Thursday, August 13, 2009

What's in a Name?

I changed my surname four months after getting married. Women representing multiple generations generously offered their unsolicited opinions by stating I “caved to conformity” or was an example of feminism gone too far; how could I have waited so that long and shown so much disrespect for my husband and his family?

The reality of the situation is I did not feel like going to the Social Security office and the DMV.

Full of pre-teen angst and sure the history of this name changing ritual had roots amongst the mindset of treating and trading women as commodities, I frequently tested the tolerance of my gender-role traditionalist, hyper-religious father by proclaiming, “I am not a piece of property!” and demand to know why upon getting married I was “expected to exchange one man’s name for another?” It is unknown if the anger my father displayed was due to my obstinance or my three younger sisters being within earshot.

As I got older, I really started to love my surname; I could not be Jessica without Eiden. It was slightly odd and just rare enough that my siblings and I knew if a stranger could pronounce it correctly it was assumed they were acquainted with a member of our extended family.

On the other hand, my middle name invoked feelings of a different nature, despite it also being a family name.

Louise has been the middle name of the first-born daughter for generations on the maternal side of my family tree. It always made me cringe; mean old ladies with fierce old lady hair were named Louise. It also dumbfounded me as I have an older sister.

Years later, while discussing the choice with my then-fiancé, I decided that not only would I take his surname, I would replace my middle name with my maiden name. Quite the traditional move for this non-traditional gal.

In February of this year I found myself standing in line at the Social Security office without my morning coffee. An hour later, the clerk took my faded card, tossed it aside and asked me to sign here and here. Two weeks went by and an envelope arrived.

The whole process was so easy and effortless, not a single consequence crossed my mind. I opened the envelope and saw my new name. I shuddered. I sat. I sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed.

What had I done?

There, on a very official government document was this foreign name. Jessica Eiden Smedley. Who the hell was that? I had no idea and did not care to learn.

It felt like my past was being erased and the only person to blame was me. The irrational thoughts continued; somehow I had to return to my very expensive alma mater for the repeating of my undergrad because Jessica Eiden Smedley never went to college. I was not even sure she had the high school transcripts to submit for college admission. Who was going to tell my siblings they were down a sister? Were the numbers in my mobile telephone automatically disappearing? Is Jessica Eiden Smedley a vegetarian? A runner? Registered as an Independent?

In a matter of seconds I had reduced myself to a friendless, meat-eating, apathetic nobody trying to pass the kindergarten entrance exam by spelling her name correctly. And failing.

My husband found me crying in the dining room.

“You didn’t have to do it.”

He was right, but honoring my commitments is just another way to showcase all of my stubborn glory. No matter how ridiculous.

The following month I received rather distressing news from my best friend and was soon on an airplane bound for my hometown 3,000 miles away. During my month long stay, I spent a few nights at my mother’s house.

My parents were divorced many years ago. This shattered the family emotionally in ways that are still felt today, so to recognize the historical significance of this seemingly mundane event, one would require much more time to write than I have available as well as signed disclosures from the family attorney and mental health professionals.

It was big. It was important. It was going just fine.

Wanting a lunchtime excursion found my mother, my youngest sister, her girlfriend and myself driving downtown. I was taking my turn in a spirited conversation with my sister, which included a playful insult. Her jaw dropped and between fits of laughter she managed, “Jessica Louise Eiden! That is so gross!

“You know that is not my name anymore, right?”

“Oh, right. Jessica Louise Smedley! That is so gross!

“Actually, I took Eiden as my middle name.”

My sister continued to talk about…something. I did not hear a word because of the look on my mother’s face. She was driving so I could not get the full effect, but what I saw while in the passenger seat, was more than enough.

Her single look conveyed a level of sadness that I did not think possible from a woman that had unfairly been plagued by grief throughout her 51 years. The wind was knocked out of me and my body went numb.

Her convictions were always understated. She would not remind me that her middle name, my grandmother’s middle name and great-grandmother’s middle name were elegant protests against the unfortunate occurrences caused by the men in their lives. She would remain silent and refuse to show any vulnerability in front of her daughters.

I chose Eiden over Louise. I chose him over her.

I broke my mother’s heart.

After lunch we went to my favorite bookstore where I managed to break away from the group and locked myself in the bathroom. I sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. I just could not get it right.

Jessica Eiden Smedley has existed for six months. The petty, unreasonable thoughts have been replaced by small grins when I forget to sign “Smedley” or do not recognize my name being called. I insist upon the full version of my name because I cannot be Jessica without Eiden.

But, if anyone ever slipped Louise in there, I would not mind.

Jessica Eiden Smedley is the author of Have We Met? A foolish and preposterous blog about her foolish and preposterous life. Many thanks to Laura Parsons for her edits and kind words.


  1. Great Post Jessica

    What a fantastic first post for the community, thank you, I havent had to change my name but it has given me a lot to think about if I ever do decide to.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts

    thanks again for your post and for becoming an author here!


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  3. If men only knew how traumatic it is for us to change our names; after all, most do not change their names.

    Oh...I do wish you well on your marriage. The name changing drama was not one I cared to go through again...after I divorced almost 17 years later...I kept my married name...for many reasons, but mostly because I felt I had the right to keep the identity I had grown into.

    I was surprised by the reaction of my friends...after all what is in a name? A name I kept, not just for me, but for my son as well.

    A name signifies the willingness to be a family.

    Great posting Jessica,


  4. Thank you, all.

    Marilyn - I understand what you're saying about becoming a family unit. I'm proud to have my husband's name, but it was so hard trying to convey how confused it left me after seeing it in writing for the first time.

    Thanks again, everyone. I enjoyed sharing this piece with you and look forward to writing for this site again and reading what all the other women out there have to say!

  5. When I was married I used my maiden name with my husbands last name for a different reason. My husband and I have the same first name and middle initial. Our middle names also have 4 letters each.

  6. Very touching post, Jessica! I never thought so deep about this, because the use of family names is not common here in Indonesia. Thanks for sharing.

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