On Sunday, I caught snippets of my husband Matt’s Mother’s Day phone call with his mom. I was trying not to eavesdrop in between running out to water the new plant starters and sautéeing onions for dinner because frankly that’s a dick move. But I couldn’t help overhearing him describe his recent bout of tonsillitis waged just days before.
“Yeah, I’m feeling better,” he said. “The medication was making me feel even worse at first, but my wife called and got me a new antibiotic prescription.”
My wife? I’m not close with my in-laws, but they are certainly aware of my name. Was it too difficult to say? Too many syllables? Nothing compared to that lumbering last name you saddled me with, my husband.
“Why did you call me ‘my wife’?” I asked as soon as he’d disconnected the call. “I have a name, you know.”
“Huh? When?” I repeated the exact sentence back, and it was like recounting the witching hour to an Ambien addict.
“And you’ve done that before,” I added, which was also true. I’d heard my identity erased to his father, his boss, his high school friend. Two, three dozen times before I let it slide down a slope to gather into a trash heap I could no longer pretend I didn’t see. Today it blocked out the sun.
“Sorry,” he said, bewildered. He wasn’t conscious he’d even been doing it, let alone close to grasping why it upset me. I was only just brushing up against the reason myself.
When I got back from my honeymoon, the first thing I did was drive to the Social Security Administration Office in Clackamas to legally change my name. I’d already alerted my Cooking Light magazine subscription and Portland General Electric’s billing department that Tabitha Jensen was dead; please forward all future inquiries to Mrs. Tabitha Blankenbiller.
There was never any question that I’d take Matt’s last name. Anyone that didn’t, I thought at 23, was being fussy. Be a family! Share a name. Who cares what you were before? This is your chance to be better.
It’s simple to throw your identity away when you have no idea what you want in life. It’s so much easier to hide in the shelter of a single facet, to let its thick, blunt lines fill in what you do not possess. I wanted to be Mrs. Blankenbiller so badly because, at the time, it was the only thing I wanted. I hadn’t discovered that I needed to become an artist or spiritually die. I was still taking my family for granted—I hadn’t been forced to live without them. I’d yet to have my competence challenged because of my age or gender or body. When it came to being an adult, I was a zygote.
“Are you completely changing your name?” The employee double-checked.
“Totally,” I said as if it was the only answer.
I didn’t seriously consider changing my name back to Tabitha Jensen until we were in Tucson. We had to move to the city for Matt’s job. We leapt into a city we’d never visited with no assurances on how it would work out.
It did not work out for me. I felt marooned. I had no roots, not to the area, not to the community, not to my job. Without connection I seemed invisible, as if I were nothing but “the wife.” Pack up your house, your pets, your wife. Bring them here, we’ll set you up.
The idea of reclaiming my name was an attempt to seize control of my identity. I was from people and a place, and it’s not here. I was my own person before I was here. I had a whole life before I met Matt and ended up here, lost.
I started writing it in places. Tabitha Jensen-Blankenbiller. I switched it over on the most innocent of places: Facebook. Just so old classmates or whoever could find me, was a likely excuse. I tried it out on my email. I edited my signature. I was out of characters on Twitter, so I downsized: Tabitha Jensen.
I made a list of all the places I would need to change. The DMV, the bank, the utilities, the student loan sharks, my alma maters, my website. The undercurrent to all this hassle was telling Matt that I was breaking up with his name. “This isn’t about you,” I could try and say. And it would be true. It was all me wanting to be me, wanting my past back. Wanting to make up for the haste of my flippant past self. But I knew he wouldn’t see it that way. What had he done wrong, he’d want to know. Was this because he moved me here? Did I want to leave? When had I stopped loving him?
The editor of an essay I was having published emailed me a week before press. “What should I put as your last name?” She wanted to know. My email addresses and signatures were all contradicting each other. I was a mess of pseudonyms.
“Tabitha Blankenbiller,” I said, because it was easy. I was too afraid of that battle. Now that I’m back in Oregon with my family and friends and haunts, I haven’t been hungry enough to wage it again.
A few hours after Matt hung up the phone, I watched the penultimate episode of Mad Men. These last season episodes have been on a streak of seething scenes of wholly contemporary misogyny. The malignant micro-aggressions at McCann-Erickson were more than even Joan, one of the strongest women on television, could dismantle. I think I felt telepathic seismic rage with everyone I know on that line: “who told you you get to be pissed off?!”
One of the best/worst of these Great Moments in Sexism was last Sunday, when we see Betty Draper passively learn of her lung cancer diagnosis. She is taken to the hospital after collapsing on a flight of stairs, but no one will read her the diagnosis. “Call your husband,” the doctor demands before he will explain a word.
The camera keeps Betty’s profile in perfect focus as the doctor and her husband speak as blurs in the background, as if she is incapable of comprehending her fallible body. She only has nine months to live, it has spread through her.
His wife is dying.
I know that omitting my name wasn’t something that Matt did to hurt me. But I don’t think that a man can understand the threat of erasure the way that a woman must. They don’t have to be vigilant about their identities. They are not expected to lop off half of their name or defer to the head of household. They don’t have to worry about whose feelings they’ll hurt if they buck the expectation. A name means something. The lack of it means something. The only time it doesn’t is when you’ve never had to fight for it.