Last Christmas, my mom gave me and my then-fiancé personalized kitchen aprons. I was thrilled, but the name printed across the front gave me pause: Mrs. Freeman. My future husband was ecstatic and raved about how excited he was to marry me and how well my first name paired with his last name. I felt the same way, but I couldn’t get over a strange grief that bubbled up at seeing my new last name in writing. It wasn’t the man I was marrying or the name I was taking that bothered me, but rather the change itself. Why did I have to be the one to change my name? Did I even have to? Could I still be a good Catholic wife and keep my last name?

Does a Catholic Woman Have to Change Her Name?

There is no mandate from the Catholic Church that says women must change their last names after getting married. You can look in the Catechism. It’s not there.

What the Catechism does say is this: “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter… It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving.”

Since the Church places such an emphasis on unity of the spouses, wouldn’t a shared last name be a direct reflection of that unity? Yes, it can be. But the spiritual reality of you and your spouse becoming one flesh begins as soon as you say your vows, not once you get your new passport.

Deciding whether to change your name after marriage is a personal decision, and is one that deserves thoughtful reflection. In examining my own journey toward marriage, I asked married Catholic women about their own choices to keep or change their last names.

Some Reasons for Changing Your Name

Of the women I interviewed who did change their last name, several pointed to the Church’s rich theology of marriage as the reason they chose to take their husband’s last name.

“Married life is my vocation and the taking of my husband’s last name signifies the end of my maiden days as well as my path towards sainthood,” said Katarzyna La Barre, who married over a year ago.

Others mentioned their children as motivation for changing their last name.

“I chose to change my last name especially after finding out I was pregnant because I wanted my husband, my son, and I to share a last name,” said Kelly Urbanski, who has been married for two and a half years.

My own reasons for taking my husband’s last name were much less spiritually motivated. I didn’t want to hyphenate my name or have a different last name from my future children, but I also was willing to keep my name if I didn’t like my husband’s last name. After I met my husband, I loved his last name paired with my first and middle names, so it stuck.

Hyphenating Your Last Name

In many cultures, women do not traditionally take their husband’s last name after marriage. Victoria Velasquez-Feikles said that using both spouses’ last names for children is very common in Hispanic cultures. “If I had just taken [my husband’s] name, it wouldn’t be representative of me, who I am, and my Hispanic heritage is a huge part of who I am as a first-generation Colombian American,” she said. Velasquez-Feikles also said she and her husband may hyphenate their daughter’s last name for similar reasons.

Another consideration is that many women have successful careers under their maiden names, long before marriage. When Alexis Tracey got married last year, she already had a law career – including part of a US Supreme Court amicus brief – using her former last name. In the end, she decided to take her husband’s last name on government documents and practice law using a hyphenated last name. “Especially in the legal profession, continuity is important and closely associated with credibility, so the hyphenation on my legal license captures the original name, but also shows there's been a change that's worthy of recognition,” she said.

What If I Don’t Want to Change My Name at All?

That is, indeed, a valid option for Catholic women. Anna Paone, who has been married for three years, said her decision to keep her last name partly stemmed from her own mother, who also didn’t change her last name after marriage. However, Paone does use her husband’s last name professionally and gave his last name to their daughter. “My mom always says that parents go to great pains to choose a first name that works well with a baby's birth last name. I certainly did – I love the alliteration of my daughter's name,” she said.

In the end, the decision to keep or change your last name after marriage is one as unique as each marriage. Annarose Jowenson, who created an entirely new last name based on her and her husband’s former last names, said, “There are so many ways to honor the Church's rich theology of marriage, its status as a sacrament and presenting an outward symbol of ‘being one flesh’ while still honoring the history you have with your own family name. It can – and should – be a process of mutual discernment for you and your spouse, and it's 100% worth having the conversation.”

Vicky Wolak Freeman

Vicky Wolak spent her first year out of college teaching middle school English in northern France. She is now a full-time copy editor in New York City. You can find out more about her here.

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