By Any Other Name

As my wedding day approached, what had seemed like a simple decision became a cathartic way for me to find closure with my past.

December 2010

In my childhood home, hanging in the hallway between my bedroom and my brother’s was a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic poem, “If.” As a girl I read it over and over again: “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you/If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting, too…” Although the poem’s narrator was addressing his advice to a son, the ifs stayed with me as a reminder of how subtle decisions could affect my impending womanhood.

But as my wedding day approached last summer, I was surprised at how one “if”—whether to take my new husband’s name—raised such a deep-seated internal conflict. For anyone, getting married means reconciling his or her childhood with a new adult life, but in my case this tension was even more pronounced.

This was the only decision about our wedding that punctured my happiness—it forced me to question, for the first time, the 30 years I’d spent building an identity. And as the big day approached, the idea of losing the name Jennie Dorris became more distracting: If I changed my name, would I lose myself?

There were practical concerns; namely, I’m the poster child for personal branding. I’m a freelance writer who had a weekly newspaper column for years, and I’ve published bylined articles across the country. I’m also a freelance classical musician who juggles multiple orchestras, tucking away each concert’s program with a smile after I see my name listed among the musicians. To top it off, I’d recently started hosting a radio show, where I begin by practicing my name, clearly and with the right sense of rhythm: “Jennie Dorris. Jennie Dorris. Jennie Dorris.” To change my name, professionally speaking, seemed to be a questionable marketing strategy.

As our wedding day neared, congratulatory cards started to arrive for “Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Doyle.” (Patrick is a senior editor at this magazine.) I saw the cards and told him that, evidently, I’d not only already taken Patrick’s last name, but also his first. My feminist side hadn’t expected that people would assume we’d merge names, and I realized no one was ever going to ask Patrick if he was going to keep his last name. As I listened to other standard pro-change arguments—a couple’s solidarity, sharing a name with my children, or just plain tradition—I began to think that if I chose to remain a Dorris, I should be ready to justify my decision.

I’d been mentally cataloging and defending these reasons when a good friend leveled me with one simple statement: “Look, it’s either your father’s name or your husband’s name.” My decision instantly became much more complicated, because my surname might literally be the last connection I have to my family. It was that stark revelation—and the free-fall feeling of nausea it invoked—that finally made me ask who the real Jennie Dorris was.