When I was 34 years old, I legally changed my last name.
I wasn’t getting married. I wasn’t taking back my “maiden” name after a divorce. I wasn’t getting rid of a long-hated name, something that was embarassingly similar to words you’d find scribbled on stalls in a middle school bathroom.
I was a single woman, and I wanted to name myself. So Jane Berry became Jane Marcellus.
At 34, I had not ruled out getting married one day. But I wanted to establish, once and for all, what my name would be permanently. More than that, I wanted a matrilineal name. Marcellus was my maternal grandmother’s last name before she got married. I had nothing against my father, who died when I was 22, but I was against a naming system that kept young women from claiming their own identities on their own terms.
I had been thinking about this decision for a long time. When I was 5, a neighbor named Peggy told me that “Berry” was just a placeholder. I wouldn’t learn my “real” name until I met the man I was meant to marry — and then everything I’d ever thought I wanted to do with my life would go “poof!” Peggy made it sound dreamily romantic, popping her fingers open in a gesture to indicate a starburst. To me, it sounded like sinking in quicksand.
I thought a lot about what changing my name meant after that. Starting a new school in first grade, I asked to go by my middle name, Cecelia. My plan got off to a rocky start when the teacher misspelled it, but for an entire school year I was Cecelia Berry. My family called me Jane, though, and I felt split between two identities. In second grade, I went back to Jane.
At 12, I practiced writing what my name would be if I married a boy down the street. When I was 14, I vowed, in my diary, “So help me, God” never to marry. In college, a women’s studies class clarified why Peggy’s prediction bothered me: A maiden name meant you were, well, a maiden. I wanted an adult name I chose, one that had nothing to do with marital status.
By 23, I was practicing “Jane Marcellus” in my journal. I even showed my mom, a closet feminist. “It’s a name you have a right to,” she said.
So why did it take me 11 more years to make it legal?
Convention. Uncertainty. Fear of ridicule. The same things, actually, that keep me from talking about it much now, 25 years after my trip to the courthouse.
Like many people, I spent my 20s thinking about other things, such as getting another degree and establishing a career. At 30, I felt pressure to marry, though there wasn’t anyone, really. And if I did, what would my name be? Would this crazy idea about being “Jane Marcellus” go “poof!” as Peggy predicted?
There was also a practical problem: I had no idea how to change it. The Internet wasn’t around in the early 1990s, so I went to the library. The law books told me I could change my name, but they offered little advice about the process. By this time, I had quit my newspaper job and was getting by on what I could make as a freelance writer and adjunct professor while working on a second master’s degree. I couldn’t afford a lawyer. Besides, I was afraid that a lawyer would laugh at me.
A bookstore near campus had a rack of DIY legal documents, and there was a long stretch of time — maybe a year — when I would stop by to look at the ones marked “Name Change.” They were in a fat legal-size envelope, and they cost, as I recall, $25. That was a lot of money to me, particularly since I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to go through with it. I finally bought them, which felt daring in itself.
Filling them out, I was stymied again. What should I put down for a reason? There was a long list of possibilities, but mine was not on it, and I did not want to lie.
Then it came to me: What if I used the new name? Then I could say I wanted to avoid confusion.
I asked some friends to send mail addressed to “Jane Marcellus” to my apartment. With that I got a library card, which felt innocuous but official. Armed with my new library card, I found the courage to go to the courthouse. Still, I waited until the last working day before New Year’s. I figured everyone would be too festive to question my motives.
In the courtroom with perhaps a dozen women who were taking their original names back after divorce, I raised my right hand and swore that I had no plans to commit fraud. That I blended in with the group seems unsurprising but ironic. We shared a momentary sisterhood. The mood was celebratory.
Of course, then I had to tell people. My mom approved, although others seemed perplexed. My favorite response was from a guy at work whose name also started with M: “Welcome to the middle of the alphabet.”
As a single person, changing my name is easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I feel grounded. I think everyone — male or female, married or single — should feel that way. After all, a name is the most basic way we tell ourselves and the world who we are. And studies show that names are powerful, particularly in the digital era.
Many people have known me only as “Jane Marcellus.” It’s the name I’ve used to buy and sell property, earn a PhD, publish books and get tenure. Yet when I’ve occasionally told people my name story, the responses have jarred me. Some people think it’s fabulous but unusual. But I’ve also heard, “Then that’s not your real name, right?” and even “You can’t do that.” One woman shook her head and said, simply, “No.” As recently as a couple of years ago, a relative who owed me money assumed he should make out the check to “Jane Berry.”
It seems strange that we assume our names have to be given to us, as if it’s all up to chance. After all, some cultures encourage name changes throughout people’s lives. Having chosen my “grown-up name” a long time ago, I’m keeping it.