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