Who's in a name?

Mar 26, 2007

USA Today reported last week that More men [are] taking wives’ last names and how our society is reacting.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would have caused as much of a stir as it did,” says Mike Salinger, 27, of Seattle, who was married in November. “We knew people might be surprised, but we figured they’d say ‘Huh’ and get on with it.”

That struck a bell: Erin and I went through the wringer 10 years ago when we were married and I made the decision to change my name. We returned from our honeymoon (on lovely Mount Dessert Island, Maine) to find that a few family members were put off by my name change. After a lot of tears, some cursing (“It’s my damn name, not theirs!”) and a consideration of family harmony, Erin and I agreed that she’d take Zuiker as her last name.

Had we stuck with Shaughnessy, I suppose mistersugar wouldn’t have come about.

Here’s the text of the letter we wrote to our family and friends to explain our flip flop:

Dear Family and Friends, Thank you all for participating in our wedding. Your presence, your gifts, your hugs and kisses and your good wishes helped to make the day a truly special day and an event that will forever be the happiest of our lives.

In the days leading up to our wedding, Erin and I made a serious and major – and distinctively nontraditional – decision about our union: we chose to name ourselves Anton & Erin Shaughnessy. It was such a new and important and large decision for us that we felt unclear about how best to announce the decision; we did so quietly and unassumingly on the final page of our wedding program. We did not intend to shock people. We did intend to open people’s minds to something different and to encourage discussion. Because of this, many of you our family and friends whom we dearly love and respect have become frustrated, angered, confused or hurt.

This pains Erin and me greatly, and we’ve spent days crying and agonizing about how best to communicate our decision and how best to assure everyone that the decision for me to change my name was in no way – I repeat, in no way – meant to be disrespectful, meant to harm, meant to alienate any of you. And so we’ve chosen to write this letter, to put our thoughts and ideas and action onto paper so that you may understand what we have tried to accomplish. Please read on. Then, we both want to talk individually with each and every one of you who may want to discuss the issue with us: please tell us your reaction, whether it be joyous, angered, confused or understanding.

Not long after Erin and I became engaged in June 1995, I offered to Erin to “take her name” when we would become married. I had thought about this before I said it, and I offered it because I wanted to be an example. I wanted to be an example of a man who cared enough to step into another person’s shoes and understand. To understand the process of marrying, of giving up a name and gaining another name. I thought that understanding the process would be easy, simple, quick. But it wasn’t.

Erin at first didn’t take me seriously. But I knew that she would, because Erin is a humanist who tries to find each and every way to learn, to educate, to cultivate knowledge and peace and love. Many people see Erin as a feminist, but she is so much more. I fell in love with her, in fact, because she is so humble, so sensitive, so visionary, so service minded. I knew Erin would want to take the wonderful opportunity of our marriage to try a new way of learning and educating ourselves and others about gender equality and the traditions of Western marriage.

And so began 14 months of discussion, discernment, debate and discovery. What we’ve found is that it is not a simple issue: We found that the decision to give up a name is intensely difficult, and I’m grateful that I came to understand the difficulty of the sacrifice and gain that women go through every day as they follow tradition and assume their husbands’ names. In that understanding alone, we felt we had accomplished half of our goal. We could have stopped there. We talked about stopping there.

But the decision to change my name, we hoped, would give us the opportunity to encourage others to contemplate the issues involved in a marriage name change. We knew all along that many people do consider what such a name change means for a woman. We wanted people to likewise consider what it means for a man to change his name. For both, it is a personal, a family and a community issue. A name is a tag, most of us would agree. It is a label that identifies who we are, what we have accomplished, what we look like and how we act. When a person changes his or her name, there is suddenly a new label, a new tag, a new series of letters to identify that person. Erin and I firmly believe that each and every individual has the right to change the name by which she or he is known.

But a name change also affects family. Erin and I know that our families are immensely proud of who we are and what we have accomplished in our lives. We thank them for that, and for all the wonderful words they share with people when they talk about us. Erin and I deliberated over how my name change would affect our families, but we didn’t fully understand the impact of our decision. I am extremely proud of my heritage and of the people before me that bore the name Zuiker. Erin, too, is proud of her name, defensive of her family and its name. Everyday, when women assume the names of their husbands’, do they stand ashamed and rejecting their heritage? Absolutely not, we believe. And so we want our family and our friends to be proud of us, of our strength.

Be proud because to the community, actions are more explanatory and definitive than names. People in the communities of Cleveland, Chicago, DeKalb, Honolulu and beyond know us for how we act. And that’s how we want to be understood. As concerned adults who choose to learn and teach and share and discuss. These are lessons we learned from our families. The Zuiker and Sisco clans are all about sharing and giving, service and leadership, teaching and learning. It is from them that I learned to be so thoughtful and thought-provoking. And the Shaughnessy family is so warm and accepting, so generous and always ready to spend hours discussing and talking and challenging. From them Erin learned to be who she is, a woman sure of herself and sure that equality is attainable.

A common question that I have been asked regards the ramifications a name change would have on my career. Of this, I am not concerned. (In fact, as a writer, it would always give me something to write about, yes?!) Everyday, women change their names, and unless I’m mistaken, they go on doing the jobs they do, in their able or unable way. I don’t believe I have ever heard of a woman being fired or mistreated because she took a new name.

I expect to be treated no differently in my profession. Besides, I consider myself having just begun my career. I have so far to go and it will be my actions, my attitudes, my ideas and my writing that take me there. When I am editor of National Geographic, I hope all of my family and friends will be proud of my accomplishment, regardless of which name I choose.

When we discussed changing my name, Erin and I realized that we would spend countless hours over our entire lives explaining our decision and our action. What we didn’t realize was that you, too, would be asked to explain why we chose to do something so nontraditional.

It is a reminder that everything we do has consequences on the people around us and in the world we live. We hope that you will try to understand and to explain to others the process we went through.

But in the end, Erin and I chose to name ourselves Zuiker. And here, I’ll let her explain:

Anton and I have gone through a series of discoveries that have led us to an enlightened understanding. We have been honest and thoughtful, concerned and careful, hopeful and loving. We have debated about our names, our principles and our Families, discussing and discerning. Our letter to you, we hope, will explain our actions.

I asked Anton if we could together take the name of Zuiker.

Anton looked at me with a stunned expression as we drove back from my grandpa’s farm. I have no explanation or grand reason for wanting the name Zuiker other than that I deeply love Anton and as a symbol of that love I want to take his name as my own. For all the reasons that Anton asked to take my name, and for all the reasons that he never asked me to take his name, I want to take the name Zuiker. I want Anton and me to be a family, a union.

The naming process that Anton and I have undergone has taught us invaluable lessons about decision making, tradition, identity, honesty and love.

One of the greatest is sacrifice.

Anton is the most spiritual and giving human being I know and because he is a Zuiker, he offered to sacrifice his name and take my own as a sign of his love. I respect his actions more than I can ever express in words, and because of his actions he is Anton Joseph Zuiker and I am Erin Marie Zuiker. And we are now a family.

Our marriage has begun so beautifully. Thank you for being a part of it. Know that your thoughts and prayers, your presence and presents, your honesty and concern, and all of your embraces-physical as well as mental-have borne us on wings of utter joy, and yes, eternal discovery.

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC