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.
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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.
Almost two years ago, I called my parents to end our relationship. As a teenager, I had come forward to tell them that a family member was molesting me. I often think back to that day, how everything inside me was quaking so hard I could barely get the words out. But after I told them, I don’t remember any hugs. I don’t remember any questions about how I had survived the past six years of shaking myself awake to protect myself at night. I do remember my parents telling me I could ruin his life. “Do you know what will happen to him?” my father asked, outlining hypothetical prison scenarios. Their guilt, and subsequent refusal to talk about the issue, compounded my fear and frustration, and it began to make me doubt myself. It took more than a decade for me to realize that pretending everything was OK in my family was actually a dishonest way to live, and that’s when I cut them out of my life.
Before Patrick and I married, I went through painful therapy, where instead of pushing down the memories, I relived them. I faced the overwhelming fear of my younger self and accepted what she had endured. Slowly, instead of being disgusted with her secret, I grew protective of her, and I also found myself awed by this young, isolated version of me who had found a way to survive years of pain. With this new view of myself, I discovered I was no longer consumed by my anger toward men—specifically, toward men who share my name.
Near the end of my therapy, Patrick joined me for premarital counseling. The two of us sat on the same couch where I had wept for the shame I had carried with me for so long, and we talked about the typical pre-wedding topics—finances, sex, children. My therapist said things to Patrick like, “Kids are going to be complicated.” I told Patrick, yes, I was scared to have children, and I was scared he would leave me if we didn’t. Through it all Patrick kept his hand on mine. “I won’t leave you,” he said. “I love you.”
I could see then that he loved both of us, the woman in front of him and the lost and lonely girl I used to be. And I realized: This is what it feels like to be part of a family. I suddenly blurted out that maybe I did want to become a Doyle. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised.
Over the next few days, I debated my options while Patrick remained neutral and said simply that he would support my decision. Meanwhile, I started to talk about my choice more freely and was inundated with opinions. I was told my choice was political, that to keep my name was a vote for feminism. But then a friend, who is a mother, said she sometimes wishes she had changed hers so she could share a surname with her daughters. And in a welcoming gesture of celebration, Patrick’s family gave me a T-shirt with “Doyle” ironed on the front, complete with a shamrock and the date of our wedding. I immediately slept in it, happy to connect with my new family-to-be, and wondering—hoping—that becoming a Doyle might finally bring me closure with my past.
Before long, though, my joyous epiphany spun into another surge of confusion. Again I started to feel like I hadn’t found my truth, and I began to rebel against the change I’d so enthusiastically embraced just weeks earlier. I picked fights with Patrick and told him he didn’t understand what this decision was putting me through. As dysfunctional and in denial as my family had been, I couldn’t shake the guilt about leaving them behind. I would still be Jennie Dorris, at least for a few more weeks, but suddenly I felt more alone than ever.
Patrick has often pointed out that I’ve become the woman I am in spite of my history, and I would always reply that it wasn’t in spite of it, it was because of what I’ve gone through that I’ve become who I am. It took a while to figure out the difference between “in spite of” and “because of,” but that’s where I found my answer.
Even though I had many legitimate reasons to become Jennie Doyle, I finally realized that I was, and would remain Jennie Dorris. True, I’ll continue to share a name with a family from whom I’m estranged, but the name Jennie Dorris actually changed a long time ago. It changed when I finally stood up for myself—with or without my family’s support. It changed when I put myself out there, at first shyly, then confidently, as if becoming a freelance writer and musician had been my subconscious way of forging my own identity.
I now know that being Jennie Dorris is about more than mere personal branding. It’s about accepting where I’ve come from and celebrating what I’ve turned my name into. I now know that to lose my name would have made me feel like I’d lost my personal transformation—and like I’d abandoned my younger self.
I spilled my revelation at our last premarital counseling session. It didn’t come out in any logical manner, and in my excitement I found myself talking a little too loudly in the silent room. Patrick’s face got warm and smiley, the way it always does when he can see I’m happy and sure. Even so, the therapist still wasn’t fully convinced. “Well,” she said, “we’ll talk in a few weeks.”
But I was done hearing other people’s opinions. They hadn’t lived my story, and their choices sounded like a foreign language to someone with my history. Inviting them too deeply into my decision started to echo too closely with the way my family had tried to rewrite my childhood. By learning to honor my resilience as a child and by keeping this name—my name—as a testament to what I’ve survived, I finally realized that my self-respect would grow real roots.
After all my questioning and worrying, I realized that my younger self was finally speaking up to tell me that, in the end, I was still Jennie Dorris. She could handle being questioned. She was grateful not to be left behind, and she was OK retelling her story to help me—the older, healing, happier Jennie—find my answers. She simply reminded me that she had gotten me this far—that she had been at her strongest during the worst of times, that she couldn’t wait to join me for the joyful times, and that the two of us accepting each other meant I was finally ready to share my life with someone else.