Why I’ve Reclaimed my Name

One of the most exciting moments of being an author is receiving an advance proof copy of the book you’ve sweated blood and tears over for months, or years even. For me, it’s even more thrilling because of the name on the spine, and on the top of every left-hand page throughout: Clare Pooley. My maiden name. The name I thought I’d lost. The person I’d temporarily mislaid.

I changed my name when I got married, nearly eighteen years ago. I didn’t think twice about adopting my new husband’s surname. For me, it was a show of love, of commitment. It was a sign that I was entering a new phase of life. It was also, I believed, a pre-requisite to starting a family; a family who would all share the same name.

It did strike me as a little archaic and anti-feminist that women should be expected to take their husband’s name, rather than vice versa, but I accepted that as a quirk of tradition, like the royal family, Morris dancing or playing conkers.

For the first five years, I was happy about my new name, because at work I was still Clare Pooley. It got a little complicated sometimes, like on the occasions where I’d turn up at an airport with a ticket booked in one name and a passport in another, but it was manageable.

Then, when my third child was born, ten years ago, I quit my job in order to spend some time as a stay-at-home mum. I also lost my name in the collateral damage.

I didn’t think this would bother me. After all, having one name instead of two made life an awful lot simpler and made me feel less schizophrenic. I hadn’t realised how much the name I’d lived with for thirty-nine years was bound up with my identity. When I lost my name I also lost my sense of self. I felt as if I only existed as someone’s wife, or someone’s mother.

“A name represents identity, a deep feeling and holds tremendous significance to its owner.”

Rachel Ingber

Now I wonder why we women abandon our identities so lightly?

There are, of course, options.

You can elect to keep your own names when you marry, but this can make things tricky if you have children. Whose name do they take? If they use your husband’s, you constantly have to explain to people that you are, actually, their mother. It can also make things really tricky at airports. A friend of mine, who kept her maiden name, was travelling with her ten-year-old daughter who used her father’s surname. At passport control her daughter was asked “Is this your mother?” “No”, she replied, resulting in a three hour interrogation at customs. When they finally emerged, her mother asked why she’d said no. “I thought it must be a trick question,” her daughter replied.

You can double-barrel, link both your names together, although this can be a bit unwieldy and look slightly pretentious. It also wasn’t an option in my case, as my husband’s name was already double-barrelled and super long. Our poor children complained at nursery school that they’d often end up missing much of break time as write your name on top of your painting before you go wasn’t as easy for them as their friends.

My favourite option, and one being used increasingly by same-sex couples, is to splice, or mesh, your names. When Dawn Porter married Chris O’Dowd, for example, she changed her name to Dawn O’Porter. This strikes me as brilliantly equitable and creates a name your children can share. It’s also a great metaphor for marriage – you each bring part of your history into the relationship, and you both have to compromise. Although my name isn’t ideal, obviously, as who wants a mash-up with Poo?

“Letitia! What a name. Halfway between a salad and a sneeze.”

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

I still remember vividly the first time I used my maiden name again, nearly three years ago. I had a meeting at Hodder & Stoughton, who were interested in publishing my memoir – The Sober Diaries (only 99p on Kindle for a limited time only – just sayin’) I turned up, incredibly nervous, at their huge, shiny offices alongside the River Thames and walked up to reception. “What’s your name?” they asked. “Clare Pooley,” I replied, and in my head a little voice said yay, baby, she’s back.

“My great-great-grandmother walked as a slave from Virginia to Eatonton, Georgia. It is in memory of this walk that I chose to keep and to embrace my ‘maiden’ name, Walker.”

Alice Walker

I still use my married name for all family and social events, but my maiden name is the one I publish under, and it makes me feel like my life – instead of being a game of two halves – has come full circle. I think back to that little Clare Pooley, reading by torchlight under the duvet and dreaming of being an author and whisper to her: we did it.

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