Elegy on a Maiden Name

“You blushed, and now you are white, Jane: What is that for?”
“Because you gave me a new name—Jane Rochester; and it seems so strange.”

—Charlotte Brontë

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Lil’ Emily Gilliland with her Grover doll

I’ve been thinking a lot about Carolyn’s post a couple of weeks ago in which she listed reasons for why she didn’t change her name when she got married. I’d like to respond to her post with some reasons of why I did change my name as well as reasons why this change was a lot harder than I expected it to be.

When I was born, my parents named me Emily Nickole Gilliland. This was my name until I married at 27 years old in 2009, when I became a Grover.

David was the one who brought it up when we were engaged: “Hey, I just feel like I should say—you don’t have to take my name if you don’t want to. I mean, also, you can if you want to. Or we can hyphenate. Or I’ll take your name and you’ll take my name. Or we’ll smash our names together.”

We briefly joked about what the smushed-name options would be: “’Groverland’ would be pretty great,” Dave had said, which gave me the fleeting but still unfortunate image of myself as a territory founded by Gillis but overtaken by colonizing Grovers. (This was probably a consequence of naming all of my SimCities “Gilli Land” over the years.) Somehow, Groverland was worse than just losing Gilliland altogether.

I actually had to convince my family that I wasn’t marrying David for his last name. Grover had been my favorite muppet as a child. Someone had given me a Grover doll when I was a toddler, and many early photos of me show myself running around with Grover’s nose in my mouth to free up my hands. One of my first words was “Goh-dee-goh,” my imperfect attempt at “Grover.” I used to feed and water Grover, until his head was sluggish and heavy, leaving damp puddles on the furniture that smelled of sour milk and peanut butter. Other toys came and went, but Grover was my best friend. I took him with me to college. I took him with me on a mission to Japan. He was an emblem of my childhood, of where I came from. Even now, when I need a quick pick-me-up I watch a YouTube video of Grover and Madeline Kahn performing, “Sing What I Sing.”

So of course I wanted to become a Grover. (And, to clarify, I did not marry David for his name—ours is a true love story, but let’s just ignore the fact that his eyes do, actually, slightly droop in just the same manner as my favorite blue muppet.)

Our courtship, engagement, and marriage happened quickly—we were teaching university classes, finishing graduate programs, moving across the country. It took a while for the dust to settle, and we were busy enough that I didn’t get emotional at the new legal name, new licenses, new passport, new email address, and new signature (isn’t that one of the hardest parts, though? Learning to sign a new name after finally getting confident with the old signature?).

One day at church, someone tapped me impatiently on my shoulder. My eyes had been out of focus, staring off into the middle distance—I hadn’t been paying attention. I realized that this person had been saying, “Sister Grover. Sister Grover? Sister Grover,” and I hadn’t recognized myself in the name. That was the moment that I started to mourn Emily Gilliland, this identity of mine that I used to know, used to be.

I still miss her from time to time. I still mourn this loss. I had been Emily Gilliland for what felt like a long time, and I had old cohorts of friends, colleagues, coworkers, mission companions, acquaintances who knew me as a Gilliland—would they recognize me as a Grover? Would God recognize me as a Grover? The first time I received a blessing as “Emily Nickole Grover,” this was my sudden worry: had all my heavenly records transferred over to the new name? Would God still know me?

I mourned all my old nicknames. As a Japanese missionary, I was Girirando Shimai, as “Gilliland” was a terribly difficult name to pronounce in Japanese. One ward mission leader teased me once by calling me Giri-Giri Dendou Shimai, “giri-giri” meaning to do something half-baked and “dendou” meaning “mission.” Sister Half-Baked Missionary stuck fast, and I spent the rest of two transfers as Sister Giri-Giri or just Girichan. Then, in Kanazawa, an area referred to as “exile” because we were a day-long bullet train away from the rest of the mission, our close-knit district dropped all formalities of “shimai” and “chorou” (“sister” and “elder”) and went by last names instead. Except for me. I was just “Gillz.”

I was still friends with former missionaries from this last district when I returned to my master’s program after returning home. I quickly became “Gillz” to everyone. Or Gillycuddy. Or Gillyweed.

“It’ll be weird not to know you as ‘Gillz’ anymore now that you’re married, Gillz,” one of my old friends said at my reception.

Grover. Wearing that name felt like a disguise for a while. Like someone else’s glove. Strangely, it felt like was the one stealing someone else’s territory. David had been called “Grover” by all of his school friends and at least one girlfriend. I began to be known by “Grover” during our doctorate program in Texas. Someone would say, “Hey, Grover,” and David and I would turn simultaneously and say, “What?”

