The XX Factor

Thoughts On a First Last Name

I’ve been fascinated by the amount and range of submissions we’ve received on the subject of changing your last name as you marry. This shift in one’s sense of identity seems to stay with women through the years. Are you still the same person you were when you had your childhood surname? Many feel not. And it can be a jarring adjustment. Luckily, Amy Beatty wrote in with the following cheerful and unsentimental view.

I never considered the taking of my husband’s last name to be a threat to my sense of self or to my individuality. Frankly, I was happy to become a Beatty just because it was so much shorter and simpler than Lautenbach. While I have been called “Mrs. Betty,” and have had to explain the spelling occasionally, it is a lot simpler in most cases-athough I must admit it was disconcerting the first time I said “Beatty. Just like Warren Beatty,” and had the salesperson ask who that was!

Don’t get me wrong-I still love Lautenbach, and I miss it sometimes, but there are too many ways to mess it up. I rather like not having to deal with misdirected mail and the like. I miss the nicknames that came with it, and the distinctive German-ness of it. But these days I am a happy part of the Beatty Bunch, as well!

For the record, I considered making it my middle name, but couldn’t get Amy Lautenbach Beatty to seem like less than a full sentence. So I am still Amy Jo, and always a Lautenbach at heart.

Nandini Pandya then wrote ruminating on what a name change has meant to her.

On the day I got married I changed my last name from Patwardhan to Pandya. I was 24, the year was 1982 and the place was Mumbai, India. It was an easy enough change to undertake-an anticipated rite of passage. All the women in my family and of my acquaintance had changed their last names upon getting married. In fact, I did not know of anyone who had even questioned the custom.

I had been exposed to whiffs of feminist thought during my college years in the form of resistance to the practice of dowry and a desire to have a job and a career. But since my immediate family and society at large agreed with and even encouraged these beliefs, there was no call for rebellion.

Having lived away from India for half my life, almost all the people I deal with on an ongoing basis have known me only as Nandini Pandya. The distinction between being a Patwardhan and being a Pandya is lost on my American neighbors and colleagues and even on most of my Indian friends. And so, it matters little whether I use Patwardhan or Pandya or the very wordy Patwardhan-Pandya.

It is only in the last few years-since I started writing, in fact-that my last name has become a source of introspection and angst. As I have achieved a minuscule measure of name recognition, I have found myself wishing that Patwardhan was part of my official name as well.

In my evolving role as an aspiring writer, I feel the need to assert the long-erased part of my identity. Much of my thinking and writing is informed by my role as a mom and my life here in the United States. But, the process of this endeavor-the inquiry and introspection, the love of letters and the desire to connect comes from my very core-the part of me that is, above all else, Patwardhan.

I have tried to analyze the desire to assert the Patwardhan part of my identity now, over two decades after getting married. I have no answer except to say that I feel increasingly strongly that I don’t want the Patwardhan side of me to be a mere footnote of a long-ago past.

Hindi (Bollywood) movies are replete with scenes in which a mother or father tells the young unmarried daughter that “one day she will go to her own home”-meaning, of course, the home of her husband. The underlying message is that her parents’ home is not really hers. Similarly, there are situations where girls are referred to as “paraya dhan”-another’s treasure-again, implying that parents don’t really have a claim on their girl children.

I am reminded of occasions when my own grandmother made such statements to me-more as a way (I now think) of inoculating me against separations yet to come-although my little girl self only heard the promise of “happily ever after.”

Inexplicably, and surprising even myself, I feel a catch in my throat each time I hear these remarks now while watching old Hindi movies. It is a feeling of being turned away and cut off, of being exiled from the country of childhood-a sacrifice for parents and daughters alike.

During a conversation a few months after I was married, my father-in-law expressed his misgivings about the custom of having women take their husband’s last name. I remember feeling gratified that he felt that way. But that was the extent of my attention to the issue. It is only now-over two decades later and over a decade after his passing-that I realize what a unique individual he was for thinking the way he did and for sharing his feelings with his new daughter-in-law.

It is only now that I realize what a tremendous erasure and, in some ways, negation it is of a large part of what a woman is and continues to be even after she gets married. Suddenly, I have this intense desire to acknowledge and celebrate my parents’ role in forging the person that I am today.

In honor of my father as well as my father-in-law, if only for this article, I want to sign myself as Nandini Patwardhan-Pandya.

In her day job Nandini Pandya is a software developer. In 2002 she founded an online magazine, Desi Journal , which featured writing about life in the South Asian diaspora. She just edited and published an anthology, Abroad at Home-First Generation Perspectives, First Person Voices.

Photograph of married couple by Buccina Studios/Digital Vision/Getty Creative Images.