When I tweeted recently that I was proudly taking my wife’s surname to become Mr Tansley, I thought of it as merely a courtesy to my small online following. Social media was the first place I’d “officially” changed my name, so here was a brief explanation for anyone who happened to notice I was no longer Mr Livesley – and another excuse to post a wedding photo.
The tweet swiftly gained attention, and as I enjoyed the mild dopamine rush of my likes running into the hundreds and thousands, I was heartened to notice that the comments were almost entirely positive: “There’s no greater show of love”. “So much better than the awful double-barrelled option” (it’s true, Livesley-Tansley was never going to work). “Ask your boyfriend if he’d do this. If he baulks at the idea, don’t marry him”. “Well done and thank you, Mr Tansley. Take a bow”.
That last one struck me as especially absurd, because I’d never intended to make a big statement. The decision is rooted in a conversation several years ago, before I’d asked my now-wife Phoebe to marry me, when she simply told me that she wanted to keep her surname forever. Tansley is who she is, she said – an integral part of her identity. It ties her to herself, to her Scottish roots, but more importantly to her parents, both of whom sadly died years before they could have seen her get married.
My main takeaway from that conversation wasn’t a fully-formed plan to take Phoebe’s name – far from it. The decision took much longer than that. But what Phoebe had said made me notice I didn’t feel that way about my own surname.
There are a few reasons for this – firstly, Livesley has never exactly rolled off the tongue. It lends itself to errors. I’d be lying if I said I’ll miss getting post addressed to Mr Livesy, Liversly or Libeflery after spelling it out on the phone.
What’s more, I don’t necessarily think of my family as “the Livesleys” – my sister changed her surname when she got married and my brother has adopted his stage name full-time, so the emotional ties that continue to bind us haven’t taken the form of a unifying name for years. Ultimately, it’s nothing more complex or deep-rooted than that – either your surname means the world to you, or it doesn’t. My family does.
That realisation gave way to a gradual process. Phoebe and I talked many times after getting engaged, wondering if there was a way to combine our names – but the “-sley” in both meant we’d do better to just pick one than try to create a portmanteau. We even toyed with “Ley” for a while – but I wouldn’t have liked Al Ley any more than I like being called Ali.
Two things eventually struck me. I had no problem changing my name, and it would mean an awful lot to Phoebe if I did. And being able to decide to do so was a privilege – so many women through the years must have felt they had no choice. My dad’s reaction when I told him was indifference, but my mum exclaimed “That’s just what you do, isn’t it?!” when I suggested that Phoebe didn’t have to take my surname.
Of course, maybe I’ll feel differently about Livesley when my own parents aren’t here. But my new name is something gained, not lost – I’ll always be their son and three different letters aren’t about to change that. And while there’s currently no male child in the Livesley family to carry the name forward, the Tansleys don’t have one either. But maybe by the time the kids grow up, one of the girls might feel she can do it herself.
We’ve got an 18-month-old daughter (another factor in my decision) and I’d love to think that one day she and her cousins won’t even question the idea of picking their own married name. Because that’s really what this is about – moving the dial. Taking a tiny step towards normalising what I’ve done.
There’s so much about the patriarchy that’s unavoidably baked into marriage – and indeed everyday life – so why wouldn’t I do something that pushes back just that little bit more? Why not make that gesture of love and respect to my wife that says “We’re equals, your history is as important as mine” and sets that as the tone for our life together?
Since my tweet got such a reaction I’ve been trying to think why taking Phoebe’s name is seen as so remarkable. I can only assume that it’s just another case of the status quo being hard to shift. Maybe some men don’t because they worry about how it will be perceived (I did, but to my surprise even my blokiest mates reacted with nothing but positivity). Or maybe it feels like the biggest decision in the world (it’s not) and they wonder if they’ll regret it. Or perhaps it never occurs to them.
I’d say to any man considering taking his wife’s surname that if it feels like the right thing to do, you shouldn’t hesitate. It made me even prouder to stand alongside my wife on our wedding day and commit myself to our future in front of everyone we love.
Of course, I can only speak about the decision from an emotional point of view – I haven’t even scratched the surface of the paperwork and I’ve no doubt that legally speaking, it will be a spectacular faff. But I really don’t mind. As my mum rightly pointed out, women have been doing it unquestioningly for centuries.