I worry sometimes about what will go on my tombstone. It’s the same kind of anxiety I get in that scene from Back to the Future when Michael J. Fox keeps looking at the Polaroid and watching his siblings—and then his own arm—slowly disappear the longer it takes for his parents to hook up at the school dance. If “Gilliland” isn’t even on my tombstone or urn plaque or whatever commemorates my name post-death, will the Gilliland chapters of my life disappear entirely?

I am solemn when I come across the maiden names of the matriarchs in my family tree (there are a lot of them, thanks to polygamy). “Livingston,” I’ll whisper, as I look at my great-great-great grandmother’s photograph, the first wife of Archibald Gardner’s eleven wives, all of them Sister Gardners or Mrs. Archibald Gardners. “I’ll remember ‘Livingston’ for you.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love being a Grover. And my signature is more or less natural after nearly ten years of marriage. I don’t have regrets. And I know that after reading this post, David will assure me that my tombstone will read: “Here lyeth Emily Nickole Gilliland Grover a.k.a. Gillz, Girichan, Gillyweed, G-money, and Gilgo Gaggins.” But it really doesn’t seem fair that the female half of our society should be asked to undergo such a huge identity change in the middle of our adult lives while the males get to just keep on keeping on their old selves, old names, old connotations, old memories. My kids will easily find David in his yearbook. When they go to look up my name, they’ll start with “Grover” and then say, “oh, yeah! Gilliland!” Okay, the Grovers and the Gillilands will probably be on the same page anyway. (Honestly, at least I got to keep my initials. Signing my initials “ENG” my whole life is basically the only reason I became an English major, after all.)

All I’m saying is that the least we can do is acknowledge that changing or not changing a name at marriage can be a big, weird deal, and maybe we could try a little harder to empathize with why a woman would want to keep her maiden name (also, let’s stop calling them “maiden” names—it’s such an uncomfortable description of them) or why it might be hard for some women to get inured to their new names. Reading Carolyn’s post was bitter-sweet to me. I hope I haven’t slighted Emily Gilliland by replacing her with Emily Grover. I hope Gillz gets it. I hope she approves. I hope she still feels like she is a part of Emily Grover, even though we have changed a little bit, hopefully for the best, for the most part.

And, lest anyone argue that I only think this way because I have been tainted by 21st-century feminist politics, here is poem by the 18th-century Welsh poet Jane Winscom, née Cave, who was about as representative of a Christian defender of traditional family values and gender roles as ever there was one:

An Elegy on a Maiden Name

Adieu , dear name, which birth and Nature gave——
Lo! at the altar I’ve interr’d dear Cave,
For there it fell, expir’d, and found a grave.

Forgive, dear spouse, this ill-tim’d tear or two,
They are not meant in disrespect to you.
I hope the name, which you have lately giv’n,
Was kindly meant, and sent to me by heav’n,
But, ah! the loss of Cave I must deplore,
For that dear name the tend’rest mother bore.
With that she pass’d full forty years of life,
Adorn’d th’ important character of wife:
Then meet for bliss, from earth to heav’n retir’d,
With holy zeal, and true devotion fir’d.

In me, what blest my father, may you find,
A wife domestic, virtuous, meek and kind.
What blest my mother may I meet in you,
A friend, and husband——faithful, wise, and true.

Then be our voyage prosp’rous, or adverse,
No keen upbraidings shall our tongues rehearse;
But mutually we’ll brave against the storm,
Remembering still, for help-mates we were born.
Then let rough torrents roar, or skies look dark,
If love commands the helm which guides our bark,
No shipwreck will we fear, but to the end,
Each find in each, a just, unshaken friend.

Comments

  1. What a beautiful reflection and memorial. I was not familiar with this poem either, but I will use it again.

  2. This really hits home. My married name is fairly close to my maiden name. I didn’t expect to miss it but I do. I’m glad to have the same last name as my son but otherwise wish I hadn’t changed it.

  3. Hits close to home. Thank you, Emily.

  4. Thank you for this.

  5. Andrea Huston says:

    I love all of your blog post! I’m glad you included a picture of your baby self. I laughed out loud a few times. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t like my pre-married self and was relieved to take on my husband’s name. That being said, I am not ashamed of or embarrassed by my family of origin. I was glad I married Jeremy. The boy I dated before him had the last name that would have been funny. My maiden name is Staley and his last name was Bland. I didn’t like the idea of going from Stale to Bland.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely, thanks.

