Two years ago this Winter Solstice, The Chief and I got engaged. We’d talked about marriage since the week we first met and cheesy as it may sound, the moment I saw him, I knew we would marry. I knew, but I certainly didn’t know how. The odds seemed stacked against us. I lived in California, he in off-grid Alaska in a lifestyle completely foreign to me. I was looking for a change but hadn’t anticipated a change that great. I wanted a career and living in the woods seemed like the last place one might bubble up. Yet, that feeling, that knowing I felt when I first saw him, that was all I needed to know. I threw my cautions to the wind, gave fate up to the universe and dove into a life together.
Having discussed marriage right off the bat, we had always had an open dialogue surrounding it. How would we do it? Where? Would we change our names? Did we care if we were married before we had kids? Just like any hatchling of an idea, we brainstormed about where and when and how it would all go down, what we valued (food, food, more food) and what was less important but one thing was missing: our engagement.
I figured it was just a formality, a simple change in status from girlfriend or boyfriend to fiance. Yet, once we were engaged, things actually did change.
After getting engaged, our dual daydreaming we’d nestled in together for the two years prior suddenly became public and the questions and comments started pouring in.
“Where will you get married?”
“Alaska? Alaska is too far.”
“Whose name will you take?”
Suddenly, our private dreams turned public were instantly open for opinions, suggestions, and scrutiny. As with any public decision, that’s the norm. We all do it. I’d seen it happen and I’d done it myself despite friends lamenting to me about it. Yet even familiarity with this switch didn’t prepare us.
Alaska is a long way off from a lot of the people we love but it’s also our home. Yet, within weeks of getting engaged, we were suddenly somehow planning for a California wedding. Things moved so fast. At first, I was just looking at dresses, then suddenly I was being asked to sign on the dotted dress line, all while discussing our venue options, all while in California.
Returning home to Alaska made us realize that, just as always, despite the hard, despite the sacrifices, Alaska is our home and home is where we needed to be married. And so, we planned together for our marriage in Alaska.
One of our plans was that I would change my name. This was something we had gone back and forth about since the very beginning and it was a decision made after much debate and a little magic. You see, The Chief and I both have some interesting familial twists and turns and as we followed each potential family name, we often found ourselves at dead-ends. There were adoptive names, step-family names, names we could have created together and family names. After trying all of the above and more on for size for years, we had finally settled on choosing a family name of which there were two contenders: Page & Chester. However, other than occasionally (and jokingly) being called The Chief in town, The Chief has been known as his last name since moving here: Chester.
In deciding for whom it would be more difficult to change, I decided that it should be me to switch. Changing my last name was less of a hassle than essentially changing The Chief’s first name. My change would consist mainly of paper while his change would require a complete social shift. While The Chief agreed that perhaps it might be easier, we both wanted to be thoughtful in the process and all the history it carries with it.
We sat with the idea. It grew familiar and warm and sweet. I cherished it.
Still, despite the sweetness, I wondered if it really mattered? Why do we need to share a last name when we are already sharing a life? I ran through my reasoning in my head. Some reasons were small like the simplicity of just writing: The Chesters versus both of our last names and the idea of our kids not having to enter epically long hyphenated names on a scantron test. Some were larger, deeper like the fact that growing up, almost everyone in both of our households had different last names. Everyone was a step or a half and I wanted us all to be a whole, the same. For me, it always boiled down to having kids. To me, this was our chance for a new start together as our own family unit.
Still, I waffled. What would it mean publicly? Would I be considered less of a feminist? Looked down upon by those who had held fast to their names? Would I miss my own last name?
Despite the waffles (and the pancakes), the true, most basic reasoning I wanted to change my name was that my gut told me that “Turning the Page to Chester” (a phrase coined in an Anchorage bridal shop by a spunky lass from Ireland) was an important move for me, one that I needed to make in order to transition from just me to us.
Still, logical or better doesn’t always compute to easy. Change has always been uncomfortable for me, even when it’s in my benefit. I’ve ducked many a change just to avoid transitional discomfort. This change I was hurling my own direction.
So, like any big decision, I put it up to the Universe. I’d ask, the Universe would respond and that would be the end of that.
The first time, which I swore would be the one and only time, to help me decide I asked:
“Universe, what do you think? Should I be Chester or Page?”
I was driving the backroads of my childhood hometown, roads I’d frequented for almost 30 years at the time. I knew every stretch, every turn. No sooner had I finished my query did I look up and, on a road I’d driven umpteen times, there was a sign, literally: Chester Lane. The sign was old, not some newbie staking their new territory. It had always been there.
Convinced, I drove on, feeling warm and light and calm. It was decided.
A few days and a few “Oh, you’re changing your name, huh?” conversations later, I was feeling a little less warm, light and calm. Should I not change my name? Our private decision, which had once felt so right was being publicly challenged. Perhaps I had misheard the Universe. So, again, I asked:
“Wait, did I hear you wrong? Seriously, what do you think? Should I be Chester or Page?”
I said this in an antique shop as I thumbed through vintage postcards. They were divided by state. I was sending cards to people based on where they were from in the country. Missouri for my Grandma. California for Chris and my family, etc. I was halfway through California when I posed the question to the Universe and the next card I thumbed past was a postcard of a snowy scene…in Chester, California.
