MIDWAY: Married but not Mrs

Once upon a time they annoyed me. Later they amused me. Now, nearly 20 years on, they perplex me. I’m talking about the Christmas card envelopes that come addressed to “Mr and Mrs Smith” or, even more insultingly, “Mr and Mrs Gary Smith”. Because, you see, I’m not Mrs Smith. Never have been, never will be.

I am married to a Mr Smith; I married him in 1988. I made one point crystal clear at the reception. I would not be taking Gary’s surname. He followed it up with a similar assertion. He wasn’t planning to be Gary Moorhead. Apart from anything else, he said, it made him sound like a second-division football player.

It wasn’t the aesthetics of name-changing that bothered me, it was the principle: because the tradition of taking a woman’s surname away from her on marriage has its origins in a time when we were considered a man’s property (the same thing used to happen to slaves). I didn’t, and don’t, regard myself as anyone’s property. I know the irony here: that my surname is a man’s anyway, because of our patriarchal history. But to me it was all about identity. Sure, my surname was my father’s; but I’d lived with it for 25 years and made it my own. I wasn’t prepared to change my identity overnight, just because I’d met the man with whom I’d decided to share my life and have my children.

My decision has always struck many of my relations — and some of my friends — as eccentric. A few have ignored it (hence those Christmas cards addressed to Mr and Mrs Smith); others said I’d never stick with it. Some people told me it was OK to keep your name for work, and OK to keep it before kids, but for your “private” life, and once you were a parent, it was simply too complicated. Well, wrong, wrong, and wrong again! Keeping your own name — even if you go on to become a mother of four, as I did — is simple, provided you stick to your guns.

The funny thing is that, 18 years after getting married, I value the choice I made more than ever. There were, turns out, pluses I couldn’t have foreseen at 25. One is that other people take their cue about who you are and who you want to be from you. Keeping your surname makes a statement about who you are and how you regard yourself within a marriage.