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I Changed My Last Name in My 20s, but Not for a Husband

I didn't need anyone else to decide my last name for me. For the first time, I'd done something uniquely me in every way.

Three years ago this past July, I changed my last name. I was born Amanda Feinberg, and to the world, I'm now Amanda Fayer. I have a new social security card, passport, driver's license, lease and credit card. My graduate school degree has a different last name on it than my undergraduate diploma. But I am not, and never have been, married. I changed my name as a way to establish my own identity, and, well, because I wanted to. 

My new surname came from my clan. My grandmother, Renee Faye Herzog (née Bettleman), to me, was much more than just my mother's mother. For as far back as I can remember, my grandmother's role in my life was a powerful one, having moved in with my parents and me following a divorce and the first of two breast cancer diagnoses when I was a child. Nothing excited me more than a Friday night sleepover with my grandmother or a trip out for dinner. My scaled-down, two-piece nylon jumpsuits resembled the "grandma suits" in her closet, and at the age of 6, I even tried to dye my hair red to match hers. 

She taught me how to knit, to cook, and how to tie my shoes. 

So, when she was diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer in 2011 and I learned that my closest friend was going to die — and soon — I thought long and hard about a way I could keep her with me forever. 

The author's grandmother at her high school graduation.

And then I thought about the power of a name. Traditionally, women in the U.S. take the family name of another person once they are married, but, single at 27, I felt little pressure to marry. I'd just been accepted to graduate school and was on track to have a successful career. What prevented me from starting over, taking the reigns of my own identity and coming up with a name that honored my grandmother — something that reminded me of her profoundly and often, whenever I spoke or signed my name? I didn't mind Feinberg, but I didn't love it either. 

And so "Fayer" was born, a blend of my grandmother's first name, Renee, and her middle name, Faye. By using the name Fayer, not only could I keep my initials, I could also maintain a Jewish last name and my ties to the heritage of my family. I'd never considered changing my last name for any reason other than marriage, so the period of reflection that followed was uncharted territory. I researched every angle: city, state and federal guidelines, associated fees and made a list of all potential hurdles and side effects, from the volume of paperwork to the confusion an unanticipated name change would warrant. 

That said, I was surprised with the process and how easy it was. All in all, the change took a few months. In New York City it costs just $65 to file a petition with the courts and after two quick trips downtown to Manhattan's Centre Street, my new name was approved. The most frustrating part was finding exact change to pay the clerk and the biggest hassle was waiting in line at the DMV to get my new driver's license. Once the judge had slammed the gavel and the change announced in a local newspaper, it was official. On July 13, 2012, I became Amanda Fayer.  

As the months passed, I told people — extended family, friends, colleagues — and mostly, I was relieved and slightly taken aback by how supportive they were. They did, often times, assume I'd gotten married. Or divorced. When asked, I responded directly and concisely. I'd changed my name to honor my grandmother and to establish a professional last name as I entered graduate school. I felt more independent and empowered — I didn't need anyone else to decide my last name for me. For the first time, I'd done something uniquely me in every way. 

Telling my father wasn't as easy. 

His response was curt and emotional. It took me telling him a second time for the news to sink in. 

"That's ridiculous," he said to me across the dining room table. "You won't be a Feinberg anymore!"

The way he saw it, my decision was an outright rejection and felt like an unnecessary break from our little, tight-knit family unit. That second time, he got up from the table to end the conversation and we never discussed it again. 

To shield him from my choice and how it made him feel, I made an effort to mitigate his run-ins with my new name. I knew he'd continue to use my original email address even after I'd officially changed it, so, to immunize him from the shift, I set up a rule in Gmail. When my father emailed me, he would always get a response from Amanda Feinberg. Everyone else (including my mother) would receive a reply from Fayer. Over time, Fayer, and all of the elements that touch it — email addresses, social media accounts, employment records, apartment leases — became my new normal. But I decided it didn't have to be so normal for my father. I set up yet another rule so whenever I entered his email, it defaulted to send from my old Feinberg account. He never had to feel the phantom slap in the face of seeing the name Fayer in his inbox, and I never told him why. 

It wasn't until my grandmother's funeral a year and a half later that I learned of his acceptance. He never told me directly, but after the service I overheard a conversation he had with a friend of the family who asked about my decision to honor my grandmother and change my name. He was silent for a moment, and at first I thought he was ignoring the question.

But when he spoke again, he responded with pride, and said, "It was supremely radical and very beautiful, just like her." 

So when my father suddenly passed away this April, I first felt that I had lost our one remaining tie. Replacing "Feinberg" with "Fayer" had clearly created distance between us. I no longer shared his name and in many ways I had chosen to separate myself from the original identity he gave me. But his response at the funeral allowed me to understand his fully formed perspective: ultimately, he knew that the change, for me, was merely a form of personal augmentation, not a means of parental alienation. And with him gone, I quickly realized I never needed a last name to connect us. I will always be my father's daughter, despite our different last names and the fact he's no longer here. 

Reason aside, changing your last name is not for everyone, nor is the process for the impatient or the faint of heart. But all things considered, I'm proud I had the chance to make my grandmother feel so loved before she died. She wasn't such a warm woman, and she always had something to say, but the day I told her I was changing my name was the one time she was at a loss for words. 

So will I change my name again once I get married? I don't know that now, I'm not there yet. But for now, I have a supremely radical, very beautiful last name that means the world to me.

Originally published on on October 9, 2015, here.


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