The Name Change Dilemma

Hannah Howard considers tradition, identity, and love as she navigates the decision whether to keep her name after her wedding.

Hannah Howard | Longreads | November 2019 | 10 minutes (2,420 words)

Although Tony speaks with an elegant English accent and I with a prosaic American one, although I am a writer and he works in business doing things with spreadsheets that I can’t even begin to comprehend, although he grew up Anglican and I grew up Jewish, and although Tony’s parents are from Uganda and a small island off the south coast of England and mine are from the Bronx and Queens, respectively, when it comes to both everyday decisions and big life things we are usually on the same page.

We both love New York with an obstinate devotion. Recently our friends have started to move to the suburbs. We both give a polite smile when they share the news. Then back in the safety of our one-bedroom, which becomes an inferno in the winter because it’s an old NYC apartment, we make gagging noises and giggle. The suburbs may be nice for other people, but we like it right here.

We both always want to get an extra order of short ribs at our favorite barbeque place in Koreatown and splurge for the fancy bubbly any time we can think of a half-decent excuse. We want to travel the world. We want to live in Brooklyn Heights, in a brownstone overlooking the promenade, after I sell the movie rights to my future bestseller or we win the lottery.. Manhattan will sparkle across the East River. For now, we walk around Brooklyn until the soles of our feet begin to hurt, and choose our favorite blocks. We have so many favorites we lose track.

Last September, we got married.

We agreed on so much, as usual. My parents consented to a pig roast even though we are Jewish. We decided to have the ceremony in their back yard by the Delaware River, where Pennsylvania meets New Jersey, and the party under a tent. There would be fairy lights and a band that got everyone dancing. There would be really good food.

We looked into fireworks, but the price tag shocked us. Who needs fireworks? We didn’t need fireworks.

Reader, the night was magic. Tony’s family came from England and Denmark, and mine came from Baltimore and South Dakota, and friends came from everywhere. There was no feeling like walking out into the backyard and seeing all the people I love in the world, their soft smiles and flowy dresses. My heart exploded into heart dust.

The sun peeked out of cotton ball clouds right as we said our vows under the chuppah my dad had built for us. The river was right beside us, and we made another river of happy tears.

Even though my strapless dress had been tailored not once or twice but three times, my best friend Ursula still had to safety pin my bra into its stiff fabric. Miraculously, it stayed up the whole night.

Our friend Leigh made us a cheese platter and a lemon cake with strawberry jam and buttercream frosting. Our friend Rena wrote us a poem. We had not just delicious-for-a-wedding but actually delicious food. The music was so electric that our friends and family spilled off the dance floor, out of the tent and into the night. The moon’s reflection danced on the river.

***

But this is not a story about the perfect wedding. This is a story of names, of my name. My name is Hannah Howard. Hi there!

A few weeks before the wedding, changing my name came up. We had talked about it before then, but it had seemed theoretical.

A few weeks before the wedding, changing my name came up. We had talked about it before then, but it had seemed theoretical. Maybe I could just be Hannah Howard professionally. After all, names are important to writers who have been publishing for a while. They go right there next to the title, announcing the source of our work. My name is on the front cover of my book, which was published last year. But personally, I would go by Hannah Mulira. That’s Tony’s last name. It’s a nice name. In fact, it’s a royal name — did I mention that Tony is a Ugandan prince? If people wanted to invite us to a fancy party, I could envision it calligraphed in script on thick stock paper: “Dear Mrs. and Mr. Mulira, we request the honor of your presence…”

But I had no intention of changing my passport or even my Facebook page. And Tony and I are so very often, almost strangely often, in agreement. He’s a feminist. So when I mentioned this to my soon-to-be husband this summer, I was shocked by his response. He said things like:

“I always imagined my family would have the same surname.”

“How will people know you are my wife?”

And the kicker: “You being a Mulira is really important to me.”

It was really important to him! He is such a low-key guy, so kind and considerate, and if something was important to him it was to me, too. Our relationship hadn’t demanded much in terms of compromises. Maybe this was the time to concede, to make him happy.


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It was only then, mulling over Hannah Mulira, that I realized how much I cared about Hannah Howard. Even just typing the name, I feel that twinge of me-ness. I’m 32 years old, and it’s been a wonderful, challenging, wild ride so far. With this name, I moved to California and Philadelphia and New York. I fell in love. My heart was broken, and I came out stronger. I had a brutal eating disorder and recovered. This is me, and my name, and my life.

I tried to say this to Tony, but I was having trouble explaining my feelings. I kept telling him, “I’ve been Hannah Howard my whole life.” Hannah Howard was the person he fell in love with and the person he was going to marry. Yes, our wedding would mark the start of a new chapter and a new beginning. But I would still be me. I didn’t want a new identity. I’d worked so very hard to create and inhabit the one I already had.

***

My mom took my dad’s name when they got married in a synagogue in Rockland County, New York in 1978. She was 23 and he 22. They were “babies” as they say now. She had always hated her last name, Kronenberg, which felt clunky. She was happy to become Rachel Howard.

The Howards were born circa 1943. My paternal grandfather Melvin Horowitz and his older brother Lou Horowitz had a really tough life. Their father left the family when they were teenagers — just disappeared one day, never to return — and their mother was in and out of mental hospitals. When Lou applied for a job, the hiring manager suggested a less Jewish name would help him land the position. A job meant feeding himself and his little brother; it meant survival. So, Lou Horowitz became Lou Howard, and Mel followed suit.