I’d never even heard of Chester, California and I’d lived in the Golden State most of my life.
The second time was the charm. I was tired of debating, tired of going back and forth and tired of not listening to myself. I wanted to be Chester. I would be. It was decided.
Our wedding day grew closer and closer and with it came public formalities: registering for a wedding license with the state, filling out paperwork, making financial decisions. Our once private decision-making was now not just public, it was about to be set in stone in the public record. While weddings are, at their base level very romantic, they come with a lot of red tape and planning and learning the hard way. They may not be for everyone, but for us, it was an important transition that I cherish (though certainly, I didn’t always at the moment).
After two years of waiting, the real deal wheels were set in motion and in early September this year, I became Julia Chester.
Talking about a life change and making that change, as I had learned already with talking about marriage versus actually doing it, are two different things. Talking about becoming Chester was easy, changing was less so.
A month after our wedding, sitting solo in the Social Security office on a rainy Fall day in Anchorage, it didn’t feel so easy. Writing my old name next to my new name made me well up and not with joy. I felt a sadness I didn’t quite understand. Still, forward I went. The Universe had answered, twice. I need not ask again.
A week later, back at home, I received my new Social Security card. Julia Chester. The Chief beamed. My stomach hurt.
“I’m having second thoughts about changing my name,” I told him. He responded with kindness and comfort, telling me to do whatever I needed. He encouraged me to take a pause, a breath, a moment. Besides, it would be a while before I would be headed back into Town for phase two of my name change (my license). I would take this pause, slow things down and see where it lead me.
For a few weeks, I decided not to think about it. I’ve always been someone who needs a lot of space to think and a lack of self-judgment to connect with what is true for me. It’s not easy. I gave it some breathing room. After a few weeks had passed, the planted seed started to sprout. I started to think about it again, to research. I reached out to friends I trusted, who were married and who had or planned to have children to ask how they had decided on their last name. I researched the topic on the internet. I researched within.
Then, I put it up to the Universe one final time.
“Should I be Chester or Page?”
At that moment, the moment I waited for a sign, I heard nothing from outside but from within, I heard myself say “Chester”.
The sadness I had felt in the weeks proceeding suddenly felt far away, outside myself. The warmth returned. I no longer felt I was losing a part of me, I felt like I was moving into a new part of me and a new part of us. It felt exciting, new and pretty darn adult. Speaking with my therapist (yes, I see a therapist. I highly recommend it and hope that sharing my experience with this tool helps to remove the taboo of seeking help. If you want it, it’s there and I support you finding it) helped me to realize that, for me, letting go of Page was much deeper than a name change. For me, it meant letting go of what Page had always meant for me: being a daughter in my family. My name was given to me by my parents and thus, my attachment to it was my attachment to them, to my family, to what might have been. Moving on meant letting go of that and moving from the role of daughter to wife. My family as a whole was getting larger but my family unit was getting smaller. My unit had shifted from my parents, my brother and I to instead, The Chief and I.
A unit of two.
Plus Leto. A unit of three.
I finally felt at peace.
Now, don’t get me wrong, changing one’s name is a royal pain in the patootie. The instructions make it seem simple:
1st: Change your Social Security card
2nd: Your driver’s license
3rd: Your passport
Badabing, badaboom! Easy peasy!
Oh so very wrong.
Aside from the fact that changing all of these means 16-hour round trips (#2 and #3 both requiring #1 to have been completed first, meaning another at least 8 to 16-hour round trips), there are the nitty-gritty changes that I never anticipated. You see, once I’m in, I’m in and having loose strings hanging drives me crazy. Having already completed Step #1, I thought I was close to the finish line. I started in on the other, unmentioned changes I hadn’t quite factored in: changing my bank, my checks, my computer ID, my logins, my email, my work information, etc. etc. and at each junction, I ran into issues. Mailing in copies of our wedding certificate, spending hours on the computer, sending a photo ID and other legalese has proven far more time consuming than I had ever anticipated. To say that changing your name is a breeze is like calling a hurricane a breeze. It’s not. It’s difficult and time-consuming and frustrating, all of which is exacerbated by our remote location.
Yet still, despite the annoyances, each juncture has allowed me to continue my commitment, our commitment to the private decisions we made years ago, in our tiny cabin in the woods. For me, it’s been extremely healing, for others it might simply be a non-issue. We are all different. I’ve spoken to many different people and gained countless insights while I hemmed and hawed over my own decision. I’ve learned that even when in public it seems someone is moving effortlessly through life phases, in private, they might not be. Everyone struggles in different ways. We don’t know until we ask. We are all different, yet one thing everyone agreed on was their advice: find what works for you.
While this sounds so simple, for me, it wasn’t. It took years to discover and years to accept but now that I find myself on the other side, it’s the best advice I could give: Find what works for you. You know. Deep down, you do know. Do what works best for you and your family. It’s no one’s decision but your own.
Thank you to everyone who has candidly shared their private decisions turned public with me. Your honesty and openness helped me to be open with myself. Open to a new name, a new unit, a new phase. May your transitions be smooth and may the Universe guide you, if not anywhere, then back to yourself.