When I was at medical school, I discovered that there was a certain type of fellow student who took undue pride in their ancestors’ achievements. Said forebears were usually doctors – usually white, usually male. Medicine is a heritable trait, and conversations revolved around the question of who had the most complete penetrance: boasts about being the third or fourth generation doctor in their family were not uncommon. I kept quiet; I had nothing to say. My ancestors would have been their ancestors’ servants, if they were anything at all. I come from a long line of people too ordinary to be remembered.
So, when I became a doctor, it was a source of tremendous pride for my extended family. I became Dr Heather Ryan everywhere – on my debit card, on my keyring, whenever I reserved a table at a restaurant. And, in the process, I discovered that those two little letters – Dr – had great weight. Dr Ryan was taken more seriously than Miss Ryan ever had been, and her life was easier in many little ways.
I have grown rather attached to Dr Ryan, and I have no intention of losing her when I remarry
At the start of my F2 year, I married. In the first flush of romance, I entertained the notion of changing my name, but a mixture of apathy and nascent feminism prevailed. As I progressed through GP training, I started to develop a portfolio career, and developed a network of contacts. When my marriage ended, I was glad that I did not face the prospect of having to either continue working under my estranged husband’s surname, or changing my name and having to build my reputation again. But now I am in another relationship, planning marriage and children, the issue raises its head once more.
In the vast majority of cases, the name that a baby boy acquires at birth is his for life. Yet for so many women, their name – such an integral part of their identity – is a mutable object. For some women, this sits comfortably, and they happily take their husband’s surname in all aspects of their life, including at work. This is a common approach, and anecdotally seems to be becoming more popular. In a world in which hyper-femininity is fetishized – witness the resurgence of the Women’s Institute, and the proliferation of gingham and cupcakes – is this a surprise? Many of my friends have taken this approach yet further; it is wedding season, and my Facebook timeline is awash with female doctors gleefully counting down the days until they can call themselves Mrs. Either medical exams have lost their academic rigour and become an examination about chair covers, or these women believe that getting married somehow annuls their medical degree. I’m not sure which idea is more frightening.
Quite aside from the feminist arguments against unreservedly taking your husband’s name, what about the practical issues? A name change means having to re-print the practice stationery, and get a new brass plaque for the door. Conforming to the patriarchal ideal is an expensive business. And, as I’ve discovered first hand, almost half of marriages end in divorce. What if you do end up getting married more than once? How many surnames will fit in the ‘previous names’ section of the CRB form? Will your colleagues remember what to call you, or will you become the Cheryl Fernandez-Versini of primary care?
There are alternative options. If you and your future spouse have compatible names, double-barrelling can be a sensible compromise. More commonly, female GPs keep their maiden name for work purposes, and adopt their husband’s name at home. This allows the maintenance of professional identity, whilst also creating a boundary between work persona and private life. Women who change their name often justify that choice by explaining that they want to have the same surname as their children, and this is a compromise that achieves that aim. Why so many couples with different surnames choose to give their children the father’s name is a question that is more difficult to answer, particularly given the fact that, in the event of relationship breakdown, the mother is usually the primary carer. And maintaining two separate names and identities requires complex feats of administrative gymnastics – typically a driving licence in one name, a passport in the other, and proof of address in both.
Furthermore, GMC social media guidance specifies that ‘if you identify yourself as a doctor in publicly accessible social media, you should also identify yourself by name’. Does this mean that female GPs who work under their maiden name but post under their married name on Facebook risk falling foul of our esteemed regulator? The use of married names online certainly makes administering a GP Facebook group tricky, as I found myself when I set one up and had to send a private message to many of the female members to confirm who they actually were, as nobody with their stated name appeared on the GMC register. Is it right that doctors can post online in their professional capacity with no clear way for a casual observer to identify who they are?
I have grown rather attached to Dr Ryan, and I have no intention of losing her when I remarry. The question of what to do outside of work needs further consideration. My poor, hapless boyfriend suggested that he is rather sick of using his Dr title outside of work, and fancied we might become Mr and Mrs together. The main benefit, he explained, was that tradesmen might be less likely to rip us off. My boyfriend has an accent and confidence which reflect his public school education; he is the third generation of doctor in his family. People like him tend to be taken seriously regardless of whether they are called Dr or Mr. I’d venture he’d probably still get ripped off by plumbers if he were a Mr too. For a comprehensive school girl from Liverpool, the title of Dr, and the status it conveys, feel too precious to relinquish.
That being said, if I changed my name in work, it might throw my heartsink patients off the scent for a while. Suddenly the prospect doesn’t sound too bad…
Dr Heather Ryan is a GP registrar in Liverpool. You can follow her on Twitter @DrHFRyan