  7. Because of some earlier conversations with my mother, the one point I insisted on when she died was that her birth name, in full and not as an initial, appear on her gravestone. Otherwise it wouldn’t have occurred to the men of the family. Mom was from a traditional generation, but she always missed her own name.

  8. Beautiful post. Brava.

    I’ve felt some reluctance to assign myself a new name, one that’s more traditionally female. I’ve put it off to my mother to decide as an indefinite stop-gap, as she doesn’t believe I’m transgender. I’ve used a few in games (Danica, Mashiara, Jane), but nothing I’ve felt really is me. But when I do change my name, I’ll suddenly have a “dead” name, the name that described the person I was. Will I miss that girl who was perceived as a boy? Will my new name ever fit like it fits?

    I’ve also tried to mitigate it by remembering that the name I’ve had is only the one I’ve had in mortality; that there is a large contingent of people who knew me before this life, with it’s own nicknames and affectations. Reintegration is going to be difficult, waking up from this life back into the life we’d always known and having been away from for only a relatively short time.

  9. I married at 18 so I had very little in the way of legal papers to change, anyway, DL and SS card. My birth name was on par with Smith or Jones so I was, if anything, glad to be rid of it. My married name is far rarer and I like it better. Since I’ve had it for nearly three times as long as the old one, it is who I am now. And, any genealogist knows you always put the birth name on the tombstone, always.

  10. I had a hard time parting with my maiden name, especially because it was such a good one (Sweet). And the idea of my sisters and I having different last names made me a touch wistful. At the time, though, it was important to my husband that I take his (I like to think that he’d feel differently if we’d gotten married today, 14 years later), and frankly it hadn’t really occurred to me that NOT taking his was a real option. But I let Jessie Sweet live on for two years after our nuptials. I wish I’d thought of combining last names – we could’ve been the Swensens!! Blast!

    There’s a sort of “chicken patriarchy” angle to name changes – surnames cannot simultaneously be SO important to ones’ identity that it MUST be proliferated, and also “no big deal, why does it matter to you so much, jeez, just take his name already.”

    I love this post, Emily. And that picture!! I had no idea you had such an affinity for the name, long before it became yours : )

  11. Thanks for this! I miss mine, too. I dropped my birth middle name to keep my birth surname as my middle instead. I regret it. I wish I had kept all 4. I had a man say to me, but then it wouldn’t be fair that you get 4 names and men get 3. Uh, then maybe you would be okay switching your wife to take on her surname and you can have all 4 and she will get 3. He didn’t like that idea, obviously.

    I really don’t think there is an easy answer to this. I miss my birth surname, but I do like that our whole family has the same last name. In the end, I am pretty practical and took the path of least resistance. I secretly high five women I know who kept their birth surname.

    I also kind of love that on our family history charts, we are our birth name. Even to those of us who will have our married surname longer than the one we were born with. I know my great grandmothers by the names they had when they were children, and I love that.

  12. I truly don’t understand the attachment to maiden names for the sake of maiden names…but I did get married at the ripe old age of 20, before I had started a professional life, or really an adult life! My maiden name serves as a reminder of the chaos, violence and misery I grew up in and I was so grateful to shed it and associate myself more closely with the man I was marrying who I was so (and am still so) in love with, 14 years later. My mother (a closeted feminist if you will) was horrified that I wasn’t dropping my middle name to replace it with my maiden name (the semi-defiant act of her generation, not as loud or ridiculous as hyphenating, but something at least) and I in my own defiance kept my middle name and triumphantly dropped my maiden name all together. I’ve never once regretted it. All that being said, I am sympathetic to women that feel very attached to their families and also those that have built a career around their maiden name-at that point keeping it makes much more sense. It bothers me greatly that I’ve had women outraged at me for being “a bad feminist” by dropping my maiden name. It doesn’t seem to occur to some that it was an incredible blessing dropping the constant reminder of what I grew up in to begin a beautiful life with the person and name that I got to choose.

  13. Frank Pellet, thank you so much for chiming in. Another friend of mine who is also transgender made a similar response on Facebook, pointing out that the feminine first name she selected for herself is probably what should be considered her “maiden” name :-)

    I hope your mom comes around, and I hope that you can someday go by a name of your choice that suits you and reflects your identity. Your question, “will I miss that girl who was perceived as a boy?” really touches me. I hope you do retain a nostalgia and love for her, along with the assurance that she would be so relieved and hopeful with knowing who she would become someday.

    Thanks again for sharing that comment.

