Saturday, 15 February 2014

What's in a name?

I had a fascinating exchange of texts with a friend yesterday.

She felt that I should be writing under my real name, which is Ingrid Wassenaar. I replied that I was keen to write under a pseudonym, Ingrid Kirkegaard, because I married a man with that surname, and it has always struck me as hilarious. He is an Aussie, utterly irreverent, charming, lightning quick, and always says of his own name that, "It's unfortunate that the real Søren Kierkegaard only sired bastards". One of the many things I find funny is the sheer number of 'a's in our names.

When we married, many friends asked whether we would have a double-barrelled surname. We laughed, and just said that I wasn't changing my name. In Holland, it's usual for married women to add their husband's name to their own, as a kind of patronymic. It seemed too cumbersome for us, and I didn't see why I had to go around adjusting my name on every official document — it was bad enough getting my title changed to 'Dr'.

When it came to naming our children, we made all sorts of problems for ourselves. I suggested it would be a good idea to have my surname as one of their middle names, to inscribe their heritage inside their names. Not something we'd have to announce, but perhaps a memory of my father.

I wanted our daughter to have her father's surname, although — and because — we were not married when we had our first baby. I'd been pregnant and actually given birth, and it seemed to me, whatever my notions of patriarchy, churlish not to enable my partner to lay his claim to our daughter.

And it was, in fact, my decision to make. Because if you are not married, then in order to be recognised as the father of your child, the man must physically come with the mother to register the baby's birth, and assert his paternity. Without this presence, the mother's name is given to the newborn.

In the dusty registry office, passing our firstborn from lap to lap to stop her crying, I leaned forward and asked whether we could just put my surname on the same line as her real surname, although she'd be known publicly by her father's name.

This was agreed — and it was not until we had to apply for her first British passport, followed by Australian citizenship and passport, that we realised what my little moment of nostalgic vanity had done. My definition of 'public' was not the same as the Passport Office's. Her surname, according to the letter of the public record, was, in fact, officially Wassenaar Kirkegaard. We laughed at ourselves, but were not unduly worried. In practice she would be a Kirkegaard with a funny Dutch middle name.

When we married, we were just about to leave for Australia. My husband went ahead and I spent several weeks applying for Permanent Residency. As part of that exercise, I went back to the Registrar to ask for our daughter's birth certificate to be updated to reflect our married state. In fact there is no visible change on the certificate itself, but I wanted the (underlying) record to reflect reality. She was still officially Wassenaar Kirkegaard.

For several years this was all a joke that we ruefully told against ourselves — until the day that we were nearly not allowed to board a flight out of Adelaide with our daughter, because the name on the ticket was not exactly the same as the name on her passport. It was then that we understood that we had saddled our infant with a serious problem.

When we returned to the UK after our time in Australia, I went back a third time to the Registrar. I wanted to change her name officially, and thought I needed to go back to the source of the problem. But I had unwittingly used up all my go's. I was allowed to change it once, and had done so to reflect marriage. From now on, I would need to change her name by Deed Poll, and she might need to present both her birth certificate and her name change if required.

And that is what I did. I paid for her name to be changed from 'WASSENAAR KIRKEGAARD'  to 'Wassenaar KIRKEGAARD'. She is now the proud owner of a Danish-Australian last name, and a Dutch middle name.

We didn't make the same mistake when our son was born (instead I had to spend half my pregnancy proving the degree of my Britishness, in order to confer it on him and his children, because I was naturalised British and giving birth in Australia. Who knew?).

When my friend questioned why I wasn't writing under my real name, I started to think about it. Superficially, it was because I loved the irony of adopting the philosopher's name 'Kierkegaard' as my pen name, while being in fact married to a Kirkegaard. But it goes much deeper than that.

I do not have a surname.

Wassenaar is my father's name. My mother's maiden name was Lawrence. This is her father's name. Her mother's maiden name was Glibbery — which I loved, because it showed the traces of Dutch Huguenot in my mother, apparently English through and through. Glibbery was my grandmother's father's name.

Under patriarchy, the woman is given away by her father to her husband's family. She leaves her birth family completely and becomes a member of her husband's family. This is still inscribed everywhere in our culture, whether in religious terms or in bureaucratic terms.

I do not feel that this is what I have done. I have three families: the one I was born into, the one I have been introduced into by my husband, and the family he and I have created.

So what is my name?

1 comment:

MDTaz said...

My parents deliberately did not give me a middle name, so that when married I could use my given surname as my middle name and take my husband's name as my last name. It would have simplified things, except I opted to keep my name when I was married (before) and now I refer to my partner as a "de-facto" husband and so my name remains as it always has been. The two children we made together have my name, too, as it seems I did most of the work to bear them! All this to say I think there is a lot in a name!