I’ve been reading along with a group on twitter, loosely collected together by Robert Macfarlane. I’m encountering for the first time ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper – fiction for children or young adults which features a world made new and unfamiliar around midwinter, and the role of a young protagonist, Will Stanton, in restoring order in the face of threat.
I have never been part of a book club, and don’t currently read much fiction; something to do with cramming during my degree, or my inability to escape the fictional world and function normally. Either way, my main memories of reading along are from classroom books in primary school, where I always got in trouble for reading ahead while someone else was reading out loud – a classic way to put anyone off reading for enjoyment, I would have thought. My habits haven’t changed, though, and I’m still racing ahead, not least because of my suspicion that my finish line may need to be sooner than most.
In the book, I was jolted early on by a reference to the power of names, and the ability to use names to summon, or conjure. We’ve been thinking, collecting and debating names for the new baby, and reflecting on the process (and outcome) of naming child number 1. I feel like we got it right with child 1, but it has set us quite a high bar for child 2. With child 1, we set out to pick a name which doesn’t specifically speak to the time in which he’s named (Kylie or Kevin, for children of the 1980s); which doesn’t communicate gender, age or ethnicity in advance; and which is unusual enough to find few comparators, without being too pretentious. I’m not claiming we’ve got it perfectly right – after all, his name now communicates that we have set out to be “different” – but I’m happy so far, and it was one of the things which caused me plenty of forethought and soul-searching – one of the harder decisions to make on his behalf. Now child 2 needs all of those things, plus something which is comparably interesting to child 1 – hmm.
In The Dark is Rising, having the power to withhold your “real” name provides some protection and anonymity. Naming is a powerful act of calling into existence, into being, or into proximity. And while I’m mostly preoccupied with finding something suitable for child 2, I’m also reflecting on my own name – specifically, my surname. I’ve been married over ten years, and was adamant when we married that my surname wouldn’t change. Even when my friend’s mum commented (during the wedding reception!), “aah, it’s all patriarchy anyway!”, I wasn’t swayed. And although recent research suggests that most people have a somewhat negative perception about men whose wives don’t share their name, in fact my view has always been the reverse. Why are so many women keen to change their identity? Why do they want to subsume themselves into someone else’s name? Am I the only feminist in the room? And why do I seem to be the only person who is bothered?
My favoured approach (particularly if you’re thinking about how to deal with this issue post-children) has been those couples where both partners have made a change, to something mutually agreeable. I like the notion of compromise, and the chance of making a deliberate choice to forge a new, shared identity. But that wasn’t an option for us, so I stayed with the surname provided at birth (and I signed a petition to have a mother’s name added to a child’s passport, because practicality is a big part of my reasoning!).
Now, however, I’m thinking about identity and mutability again. Perhaps my stubbornness has waned. Perhaps I’m less attached to my surname than I thought. Perhaps I want to feel that sense of deliberately creating an identity which is of my own conjuring, my own making. And although it might not involve a change for anyone else, what change might I make, and how would I explain those reasons? “Yeah, I thought I’d change my surname, but I STILL don’t have the same name as my husband or children”?
Perhaps it comes back to the feeling which I’ve tried to explain before, where (as mother to a small child), you suddenly feel that you are no longer the lead protagonist in your own story. Someone else has taken centre stage, and you are now in a supporting role. It’s certainly been an interesting experience to read The Dark Is Rising, and to realise that I now see a parallel between my son and the hero, rather than empathising more directly myself. Changing my name might help me recognise the identity shift I’m going through, but also help me to feel that I have a right to be the lead actor in my own life story, even if in no one else’s.