I'm Keeping My (Difficult) Last Name, No Matter Whom I Marry

Photographed by Winnie Au.
My last name is a nightmare. Golembewski. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. When I was a kid, it was too long to fit on standardized tests. Since then, it's been butchered at every first-day roll call and graduation — and I've started just using a fake name when I make restaurant reservations. Even my social security card has a typo on it. (Oh, to have lived as Vanessa Golemberski!)

Yet, despite the near-daily complications my last name gives me, I’m going to keep it — and, not just because I’ve gotten used to it. It's the name of the amazing woman who raised me, and I don't want to give that up, no matter whom I marry.

This weekend, The New York Times ran a trend piece on women who aren't changing their names. The big point (arrived at solely by analyzing the not-terribly-representative sample of women in the paper's wedding announcements) was that women keep their names after marriage for reasons “practical, not political.”

In other words, women aren’t keeping their names for feminism; they’re keeping them for convenience.

For today's women, "keeping their maiden names has lost its significance in defining their independence and its symbolism as a feminist act," write Claire Cain Miller and Derek Willis. Rather, it's just easier: Women want to keep their social media profiles. Or they're doctors or lawyers who don't want to confuse their clientele with a switch. Some just don’t feel like doing all that paperwork. In other words, women aren’t keeping their names for feminism; they’re keeping them for convenience.

By that logic, I should swap out my clunker of a surname for something simpler. Perhaps find a John Smith to marry and call it a day? But I won’t.

My father left my mom, my brother, and me when I was two. (Another trend, which the Times so diligently dubbed this weekend as “ghosting.”) A few years later, my mom got remarried. She took the new guy’s name, but decided to change ours to her maiden name, Golembewski. This remained the case throughout her marriages — four of them in total. Mom kept getting new last names. My brother and I stayed Golembewskis.

As a result, I’ve come to strongly identify with the maternal side of my family. (It’s not like I really had a paternal side anyway.) Though my father was Irish, I instead embraced my mother’s Polish heritage, going with my grandparents to church festivals and learning Polish songs and dances as a child.

Despite its preponderance of vowels, Golembewski grew on me.

I spent the summer of 2007 living with my grandparents between semesters of college. I worked at the local Stop & Shop, where my grandparents and my mother had all worked at some point in their lives. Strangers would come up to me every so often and say something like, “You’ve got to be Heidi’s daughter. You look just like her.” Stop & Shop employees, having seen my last name on the schedule, would come up to me in the break room and tell me stories about Grampa and Gramma. Despite its preponderance of vowels, Golembewski grew on me.

That isn’t to say I never daydreamed about the day I could ditch Golembewski entirely. For as long as I’ve dated, I‘ve written out my name with boys' names — just to see what that blended version would look like. Vanessa Souza. Vanessa Callaghan. I liked seeing the way my hand would write out the new arrangement of letters, how my signature would change, how smoothly the words would come out of my mouth. Even now, at age 27, I say the imagined version of my name to myself, just to see if I like it.

But these versions never ring true for me. They don’t feel like the person I grew up to be. They don’t remind me of the knickknacks at my grandmother’s house or the opłatek we pass around at Christmas. Sacrificing that sense of identity for the sake of shorter phone calls to the cable company or fewer conversations on how to pronounce my last name just doesn’t feel worth it.

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