Wendyl Nissen: Keeping a surname is about identity and belonging

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Wendyl Nissen. Photo / Supplied
Wendyl Nissen. Photo / Supplied

Recently a friend married and took her husband's name. I won't lie to you, I was shocked. And so were the Aunties, a group of witty, wise, intelligent women who had guided both of us carefully through our formative years.

"Lunch!" they demanded. "Let's hear it from the horse's mouth."

I dutifully organised the lunch and the horse's mouth dealt to the Aunties in under 30 seconds by simply saying that for 16 years her partner had been mistakenly referred to by her name, so now it was her turn to bear his name.

To my surprise the senior feminists smiled benevolently throwing the explanation over their left shoulders like so many grains of lucky salt and had another drink.

"Still," I thought to myself. "It's not feminism is it?"

I've been married twice and at my second wedding I was asked during the speeches if I would be taking my husband's name.

"Certainly not," I said rather firmly for a wedding day. Of all the questions I was expecting to be asked at my wedding this was not one of them.

"When's it due?" perhaps. But not this.

I was told by the interrogator that I was really missing out on something turning down the chance to take such a great name

"Meh," I thought.

Had my father not been such a quietly spoken gentleman who would never dream of taking someone on during the speeches at a wedding it could have turned into quite the brouhaha of Game of Thrones proportions as each clan staked its claim.

At the very core of the feminism movement, I believe, is the right of a woman to have an identity. To be her own person, not, as other generations have had to do, lose it the moment she was married and simply became Mrs Husband, a chattel belonging to House Husband.

Since I started writing this column where I have challenged myself to be a supportive wife for a year, it has been suggested that perhaps the most supportive of acts would be to take his name.

But that's not going to happen. Coffee in bed, yes. Subjugation, I think not.

As much as I adore my husband, I married him at the age of 35 by which time all the hard work of forming me as an individual had been done. By my family.

I had barely met my husband's family when we married and as nice as they are none of them had invested in my life, handed down the genes that give me brown eyes and curly hair, given me a Danish, French and British heritage or caught me smoking and taught me how to fish.

We're hardly Burke's Peerage but it's who I am. Unless you are Maori in this country we have very little to go on when it comes to roots and cultural identity, so what I have is cherished and not up for exchange.

Iceland has the perfect system. A child can be given their mother or father's Christian name. You can be Helgudottir (Helga's daughter) Helguson (Helga's son) or Jonsdottir (John's daughter) or Jonsson (John's son).

Which means it can be difficult to avoid having sex with a relative, but fortunately they've developed an iPhone app for that. Before you go to bed you bump your iPhones and an alarm goes off if you're about to sleep with your cousin. Phew.

When my children were born I did what many parents did in the 80s and gave them both their father's and my surnames in a very long 13-letters-plus-a-dash double-barrelled surname. It seemed a good compromise.

Now that children of the 80s have grown up and are marrying each other both partners have double-barrelled surnames which means if they have children, technically, they will be blessed with a quadruple-barrelled surname, which any feminist in her right mind would admit is just silly.

Some dissociated young things with no wish to be reminded of their heritage get married and make up their own name. Windsor anyone? So Royal. Mainwaring? So Dad's Army.

When I had my last child, I went all out to give her my surname.

Then we decided to call her Pearl. Which means her name when the school roll was called would be P. Nissen. It didn't happen.

She carries the very name I refused to take at my wedding, which means that at least she isn't "missing out on something".

- NZ Herald

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