BY LONNAE O’NEAL
THE WASHINGTON POST
WASHINGTON — I have phantom pain where my last name used to be.
I’m Lonnae O’Neal now, but I was Lonnae O’Neal Parker for more than two decades. The pain is for a body of work I produced as my three-named self: three children and hundreds of thousands of words. The pain is for a lost connection with my past. For everything I’d wanted to be as a young married woman and how that falls one name short of what came to pass. Since I didn’t actually change my name when I married, it’s pain for a woman who never legally existed, although that didn’t make her — me — any less real. Women’s identities are often built on shifting sands. Our names can be a proxy for all of that.
In a 2013 survey by the wedding resource TheKnot. com, 80 percent of brides took their husbands’ last names. Women change names “because their mothers did it, because their grandmothers did it,” Editor Jamie Miles says. “It’s a tradition you might not question.”
There’s an almost musical way I used to introduce myself. Lonnae. Pause, to let people get their heads around it. Then O’Neal Parker, two beats, no hyphen, to complete the series. I wonder now whether two names are muscular enough to carry everything I’ve become in the 20 years since I last called myself Lonnae O’Neal.
Before I married, I floated the idea of keeping my maiden name to my fiancé. He floated the idea that maybe we didn’t need to get married. It was a fight I didn’t want to have. Adding his name to mine seemed like the best way to lean toward tradition without being subsumed. Not making it legal was my way of keeping me unto myself. Even as I moved toward divorce, I kept two nameplates at my desk. Parker faces out. O’Neal faces me.
Michele Booth Cole, director of Safe Shores, a Washington, D.C.-based organization devoted to helping abused children, never considered dropping her own name, but took her husband’s name because “it was important to him.” Now divorced, she’s not dropping his name because she wants to stay consistent with her kids, and because she has used the name professionally for decades. “I actually have equity” in it, she says.
Lately, I find that who I say I am depends on whom I’m talking to. I can be “Miss O’Neal” at the dry cleaner when the guy asks if I got divorced, but “Mrs. Parker” five minutes later when Evan’s mom calls wanting her son and my son to switch piano practices. This is all such new territory for me. Like being single for the first time in 20 years. Like standing in the office at my daughter’s high school and having the secretary call me O’Neal and call her Parker. There was almost a physical ache to it. But it’s not as bad as being somebody you’re not. “Life lived fully is messy,” wrote Linda Annette Dahlstrom Anderson, who eight years into her marriage took her husband’s last name to honor their son who had died. My fully lived life has changed, but I haven’t settled on what it has become. Months ago, a colleague and I were on the phone while working on a document when she said my name had just popped up on her screen. “What name?” I asked. “Your name,” she said. “Yes, but what name is that?” I asked impatiently. I sincerely wanted to know. And why not? Lesser things have helped make me who I am. A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old son heard I was changing my name and he was horrified “You’re not going to be Lonnae O’Neal anymore?” he asked urgently. “No, sweetie, just not Lonnae O’Neal Parker.”“Oh, that’s not so bad,” he said, relieved. “I thought you were changing it to Brandy or Sylvia.” Aww, nothing like that, I assured him. Just me, myself and I — whoever she turns out to be.O’Neal has been a reporter for The Washington Post for 19 years.
O’NEAL: Entering new territory