A few years later, Mel joined the navy. Sailors were placed on ships based in alphabetical order. Mel just missed the cutoff for a ship whose occupants’ names ended in “Hor.” He was a Howard now. According to family myth, the “Hor” ship, the ship he would have boarded, had he kept his original name, sunk in the Pacific after being torpedoed by Japanese planes. Nobody survived. On his ship, the Howard ship, he peeled a lot of potatoes. They never saw combat.

Mel came home, married my grandmother Beverly, and had three kids. My dad, Marty Howard, is their middle child.

***

When I call my mom now, I’m surprised to hear her say: “If I had to do it all again, I’d keep my name.” All the women in Tony’s family seem to have changed their names, including his little sister and his little brother’s wife. His best friends are planning their wedding and they have already arranged to switch their dog’s name. He was her dog first, but the pup is going to take his last name when his mother does. Apparently, that’s a thing.

I respond to my own ambivalence by surveying my friends. The married ones have all kept their own names, except for my friend Kate. Kate is a writer, and she was also my first friend to have kids. Like our original plan, she uses her maiden name in her bylines and her married name in her professional life.

“Isn’t it confusing to have two identities?” I asked her.

“No, it’s actually kind of nice,” she said. “It’s almost like an easy way to keep two distinct parts of my life separate.”

Her two daughters have her maiden name as their middle name. That was another suggestion: that I could become Hannah Mulira Howard (my middle name, which I rarely use, is Marika, so it’s sort of similar), or Hannah Howard Mulira. I could hyphenate. Tony could change his name.

“Would you consider changing your name?” I asked him. If he wanted to have the same surname, why couldn’t it be mine?

“Do you want me to?”

I didn’t. But I wanted him to consider it, just as I was considering. A friend told me about her friends, who had decided to take a brand-new name together to mark their marriage. That sounded romantic, if impractical.

But none of these middle courses felt like the right option for me, for us. Then I got angry. I wondered, why do I have to figure this out? Why is the woman the one who is expected to subsume her identity — to go from the father’s name to the husband’s name, just like marriage used to mean going from father’s to husband’s property?

Why did this particular relic of the patriarchy bother me while other ones did not? I was thrilled to receive an engagement ring, Tony pointed out. I was planning to wear a white dress to our wedding, although I briefly considered other options. I begrudged Tony’s loyalty to tradition, but he reminded me that there are plenty of traditions that I very much like.

We weren’t coming any closer to an agreement. I felt trapped in an unwinnable predicament: I had to choose between letting down myself or letting down my love. The wedding was in two short weeks.

I couldn’t sleep. I tracked down personal essays by women who changed their name but then changed it back, or kept their maiden name but regretted it, or who had relationships with their families so rocky they were relieved to cut the nomenclatural ties. I read that 80% of modern American women adopt their husband’s name, which felt like a huge number to me. The older and more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to keep her name. That’s me, I thought, old and educated.

I made an extra therapy appointment to talk about my dilemma.

“What about kids?” my therapist asked. “If you have kids, would they take his name?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Why?” She asked, like a good therapist, and I didn’t have a good answer.

***

Tony’s dad Apollo is named after his great grandfather Apollo Kagwa, who became Sir Apollo Kagwa when Queen Victoria knighted him. He was the prime minister to the King of Buganda. Tony’s dad is a prince, as is Tony. When I married Tony, I became a princess. Our children will be literal Jewish American Princes, or Princesses. My dad thinks this is the most hilarious thing he has ever heard.

Why did this particular relic of the patriarchy bother me while other ones did not? I was thrilled to receive an engagement ring, Tony pointed out.

Tony’s mom Christine is a white British woman who grew up on the Isle of Wight, a tiny island off England’s southern coast. Her father, a true working-class Brit, thought pizza was “foreign muck.” In the 1960s, marrying Apollo, an African man, must have been truly shocking for her family. But they came to love Apollo. His being royalty softened the blow.

In a way, Apollo was more British than even Christine. Tony explained this was a sort of upper-class colonial thing, where the Ugandans were much more likely to have teatime and starched napkins and staff than their English counterparts. Apollo went to boarding school in England, then a small college in the American Midwest, and then to Cambridge for medical school. He met Christine at a hospital in Winchester, where he was a new surgeon and she was in charge of the nurses. She became Christine Mulira. In their wedding photos, they are both beaming.

***

One of the best aspects of my relationship with Tony is how excited I am to see him at the end of every day. But the day when I was trying to figure out what name I wanted, I was anxious about seeing him. I still didn’t know what to do. I wanted to continue to be Hannah Howard, but I didn’t want to disappoint him. I couldn’t focus at work. My brain felt like it was full of gauze and radio static.

When I told my boss I would likely keep my name, he responded: “Does your husband know that? And he still wants to marry you?” I wasn’t quite sure if he was joking.

I was thinking about how to make a better, more convincing argument when Tony pulled me aside.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. He rested his hand on my shoulder. He smelled like soap and fresh air, even though he had just gotten off the subway. “I’ve changed my mind.”

“What?”

“I thought more about the name thing. It’s entirely up to you. It’s okay with me if you keep your name.”

I didn’t believe him at first. But he insisted. My relief creeped in slowly and my shoulders unclenched.

My therapist and I decided I didn’t have to do anything for now. If I have the urge to change my name at some later time, when we have children, or just because I am inspired, I can do so. It’s my name, after all.

I felt nervous to tell Tony about this essay. But when I broke the news, he smiled and said, “Well, I do know you haven’t changed your name.” I didn’t want different names in different contexts. I wanted Hannah Howard.

When Tony says, “My wife, Hannah Howard,” he says it with love. I love being his wife. And being Hannah Howard is pretty good, too.

* * *

Hannah Howard is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is the author of the memoir Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen and contributes to New York Magazine, SELF, and Salon.com.

Editor: Sari Botton