Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article about women who created new surnames for themselves after divorce.
Hanging on to your ex’s last name can daily conjure an unhappy past, while going back to a maiden name you’ve outgrown can be difficult to imagine. Divorce can be an opportunity to create an entirely different surname that speaks to the woman you have become.
The article mentioned several women, including writer Cheryl Strayed, who has written in-depth about her surname-choosing experience.
Cheryl, who was “Sugar” of the popular Dear Sugar advice column, got divorced in her mid-20s. She talks about coming up with the surname “Strayed” in chapter 6 of her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (which I’m in the middle of reading right now):
Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed, Cheryl Strayed–those two words together still rolled somewhat hesitantly off my tongue. Cheryl had been my name forever, but Strayed was a new addition–only officially my name since April, when Paul and I had filed for divorce.
[I]n the months that Paul and I hung in marital limbo, unsure of which direct we’d move in, I pondered the question of my last name, mentally scanning words that sounded good with Cheryl and making lists of characters from novels I admired. Nothing fit until one day when the word strayed came into my mind. Immediately, I looked it up in the dictionary and knew it was mine. Its layered definitions spoke directly to my life and also struck a poetic chord: to wander from the proper path, to deviate from the direct course, to be lost, to become wild, to be without a mother or father, to be without a home, to move about aimlessly in search of something, to diverge or digress.
Cheryl Strayed I wrote down repeatedly down a whole page of my journal, like a girl with a crush on a boy she hopes to marry. Only the boy didn’t exist. I was my own boy, planting a root in the center of my rootlessness. Still, I had my doubts. To pick a word out of the dictionary and proclaim it mine felt a bit fraudulent to me, a bit childish or foolish, not to mention a touch hypocritical. For years I’d privately mocked the peers in my hippy, artsy, lefty circles who’d taken on names they’d invented for themselves. Jennifers and Michelles who became Sequoias and Lunas; Mikes and Jasons who became Oaks and Thistles. I pressed on anyway, confiding in a few friends about my decision, asking them to begin calling me by my new name to help me test it out. I took a road trip and each time I happened across a guest book I signed it Cheryl Strayed, my hand trembling slightly, feeling vaguely guilty, as if I were forging a check.
By the time Paul and I decided to file our divorce papers, I’d broken in my new name enough that I wrote it without hesitation on the blank line.
P.S. Cheryl’s son Carver was named for Raymond Carver.