When Billy and I were in the midst of our divorce, I became obsessed with learning everything I could from the adult children of divorce that I knew. That wasn’t very many, actually, and so my friends who fit that category were peppered with questions. “What was your schedule? When did you hurt most? Could anything have made you feel better?” Anxious to do divorce right in the eyes of my children (as though there is such a thing), I steered any and all conversations with the lucky few to that topic, diving deep into topics many of them hadn’t thought about in years. In retrospect, it was incredibly self-centered, and I am ever so grateful that they answered my many questions and are still willing to meet me for lunch. Thanks for being an endless divorce focus group, peeps. You know who you are.
One of the topics I sought help on was around keeping my married name. Chapman isn’t mine by birth, I took it at the altar with Billy. To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about taking it to begin with, it felt archaic and patriarchal and I, at 23, was far beyond all that. But it was important to Billy and so take it I did, and my life as Kate Chapman began. Soon we were the Chapman family, with t-shirts and monogrammed door hangers to prove it. I never regretted my decision.
Remaining a Chapman after my divorce felt a little bit dishonest. I wasn’t really one, after all. My maiden name felt truer to who I was, and less laden with guilt and failure too. Billy could have a new wife named Chapman in his future and the idea of two Ms. Chapmans in my kids’ lives felt confusing and unnecessarily complex.
I began to consider reverting to my maiden name, but conversation I had with my friend Hunter changed my mind. Hunter’s mother and father divorced when he was 12. It was an acrimonious, painful separation, and as soon as she could, Hunter’s mother reclaimed her maiden name. While my divorce from Billy hadn’t left me bitter or deeply angry, I could understand Hunter’s mother wanting to use a name that felt more like her true self and less like a relic from her past.
It was how Hunter felt about his mother changing her name that gave me pause. Hunter explained that her rejection of their shared name felt like a rejection of him, at least the part of him that was his dad. He and his brother felt alone in their house, members of a tribe with no leader present. Lost boys. He felt funny when he introduced her to his teachers, as though he had some explaining to do. Hunter felt like his mother had left his team. He told me that her name change was nearly as painful to him as the divorce itself.
Now, Hunter’s situation has many specifics mine did not. Hunter’s parents didn’t get along at all, they fought often. His father wasn’t around much, and young Hunter felt that absence acutely. His mother remarried twice, to men Hunter didn’t particularly like. He was in a tough situation already, the lightning rod for the anger and rejection of his parent’s divorce, and his feelings about his mother’s name change were certainly colored by his circumstance.
Still, as I considered changing my name, Hunter’s story stayed with me. Billy and I had a constant refrain to the children, even when our coparenting was failing miserably: we are a family. We are one team. I kept the Chapman jersey. It was the right decision at the time.
When Gabe and I married, I questioned whether keeping the Chapman name was still the right move. Gabe wanted us to be one big happy family, and my being Mrs. Wilson was a big part of that. He liked the idea so much that after our first serious conversation about marriage, he began calling me KW. He comes from a traditional southern family, most of whom assumed I’d be Mrs. Wilson as well. As our wedding neared, beautiful monogrammed gifts began filling our mailbox, and my anxiety mounted.
I thought a lot about becoming Kate Wilson. Being part of Gabe’s team, publicly, was very important to me. I fight the patriarchy, but believe in fairy tales: Mrs. Wilson was a compelling title. I love him madly and wanted to present a united front to the world. Mrs. Gabriel Wilson. More than once, I practiced that signature in looping cursive while listening to conference calls. If it weren’t for Simon, Caden and Lottie, it’d be the signature on my permission slips today.
Simon, Caden and Lottie are Chapmans. Changing my name (to Wilson or back to my maiden name) separated me from my people. That may not have had the painful effect on my three that it did for Hunter. Billy and I have a healthy relationship and he is wonderfully present in their lives; their circumstances are different from Hunter’s. My three sweeties might have been just fine with that decision. But the risk of separating myself from them, however small, far outweighed the benefits of changing my name.
Like nearly everything in life, this was a deeply personal journey and experience. This is the decision I made. I don’t pretend to know what decisions others should make, and this isn’t a commentary on those decisions, different or similar. It’s also not a decision written in stone; perhaps, one day when the kids have grown and flown, I’ll be Kate Wilson. But today, I am Kate Chapman because it makes it easy for the world to see I belong to Simon, Caden and Lottie.