Mrs. Married Name” merchandise was a novelty and my sister bought a sweatshirt for me as an engagement gift. It was blue, with “Future Mrs. T” across the back. I tried it on, the sweatshirt and the name, and it was the first time taking a new name gave me pause. I finally felt what becoming someone else really meant.
Sara Kennedy had been with me at dance recitals and kindergarten plays; she had made her First Communion and Confirmation and gone to the prom. She had gone to college and then graduate school. She was a professor.
I put the sweatshirt on a closet shelf.
I wish I knew why I didn’t spend more time thinking about changing my name before I got married. It was 2007, not 1977. Gone were days when all the wives in our neighborhood stayed home, drinking Sanka and taking care of the house. A few of my friends had hyphenated their names or kept their last names when they got married. But taking my husband’s name was what I thought I wanted to do. Other than one half-hearted discussion with my then-boyfriend, now ex-husband, keeping my maiden name was not something I ever seriously considered. I wanted a traditional family name. Or so I thought.
It took me a month after our wedding to go to the Social Security Administration downtown to make the change. I hesitated when the woman behind the counter asked me to sign my new name. Usually, my signature was an effortless task, but now I had to think about forming each letter.
I bet a lot of people feel this way. It’s the newness of it all. I just need to get used to it.
By the time I walked out of the Federal Building, though, my doubts had taken a backseat. Driving home, my mind drifted to what this change would bring. I pictured kids and our house and our future.
But what it brought me was back to the same dingy Social Security office ten years later, clutching papers that gave me the legal right to turn back time, to take back the name that fit me better than any sweatshirt ever could.
As I began to talk to more people about my name change, it become clear that there was one question I was going to have to keep answering: “Don’t you want to have the same name as your kids?”
For me, not having the same last name as my children didn’t feel like a big deal. It had been when I first got married. Back then, I wanted a family name. But things had changed in my life; I had changed. And now, I knew that sharing a last name wasn’t what made my family a family, just like living in one house didn’t make us a family. I am always their mom, and their dad is always their dad, married or not, living in one house or two. Plus, even in ten years, there’s been a shift in families we know. Now, my children have many friends whose parents who have different last names than they do, married or not. Families look different than they did on my 1980’s street. And our names reflect that.
The digital display on the Social Security Administration’s wall flickered. There it was. My number. The wait was finally over.
The woman behind the bulletproof glass asked me for my paperwork.
“Raise your right hand,” she said.
A few tears made their way down my cheeks, but I wasn’t sad.
I was becoming myself again. I looked different than I had at 29, and I had three more kids now, but my old name still fit. There was no hesitation as I signed my last name this time, even after ten years of signing another.
I’ve thought about what I would do if I got married again, and one thing I have learned in the last few years is that I can’t predict the future. But I know I won’t change my name again. Will I care if someone addresses a Christmas card to “Mr. and Mrs. New Married Name?” No. Will I care if my children’s new friends sometimes call me “Mrs. New Married Name”? I won’t. Because in some ways, in some circumstances, that might feel right.
But Sara Kennedy is the name that feels right all of the time, regardless of circumstances or husbands. And no matter how much I change, it will change with me.
It feels good to be back.