I wanted the tradition of taking my husband’s name. I didn’t foresee the heartbreak.
When I got engaged, I was certain that I wanted to take my husband’s name after marriage. I was one of just a few among my circle of friends—successful, independent women in their late 30s and early 40s—who chose not to hyphenate or keep my own name.
Self-sufficient and driven, I’d had a fulfilling life before meeting “Jacob,” a handsome doctor, at age 38. Having lived with autonomy for two decades, I found myself in a new stage, deeply committed and very much in love. Unlike many women of my mother’s Woodstock generation, I didn’t feel a need to break from tradition. I wanted convention.
Before Jacob, I’d been involved in an on-off relationship with an artist. We loved each other, but he didn’t want to marry or start a family. And though I was born in the late ’70s with every freedom, by the time I hit my mid-30s, my instincts were speaking loudly. I wanted to marry, to be a wife and mother. After several years, emotionally exhausted, we called it off.
When Jacob proposed, I was about to turn 39. In the elementary school where I taught third grade, there was a collective feeling of joy around our engagement. Evidently, since I’d met Jacob, I’d been “glowing.” Parents and colleagues told me how excited they were for me, and I felt their collective relief that I’d found a good man to settle down with.
In years past, I hadn’t shared much of my personal life with my students’ parents. They’d known I was single and dating, but the rollercoaster nature of my long-term relationship didn’t lend itself to the norms of school culture—a place where engagements and pregnancies were routinely announced and celebrated at faculty meetings.
When I got engaged, the rituals of a more conventional life began to find me, and I embraced them. It felt good to share anecdotes from my life with the families I worked with. During writing lessons with my class, I used stories from my own life as models for the children, writing about wedding planning and weekend getaways that I took with Jacob. My students enjoyed reading what I wrote in my notebook each day and my writing inspired them to create their own narratives.
A few days before the wedding, the parents and children threw me a surprise shower, donning my head with a veil and giving me a handmade book containing cards the children had written, full of advice about how to have a happy marriage. “Always give each other your very last M&M” and other pearls of wisdom made us laugh as we read them together that night. I’d planned showers for countless engaged colleagues over the many years I’d been teaching. To receive such a book of my own felt wonderful.
Our wedding day was everything I’d imagined. The ceremony was an Orthodox one, performed in the Jewish tradition. Once we returned from our mini-moon, I brought in photos from the synagogue to share with my class and posted a wedding photo on our class blog, since so many parents had asked to see pictures. Not long after that, there was a class cocktail party hosted by one of the families, and I brought Jacob along. He was a hit with the parents, and in the days after the party several of the mothers found me on the playground to tell me how thrilled they were for me and how much they liked him. The children became even better acquainted with him when he came to talk to them about his job as a doctor and let them use his stethoscope. I loved seeing how Jacob interacted with the children. He was a natural.
All these happy memories are from the time I think of as the “before.” There’s an “after” too. But in between there was a moment when everything changed, when my life as the very content “Mrs. Amy Oster” came to an abrupt halt.
After just seven months of marriage, Jacob told me that he’d changed his mind and wanted something different from his life. Unlike many couples who divorce, we hadn’t been fighting or growing apart. We were newlyweds shopping for furniture and trying for a baby.
In what was to become the most surreal month of my life, he quickly began to show a steadfast determination to rid himself of our marriage. The man who had willingly offered me the new life I’d embraced was now pulling it away from under my feet.
I’d known that Jacob had been engaged three times before and called those engagements off, but I’d trusted that he was older, wiser, and we were in love. I’d assumed he would never leave a marriage the same way he’d left his previous engagements. I was wrong.
School was supposed to be the safe place, somewhere I wasn’t living through the nightmare of my marriage ending so abruptly. Except it wasn’t, because every time I heard a child call me “Mrs. Oster,” I felt anguish. With only about six weeks left of the school year, I somehow made it to work, taught the lessons, wrote report cards, held meetings with parents about homework and tutoring. I carried on.
It was a brutal summer, endless hours to try to fathom the end of my young marriage, to try to understand what had happened. In August, the vice principal emailed to ask if I wanted to start the next academic year afresh as Miss Walter or remain Mrs. Oster. I wasn’t prepared to face the questions, the confusion, and the explanations. I barely understood my status myself.
In any profession, a name change is a big deal, but in your own classroom, there is no escape from your name—the children say it constantly. A name is inextricably linked to identity, and at that my identity felt shattered.
So, as a new school year began, divorce papers pending and without a ring on my finger, I asked my new class of children to call me Miss Amy. In the space between one life and another, I wasn’t yet ready to change my last name back.
It was an odd kind of identity crisis in the hallway. When I ran into students and parents from the class I’d taught the year before, they excitedly called out “Mrs. Oster!” and threw their arms around me. And even though my new students were calling me “Miss Amy,” the name on my classroom door, on my work mailbox and email, on my student’s notebooks and homework folders was “Amy Oster.” Every time I saw or heard my married name, it stung.
Adding to the confusion, when I saw children whom I taught during the decade before my marriage, they called out “Miss Walter!” I grew weary of answering to three different names within one institution, and explaining my situation to children wasn’t something I wanted to do.
Sometime in the spring semester, as I was growing into my new life as a once-again single, independent woman, I knew I had to lose Jacob’s last name for good. Our divorce was finalized just as the school year ended, and by that point I couldn’t wait to shed it.
It’s August now, and a new school year is about to begin. Half a year ago, I changed my name on my bank statements, passport, and everywhere else. My classroom is the final step. My career, my students, and their families are a cherished part of my identity. Jacob’s last name has no place here: The new sign on my classroom door will say “Amy Walter;” I can’t wait to be “Miss Walter” again.