December 2014

The name-change blues

By Cindy McCombe

When I was born in Durango, Colo., on May 6, 1972, my father named me “Cynthia Marie McCombe.” The “Cynthia” part of my name, which means “moon goddess,” was given to me as a sweet remembrance of an older girl he had a crush on when he was a kid. I didn’t know what to think when I heard that, and it actually rather annoyed me. It is only recently that I have come to terms with that.

My mother’s middle name is “Marie, “and it was passed down to me as a Catholic tradition—it was short for “Mary.” And I learned later on while working in Halifax, Nova Scotia, from a friendly person who carried the last name of “Luscomb” that “McCombe” means “of the mountain.” Combine them and you have “Moon goddess Mary of the mountain.”

Now after 42 years, I have built a lot of my identity around my name. I have wondered on occasion how many times I have signed my name, said it, and heard it. In fact, my whole identity is so wrapped up in my name that when I thought of altering parts of it, I stopped short, feeling I would lose an important anchor to the person I was at birth.

But my two marriages threw a monkey wrench into the situation.

The first go-around, I was starting my 30s and had had some career successes, so I was not about to give up my name and become merely Cindy Black [not my ex’s actual name]. Among other achievements, I was the first editor of the Kodak.com website and delighted in launching global websites for various countries on behalf of this then-giant in photography. Also, I wanted to have children, and I could not imagine my name not being a part of theirs. But my husband wanted me to take his name, so I settled for hyphenation – Cindy McCombe-Black. I didn’t much care for that solution, but I had seen only a few women strong enough to keep their birth name, and I had seen almost none do it when there were children involved.

When that marriage ended after six years and two children, I was slow to give up my hyphenated name. It was not due to my attachment to “McCombe-Black” per se, it was because I wanted my name to be related to my children’s names, as they were both called Black. Why hadn’t I pushed to have my maiden name be their middle name? (My first husband, ironically, had this exact structure to HIS name.)

So I continued with my hyphenated name for legal purposes, but informally I went by Cindy McCombe. And that worked well until I got married a second time, in my 40s.

My second husband declared that hyphenated names were pretentious and he didn’t want me to carry one. I was considering having another child with him, and the same issues crept up. So I added his last name to my last name without a hyphen — having two last names, Cindy McCombe Johnson [again, not his real name]. But I never quite changed from McCombe-Black. It was like walking down the sidewalk with one foot on the curb and one on the pavement. This was sort of an awkward waddle, a clear indication that I had caved and wasn’t motivated to fix or resolve something that seemed to have no right answer anymore. This past year, that marriage ended, too.

Not only is changing your name difficult to do psychologically, it can be very difficult to do legally. At one point after the dissolution of my first marriage, I went to the Social Security office to restore my maiden name. I waited for two hours. When my number was called, I found out that I could not proceed yet, as I did not have an official seal on my divorce papers.

When my divorce became “official,” I’d received an email confirmation with an attachment of the final paperwork. Obviously, my inkjet printer did not print out the documents with a seal on them. I had paid all this money to a lawyer, and now I had to go back and take the papers to some courthouse and pay to have them stamped in order to change my name? It was absurd.

The second time I went to restore my name, I was routed to a Social Security office that had recently stopped processing name changes. Luckily, I had the wherewithal to ask a clerk there if I could have the name change form to fill out and was directed to a sign on the wall that listed which offices still processed name changes. I had to drive a long way to an “approved” name-change Social Security office after I filled out the paperwork, but eventually I got it done.

The four hours I spent that day changing my name at both a Social Security office and also the DMV made me wonder: Why aren’t there more models of women not giving up their names when they marry? I have felt disconnected from my name for more than a decade now.

When it came to deciding what my name should be for the remainder of my life, I did a lot of soul-searching. I thought about choosing a new middle name, for instance, because I am no longer Catholic, and there are non-Catholic names that resonate with me more than “Marie.” However, I decided to keep it, as I like the fact that it’s part of my mother’s name.

In the end, I decided to go back to “Cynthia Marie McCombe,” the name on my birth certificate. Restoring my name was actually a restoration of my identity. I have always been a strong woman, and I felt that my inability to stand up for my desire to keep my name and have it be part of my children’s names was a sign of cowardice. Despite the efforts of feminists, women are trained to please men. This means swallowing much of who we are, and my squelching my desire to keep my name—not once, but twice—is a classic example.

In the end, my children are still called “Black.” They don’t have any part of my name in their names. This is painful to me, but I know how prevalent my influence is in their lives. Still, I will always wish that their names reflected that.

Cindy McCombe is the president of Ability- Catcher, a company with the goal of humanizing the way the world thinks and treats individuals with differing abilities. She lives in San Diego, Calif.