Ahh, weddings. We are now approaching the season, and as if it weren’t enough already for my serotonin levels that many of my friends have started getting hitched this year, there are now three sets of high profile nuptials this Spring around which Otherwise Totally Rational People can get well and truly overexcited about: Kate and Wills, Zara and that shaven-headed Rugby player, and now Justine and Ed.
Writing that actually made me laugh out loud – The Royals, maybe, but I can’t really imagine anyone becoming overexcited about Labour’s first couple getting hitched; two people for which perhaps even they would be pushed to confess such strength of feeling. And that’s meant as no disservice to the lucky couple at all; in fact, quite the opposite.
They join the ever-growing ranks of couples who have already ticked off a few of life’s milestones before making a formal commitment, such as children, mortgages, usurping your older brother… In their 40s and with their commitment already affirmed by creating a family and home together, Justine and Ed are bowing to a tradition that even the die-hard marriage sceptics seem to stumble at later in life. Quite simply, this country makes it easier for couples to be married than to not – legally, financially and socially. I am sure that Justine and Ed decided to get married for all the emotive reasons many people do, but I also sense deep down inside they’ve done it because it eliminates the hassle of constantly having to explain – and defend – their marital status.
But there is one tradition in which I hope Justine and Ed refrain from partaking: the change in surname for the bride. I constantly butt against friends on this topic, including those who are independent, articulate and bothered about women’s issues. Responses vary from the standard, ‘I want our children to feel part of a whole family’, to the worrying ‘I thought it was a legal requirement’ and the horrifyingly passive ‘But that’s just what women have to do’. No one – no one – has been able to offer me a sensible reason for a change in name which cannot be answered by the man changing his to that of his bride. When I goad people, it always seems to boil down to ‘tradition’ – we keep doing it because people have always done it. That sounds like a fantastic attitude to me, sailing through life making decisions based on nothing other than the clone-like instinct of thousands of people before you. I don’t need to point to recent events to show you that sometimes it’s preferable to make a decision based on facts, not herd mentality.
Screw tradition, quite frankly. Despite our liberal tendencies, people still raise an eyebrow then they discover that I share my mother’s surname, not my father’s. ‘Oh,’ they rush in, ‘are your parents divorced?’. No, happily married, my mother has only ever been married to my father and was married before I was born. My mother simply decided she wanted to keep her surname and that they would give both me and my sister hers and not his. This wasn’t some 1980s gender power play in action, it was an almost entirely aesthetic decision: my mother’s surname sounds nicer than my father’s. Dad has never had a problem with this, even when he attended Parent’s Evening at school and teachers would refer to him as my ‘guardian’ or asked me if he was my mother’s boyfriend. And despite potential claims to the contrary, it’s made no lasting psychological damage on me. I have always felt part of a family, united and committed to bonds which transcend pieces of paper and ‘tradition’.
So what is in a name, then, if we’re getting worked up? Everything and nothing. As we greedily gobble up and then titter about arcane Royal protocol, I think it’s sad that not only will Kate Middleton lose her last name but also her first. Catherine Windsor will become the future Queen of England; Kate Middleton will be lost to us forever. And ok, fine, a new surname doesn’t change the person deep down inside, but I just need to think to countless times my surname has started conversations, the frustration at having to spell it again and again, the nicknames that it incurred, the family it connected and the history it evoked… my name is the only one I’ve ever had – I wear it proudly when I succeed and stand by it when I fail. It would have been the same if it was my father’s, but it’s not his and it’s not my mother’s either; it’s mine. I wouldn’t change it for the world. So I won’t change it for a man.
I hope, Justine Thornton, you will keep your name when you marry Ed. Your fiancé has talked about the very modern way in which you will make this formal commitment to each other, and I know that in doing so you are trying to appease to both the middle ground and the fringes, but are likely to appease neither. Your forthcoming marriage makes us ask all the right questions about how and why people take such a step, be it early or later in life, and allows us to think about our own marital decisions and those of the people we love. We are right to question marriage in the 21st Century, when – in its purest form – it was designed to support the established societal positions of men and women. Those positions have changed, for the better, so we need to accept that the traditions which accompany them need to change too.
Sometimes, when I was growing up and my mother received calls from witless sales managers asking for a ‘Mrs Moulder’ so they could sell her double-glazing or broadband packages, I would hear her tartly respond that they had the wrong number – ‘There is no Mrs Moulder living here.’ After a while they stopped bothering us, convinced of their belief that my father’s wife must have passed away. So even if you don’t change your name to buck tradition, just think of the hours of your life you can claw back never having to take a sales call ever again. That, my friends, is what you want in a very modern marriage.
(And moreover, on a finer point, you can now see why my parents opted for my mother’s name.)