Throughout my childhood, I hated my first name. My mother in her warped way always insisted that I had a “beautiful” name and that she wished that people would call her by it rather than her nickname. Even as a child, I always wondered, “If you hate the nickname so much, then why do you introduce yourself by that name? Why not tell people to call you by the full name?” However, my sense of self-preservation knew far better than to say something like that to her.
When I went to college, I went by my given name for the first semester. Then when I returned from winter break, I realized, “Wait. I don’t have to use that name. I can go by any name I want. I can use my middle name.” I think in part it was due to the fact that my maternal grandmother had died a few days before I left for college in August, and so in my mind, the name was now available for use in the family. I wish I’d realized that five months earlier when I first arrived at college, but all in all, it wasn’t a hard transition to make. My friends accepted it, and we moved on with most of them calling me “Beth” though I preferred Elizabeth in the classroom. Family members were a bit more resistant, but most eventually adjusted to the change, and they too started calling me Beth.
Two and a half years later I got married. I hated my first name with a passion by that point, and I was incredibly anxious to drop it. In retrospect, I really wish I had approached the name change differently. If I had to do it again, I would have gotten a legal name change to drop my first name and preserving my maiden name as my last name instead of turning it into my middle name. However, I took my husband’s last name as my own even though I didn’t really like the name and I didn’t feel like I was a part of his family. The net result was bumping over my names by one to add his last name on the end and drop my first name on the front.
I also had the fanciful notion that I could use all three names without a hyphen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did it somewhat successfully, so surely I could, too. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the reality as I quickly discovered. Most people are lazy and want to drop as many syllables as possible. Thus, a year into the marriage, I adopted a hyphen between my maiden last name and his last name to try to force people to use both names. Sometimes it worked. Often it didn’t. His last name is easier to pronounce than my maiden name, so most people just shortened it to his name even if they didn’t know which was his and which was mine. Speaking with other women who hyphenate, I have found they have the same experience. People decide to pick one name and shorten the hyphenated name without the permission of the owner of the name.
Likewise, I often found that people shortened my first name to “Liz” without my permission. They just decided that my nickname would be Liz. Never mind that Beth, Betsy, Libby, Libba, Eliza, Bess, Bessie, Betty, Bette, Lisa, Ellie, and other names are all nicknames for Elizabeth, too. They picked Liz, and the sound of that name when addressed toward me makes my hair stand on end. I have several friends named Liz, and it doesn’t bother me at all to call them Liz. But calling me Liz? That makes me crazy. I prefer to be called Elizabeth.
Fast-forward twenty years, and my marriage ended. I was left with the dilemma many women face about what to do with their names after divorce. I didn’t want to keep my ex’s name though he explicitly told me that he could understand why I might want to after having used it for 20 years, and he was ok with that. He also understood how much I didn’t really like the name, so he understood if I didn’t want to keep it.
My kids’ names are hyphenated as mine was, so if I had simply dropped my ex’s last name, then I still would have shared part of their name. That seemed like the logical thing to do. Given the usefulness of Facebook in a situation like this, I changed my name to Elizabeth with my maiden last name on Facebook as a trial to see how it felt. For four weeks I lived with that name, but every time I looked at it, I cringed. I couldn’t stand the idea of going back to it even without my birth first name involved.
At that point, I talked to my therapist, and she agreed with what I had figured out: It was time for a new last name. One that was mine. One that had no ties to any of the men in my life. One that represented my new start and my new life. I spent some time thinking about it, and I decided that I wanted a name that meant “healer” as I feel that my purpose in this life was to heal my own soul and in turn, to help others heal. I got on the internet and Googled names that meant healer, and I began perusing various websites. Once I saw the name “Galen” (pronounced GAY-lin), I was certain that was my new name. It jumped out at me, and there was no other word on the screen that mattered. I briefly contemplated the more feminine “Galena,” but it didn’t feel right to me.
Once again, I switched my name on Facebook to see how it felt, this time to Elizabeth Galen. Every time I saw the name, it made me smile and filled me with joy. It was a name that I loved and that I thought was beautiful. It just felt right. Several friends messaged me over the next few weeks to tell me how much they liked it and how much they felt it suited me. None knew the reasons I had picked it; some assumed that it was actually my maiden name.
The only hurdle left at that point was my kids’ last name being completely different than mine. Since my kids were all old enough (14, 14, and 11) to understand, that helped. I explained to them why I had chosen the name and why I was doing it. My ex and I had actually agreed when the kids were born that if we didn’t get their names right, we would pay for legal name changes for any of them when they turned 18. So I informed the kids of on that agreement, telling them that if they wanted to start casually playing with their last names, that was fine. If they wanted to keep them the same, that was fine. And if they wanted to change their last name to Hermes when they turned 18, that was ok, too. When I was younger, I couldn’t have understood that the bond between my kids and me wouldn’t have been affected at all by us having different last names, but at this juncture, it didn’t even seem a remote possibility that the name change could affect our strong bonds. It is a bit strange filling out forms and having my name be completely different than theirs, but I’m getting used to it.
So now I am Elizabeth Galen; when the divorce was finalized, the name change became legal. Every time I sign my new name, I am filled with gratitude for a name that I love so much.
© 2014 Green Heart Guidance