O'TOOLE: Marriage, divorce and the name game

Divorce was relatively rare when I was growing up, but the divorced women I knew kept their married names until they remarried.
Mar 5, 2013


When occasionally a woman reverted to her maiden name, her social circle spread the news with raised eyebrows.

Two years after my own divorce, I’m the one causing the raised eyebrows because I’m still using my ex-husband’s name.

When I first met the man who would become my husband, his surname was one of his most attractive features. O’Toole sounded great with my first name. It sounded so musical, so Irish. (For those who address me otherwise, it’s pronounced “Oh-Tool,” not “Oh-Tool-ee.” The “e” is silent, people.)

I tried out the new moniker with my creative writing classmates long before I was engaged. One of them remarked that my nom de plume was visually and phonetically pleasing for a writer. Others nodded their heads.

That was the moment I became Kelly O’Toole, not the moment the pastor pronounced me a wife on my wedding day.

My maiden name is Smith. It’s a nice, solid surname. As a noun, it means metalworker. As a verb, it means to forge something by pounding and hammering.

I come from a family with strong work ethics, so the Smith name is apt. It’s also concise. Everyone knows how to pronounce it. It doesn’t require an apostrophe or a second capital letter.

But with all due respect to my family, it’s also a little, well, common.

When I was Kelly Smith, I was often confused with other Kelly Smiths. I was often asked, “Which Kelly Smith are you?” That was a question I was never quite sure how to answer. And it made me feel less than unique, less than special.

I received some amusing phone calls from boys trying to reach one of the other three or four Kelly Smiths on campus while I was a student at Central Michigan University.

One fellow said he sat next to me in psychology. I wasn’t enrolled in psychology. I tried to apprise him of this, but he got huffy. “Why are you doing this to me?” he demanded. “Why are you playing games with me?”

Another caller woke me at 2:15 a.m. and slurringly asked for a ride home from the bar. “Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, please come get me.” He wasn’t anybody I knew — and anyway, I didn’t have a car. I hung up, mid-slur.

Even so, as my wedding approached, I began having second thoughts about legally taking my groom’s name. Kelly Smith was the name given to me by my parents. It was the name on my birth certificate, my Social Security card, my high school diploma, my college degrees. Kelly Smith was who I was for 26 years.

I couldn’t help but feel a little put-out that my future husband wasn’t losing any sleep over whether or not to change his name when we married, and I was awake night after night. It didn’t seem fair that I was worrying while he was completely oblivious. And I get grumpy when I don’t sleep.

Hyphenating my last name was definitely out — too much to spell out on forms. And what name would our future children have?

My groom suggested we combine our last names to either Tooth or Stool. Yeah, funny guy, I know.

Thing is, he didn’t take the conversation seriously at all; he thought I was kidding. His mother had taken his father’s name, as had her mother before him. All the women he knew took their husband’s name.

He had just assumed I would take his.

I had, too. Like him, I didn’t know any women who kept their maiden names when they married, except for two of my cousins, who happened to be lawyers. I guess I thought it was a lawyer thing.

Besides, changing my name to his seemed the romantic thing to do. It was a declaration of my commitment, of my love. So I legally became Kelly O’Toole.

Then, after 12 years of marriage, it was over. The divorce was messy, complicated.

I wasn’t up to the hassle of changing the name again on my Social Security card or my driver’s license. And I had a professional reputation as Kelly O’Toole at the college where I taught English. 

Most importantly, though, was the fact that O’Toole is my daughters’ last name. Keeping my married name made me feel more connected with them, especially with Olivia, who moved in with her dad.

The fact that Olivia, Crystal and I share a last name is a sign to the world that we are a unit. We belong together. We are family.

So what happens if I remarry? If that day ever comes, I guess I’ll be losing some sleep beforehand.

— By Kelly O'Toole, Tribune community columnist






Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks.


Really? I quoted the article, made a comment (This being the comment section and all...) and wished her good luck with husband #2. Not real sure where the personal attack was....
If you're going to publish this kind of drivel in a NEWSpaper then I guess you should expect a variety of comments in response. Personally I don't understand why anyone would want to share their failures with strangers, but maybe that's just me. Maybe you folks should moderate all comments before allowing them to be published? First time I've ever had a comment removed and frankly I'm feeling bullied by the Tribune's moderator.


I'm trying to figure out why this is "news"? It sounds like a conversation a this woman would have with friend after she's had too much to drink. Maybe if she put as much thought into the marriage as she has put into the "name" maybe things would have worked out OR maybe not married the guy in the first place. Strange...


I couldn't agree more with the previous comments. Marriage no longer has the meaning it once did. The commitment rarely exists and people tend to speak so cavalier about their experiences. I just don't get it! Divorce is so very painful for those who took the vows to be sacred. If you make the choice to end it, then suffer the full consequences of your decision(s). If you don't want to remain in the marriage, then give up the name too! It is just too painful to watch an ex-spouse use a name simply for business purposes. In my case, it feels as though I am in a never ending plan to be "used" and the pain continues. It makes it that much harder to move on. I agree, husband #2 stands little chance of success!


I so totally understand what Kelly is saying about how your name becomes such a part of who you are an how you identify yourself as part of a family. My maiden name is complicated...it uses more consonants than vowels even though the American pronunciation makes it sound like there are more vowels. My husband's last name is common, there are lots of people with his last name, shoot there was even a president with the same surname. We get asked a lot if we are related to so and so, but our name is almost always spelled correctly and it doesn't take me five minutes to spell it for someone over the phone. So, yes, in part, I was very attracted to my hubby because of his last name. However, that being said, I am one of "those" women who has kept her maiden name. Yep, I have a hyphenated last name, but very few people know that because I don't use it except on legal documents. I kept it for legal purposes, but also because it was who I was for 20+ years.


I found this article well written and thought provoking. It's a shame that there are people out there who would speak so harshly about someone they don't know, forgetting she's a human being with feelings. One can express his/her opinions without rudeness. I hope they're forgetting. The only other possible explanation would be that they don't CARE and that makes me afraid for humanity.

If I were in that situation, I'd keep my married name, too. I like my maiden name, but that's not who I am anymore. Plus, I think it makes sense when children are involved. Divorce is hard enough on a kid without adding to it. Something which seems pretty insignificant to adults can be a huge emotional blow to a child. It can also be very confusing. When I was 5, my mother remarried and since her last name changed I thought mine changed, too. She's my mom; why wouldn't we have the same last name?


Point... It's not her name. Lose the husband lose the name. It's not her. Living a lie. She's not irish. Have a name for people like that. Plastic paddys. Wanna bes


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