  14. Jessie, you could have been the Sweetems! It’s not too late! :-D

    Also, how is this the first time that I’ve come across the term “chicken patriarchy”? I’ve fallen into a chicken patriarchy Google rabbit hole right now, and I am humbly getting educated. This is a useful term! Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and if anyone is reading this from Zelophehad’s Daughters, I simultaneously want to express an apology for being so out of the loop on this rich conversation that I am discovering as well as gratitude for putting these posts out there. Thank you.

  15. Ardis, when an in law died, most of her children didn’t want to put her maiden name on the tombstone, too because it was long and the engraver charged by the letter. One child, thankfully put their foot down and insisted- the estate was paying for the whole thing anyway. Names do matter. It makes me sad when you go to old cemeteries and see “mother” or just the husband’s last name. So much of women’s history is forgotten, I appreciate all your efforts on that front.

  16. Like Elizabeth, I was happy to escape from my all-too-common birth name and take on a more distinctive name that I chose. In fact, I had to argue with my husband to take his name. He wanted to do a mashup because he was not too happy with his father at that time. My problem came when I divorced. He wanted me to give up his name but I refused. First of all, I had a professional reputation with this name and now had to support myself. I couldn’t go back to zero professionally. Besides, this was the name I chose, I did not choose my birth name. If you think it’s hard to sign your new name following marriage, try signing your married name when it carries unhappy emotional baggage. Now I’m anxious to take on a pen name so I can choose a first name too!

  17. Charlene, it may interest you to know that the poet in my post, Jane Cave Winscom, found later in life that her husband had been cheating on her for years. They eventually separated, and she refused to go by “Winscom” but didn’t feel like she could go back to “Cave,” so she started publishing under the pseudonym “Mrs. Rueful.” (Her obituary would refer to her as Jane Cave Winscom.) While I wouldn’t recommend selecting a pseudonym so on-the-nose, your comment makes me want to disclose this additional info.

  18. My current wife wanted to change her last name as quickly as she could. She married at 23, took her first husband’s name for nearly 30 years until his death, and now she has mine. As long-lived as both of our families are, she could have my last name longer than either of the first two. I’ve not yet talked to her about how she feels about that change in identities.

  19. My wife, when we married back in the ’60s, happily took my name but she had always been unhappy with her first name. (She had no second name) A few years before she was born her mother had a still-born daughter named Lorraine. She was given the same name when she was born and she always felt that it belonged to someone else. When she got into her 40s she changed her name to Raine Willow as her first and second name and kept my last name. Finally she had a name of her own as well as a middle name. A very happy change.

  20. This might be a good grover video for a pick-me-up once in a while, too https://youtu.be/8UeQZUJ_PKA

  21. I was happy to take on my husband’s very common surname. Growing up with the same name as a morning talk show host was annoying, I have never liked my dad’s side of the family, and my dad was emotionally and verbally abusive, so I had very few warm feelings for the name. (my brother has considered changing his name to my mom’s maiden name, so I’m not the only one.) It’s funny, though, that if I think of events from before my marriage, my maiden name comes to mind naturally.

  22. I was married 33 years ago. I took my husbands last name because I wanted too. However, as time went on and I was called Mrs. Carter or Sister Carter, I would think of my mother in law every time. Ugh. So I asked everyone to call me by my first name. Everyone. Every small child to every senior in the neighborhood knew me by Wendy for 25 years. Then we moved. It was back to being called by my mother in law’s name. I wish someone would have told me that it was my mother in law’s name I was taking and I never would have changed it. When my sons were getting married I told all the upcoming daughter in laws about my feelings and asked them to think it through and decide if they really wanted to change their names. Well, they did change their names, but kept their ‘maiden’ names as middle names. Even at work I go by Wendy. Maybe it is just me…

  23. This is a very good post. And I love that you were radicalized by 18th-century poetry.

  24. I love this post.

  25. Love this post. I think the most important thing is to just let women make their choices without judging, either way. Just listen and accept that they know best what they want – whether that means not questioning a woman for keeping a maiden name, or not assuming some kind of subordination and/or harmful patriarchical influence if she chooses to take her husband’s name.

  26. If it makes you feel any better, Wendy, my mother in law and I have the same first name, too. It’s…not great.

  27. This is excellent, Grover.

    Also, on behalf of Zelophehad’s Daughters, thanks for your kind comments about our work. I’m not the author of probably any of the chicken patriarchy discussion, but most of those who are are currently in varying levels of blog inactivity. In any case, it’s great you found good stuff in our archives!

  28. Have you considered all of the great nicknames you could create with EGG?

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