THELMA and I met recently at our doctor’s waiting room – it was the first time I’d seen her after we left secondary school all those decades ago. Deep in the excitement of catching up on those lost years, the receptionist called out brightly: “Mrs. Johnson?” Thelma was on her feet without hesitation, even though she’d confessed to me earlier she’d been divorced longer than she could remember. As she left the consulting room, we arranged to meet up and exchanged numbers. I really don’t often look forward to these “do you remember when” moments and seldom hook up with past acquaintances I meet up casually but was pleased when Thelma got in touch, she was having a little get-together at her place and invited me over. I was glad to take up her offer.
It was definitely nice being friends again and when next we met over ‘buka’ lunch, she wanted to know how easy it was for me to transit- from my maiden name to my married name only to go back to my maiden name. She didn’t wait for an answer. “When my husband and I split up in 1998, after almost 25 years together, I kept his name for practical reasons,” she told me. “During our married life, I had become reasonably well known as an actress and it seemed professional suicide to revert to my original name, a name nobody recognised. So, against my feminist principles, I had little choice but to stay with a surname that bore absolutely no relation to my status or lifestyle. I was, and would remain, a single woman stuck with a married name, even though I called myself Miss on official documents.
“When the children were little, it made things neat and easy for us all to have the same surname, especially when travelling as a family. Now they’re fully grown and doing well in their chosen professions, my sacrifice seems to have been worth it. You watch all these border security series on the TV of women being stopped at airports because they have a different surname to their children and have had to explain at great length that they really are their mothers. Border officials are, of course, worried about trafficking, but for many women these days, it is an unforeseen consequence of hanging on to your maiden name.
“When I got married in the early seventies, I thought it was a legal requirement for women to take their husband’s surname. It was only much later I learned it was merely a custom and never enshrined in law. But at the time, women who kept their own names were virtually non-existent and considered odd. Didn’t they want to be married? When I got married all those years ago, I had not chalked up any achievements whatsoever, so it seemed I had nothing to lose by taking my husband’s name for all purposes. Little did I know my career would blossom to the point that I would bitterly regret not hanging onto my own name, at least professionally. “
These days, it’s common for women to revert to their maiden names on divorce, shaking off the one associated with an ex. Yet some hang onto their ex’s name for years. Sinatu, 45 and a medical doctor stuck to her ex’s name for eight years and only changed to her current name when she remarried. “I stuck with my ex husband’s surname because my two daughters, who were in secondary school then, felt strongly about it. Now that they’re grown up and doing their own thing, they don’t seem to care.
“I thought briefly of changing to my maiden name when my ex remarried, which meant there would be two of us hanging on to his surname; leading to a sort of identity crisis! He didn’t seem to care but I was fortunate to meet my current husband. My ex doesn’t’ really get along with him and it would be nasty of me to combine two married names – afterall, I wouldn’t have been the first to have done that!”
“Some of my divorce friends have reverted to their maiden names though a few still cling to the surnames of their ex. One or two have stuck to their maiden names even after they remarried – especially when they’re second or third wives!” said Thelma. “Some boyfriends I’ve had since my divorce have said they feel awkward about me still being called by my married name and would prefer to think of me as a Miss – untainted, instead of carrying a long-age ex’s name. I once thought fleetingly of changing to my maiden name. I had a go at a signature I haven’t used for over 40 years and it felt as if I was using an alias – as if that person is not me any more …. “