Why My Husband Changed His Last Name to Mine

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My husband Mike and I had been teaching in San Francisco Bay Area private schools for years before we got married. Our students’ last names rarely matched their moms’ last names. Sometimes their names didn’t match anyone else’s name at all. Ben River’s mom was Kate Scully, his dad John Rivoli. In the beginning of the year I always had to check the students’ files before sending emails, confused about who went with whom.

I never considered for one millisecond taking Mike’s last name, Gerbec. Too many hard sounds, grrr and beck, a growl and a slap. Sinclaire is easy to say, and to me is vaguely regal-sounding. I suppose it translates as “without clarity,” but nobody I know knows French anymore. When I give my name to receptionists they often praise it: “That sounds like a movie star!” Why, thank you.

“Would you consider changing your last name to Sinclaire?” I asked Mike, half expecting him to laugh.

“Maybe,” he said thoughtfully. “I like it.”

Mike and I wanted to share one last name for the elegance and ease of it. Our Midwestern roots certainly influenced our decision. How many hand-carved door signs had we passed as kids that read The Stewarts, The Johnsons? We had recently heard horror stories of medical nightmares in which not having the same last name made it more difficult to see a loved one in the hospital. And I wanted custom-made return address stickers that read The _____Family. I could almost feel their adhesive backs on my fingers.

We played around with the idea of choosing a new name like Ben River’s parents had done. How would we ever choose, considering my writerly obsession with words? Our friends suggested letting a dictionary fall open to a page and choosing from just those words. That seemed too arbitrary.

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My husband Mike and me.

Why not hyphenate? Hyphenated last names were popular in the 1980s when we were growing up, but they were a mouthful. As elementary school teachers, we felt it was too great a burden to our future offspring to ask them to spell Gerbec-Sinclaire or Sinclaire-Gerbec. Plus, those combinations sounded awful. Sinbec? Gerclaire? Hideous.

Deep down I knew that I would always be a Sinclaire. I was defined by my family, while Mike carved himself out of his and identified himself in opposition. I looked and sounded nearly identical to my two sisters and stepped in line with my family’s liberal values; Mike bucked the family trends by moving west, growing his hair long, studying East Asian religion, and dating a Democratic heathen, me.

I felt the Sinclaires (with an e on the end) were endangered. My dad’s parents were long gone, as well as one of his sisters, to cancer, and his two remaining sisters were no longer Sinclaires. I had two sisters myself, neither in any rush to reproduce. Mike, in contrast, had his virile younger brother.

“Would you consider changing your last name to Sinclaire?” I asked Mike, half expecting him to laugh.

“Maybe,” he said thoughtfully. “I like it.”

We got married and put off any forms related to name changing. We were busy, we hadn’t decided, we didn’t know what to do. For a year we were just ourselves. Just Mike Gerbec and Leila Sinclaire, a married couple. One day over breakfast, Mike told me that he was changing his last name to mine as an “anniversary” present, never mind that our first anniversary had come and gone.

It turned out that changing your last name when you are male is exponentially more annoying than changing it when you are female, especially if you have waited some time since marrying. Mike was first in line at the courthouse in Brooklyn one summer morning, which did him no good, as he still had to wait over six hours for his turn to be seen by the judge to obtain a court order. Next he had to run an ad in the local newspaper stating his name change. This is not a joke. The idea that running an ad in the newspaper might prevent a fraudulent name change was and is painfully old-fashioned, but so it went. The rest of Mike’s name change to-do list felt endless: social security card, passport, driver’s license, bank accounts, frequent flier programs. We had a bulging file folder to try to keep it all contained. Every time I handled Mike’s original birth certificate, I felt nervous, like a fake adult.

Once it was official, Mike’s dad appeared unfazed by his name change, while his mom cried and unearthed memorabilia from the attic to share with him for the first time. “Better late than never,” he told me, grateful to have learned more family history. Mike, I should note, is a contrarian who enjoys aggressively rhetorical questions. He is a bluegrass musician in a sea of rock stars. This flip of the social convention made sense for him. By getting to keep my name and share a name with Mike, I feel I got to have my cake and eat it too.

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