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I’m very much a Capricorn mountain goat in my approach to life. I achieve goals slowly but surely, and meander up the mountainside chewing grass along the way. As such, I was pushing 40 by the time I got married and became a father.
Choosing a name for my first son was no easy task. My wife and I produced a list of more than 100 boys names – everything from legendary men to great uncles. And by a steady process of elimination, we whittled it down during her final trimester until five names remained, and chose Benjamin because we agreed that almost every “Ben” we had known, we had liked.
My wife kept her surname after we got married, but was open for our son to take mine, if I wanted, once we had rejected the unwieldly pairing of both of our surnames. I thought about the most appropriate family name for my son. I had emigrated from England to Canada alone, and have since been accepted into my wife’s rather extensive Portuguese-Canadian family. Ben will grow up as part of this family, be immersed in their language and culture every day, and form a much closer identification with her name than with mine. In consideration of this, we gave him my wife’s surname.
We got lucky with naming our second child, another son. The grunt work had been done on our list of boy names, and we immediately agreed on Miles. He also took my wife’s surname because there was now an even stronger case to do so.
When Ben started attending kindergarten, the school addressed me by my wife’s surname. It was just assumed that his name was my name, and I didn’t mind, so I didn’t feel the need to correct it. But on paper I had a different surname to my family; or put another way, they had a different surname to me. This bothered me more than I cared to admit.
Ben also began to realize that, outside of school, I would refer to myself and others would refer to me by a different surname, and this bothered him, too. My wife reminded me that I had made a pledge to her, before we were married, that I would take her surname if and when we had kids – knowing at that time that she wanted to keep hers. She was right. I did, and in theory it wasn’t a problem. However, when I thought about actually going ahead with this at my age, I hit a mental wall. My surname had been my identity for over four decades. It was my father’s name and his father’s name, down the line, embedded in my paternal ancestry. I am the son of an Irish Catholic man. Men in my family, in my culture, have a tradition of handing down their name to each generation of offspring – with the sons carrying this forward to the next generation. This was the way it was, and who was I to change it?
But I had already changed it by giving my sons my wife’s surname, and the few male friends I divulged this to were shocked and challenged me on my decision. So, when I admitted to them that I was also considering changing my surname to my wife’s surname, their reaction was even stronger.
In truth, I was having a difficult time with the idea of taking her name and changing my identity despite the fact that wives have mostly been doing this dating back to medieval England. I remember my sister having difficulty taking her new husband’s surname simply because she didn’t like it. I looked again at the hyphenated pairing of both of our surnames. It seemed like more of a half measure and a compromise than a commitment, and prompted the case to jump or not to jump.
So, I jumped.
I remember the day I went to the government office to request a new driving licence and health card in my wife’s name. I was called to a desk where I explained my request to a male clerk about my age, and presented him with my official marriage certificate. I was anticipating some kind of a reaction, but he had no reaction at all. He processed the paperwork, and a few weeks later I received my new IDs. Same with my passports.
It was easy enough to change the name on my utility bills with a phone call or an e-mail, and not so easy for other things, such as municipal property tax. Yet this has nothing to do with me being a man. The official aspects of me changing my name were relatively straightforward and certainly no different to the process that women undergo. But the social aspects were different. When I mention my name change to female friends, I am something of a hero. A new man. But with a lot of my male friends, I get a sense of being perceived as more a traitor to my gender. Some of them have openly remarked as such, others had a more subtle approach, and a few just implied it. To this day, two years after I officially took my wife’s surname, not a single man has told me that they agree with my decision and would happily do likewise.
Women from an older generation, such as my mother-in-law, seem utterly confused by what I have done; and I cannot accurately gauge my father-in-law’s response at all. When I consulted my father about this, prior to making the change, he said (with an honesty I adore): “It bothers me, son. But it bothers me more that it bothers me in the first place.” I have never told him that I did eventually change my name, and probably never will unless he reads this.
About a year after I had committed to the name on paper, I needed to go a step further. Up until this point I was living in a world with two surnames, and still used my “maiden” name at work. When I changed jobs, I used this opportunity to apply in my married name. For the first few months, it was strange to hear and see it every day, but surely no less so for women. Over time, the more I wear the name, the less of an imposter it has become. I now regularly refer to myself by my married name when I am out and about with my family, and ensure my eldest son hears me.
My daughter was born shortly afterward into the Dias family – a name and a title I take pride in creating. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any family that has different surnames, but I am glad I made the choice for us all to have the same one. As it turned out, a decision which initially made me feel like less of a man, has actually made me feel like more of a man for doing what is right for my family.
Drew Dias lives in Mississauga, Ont.