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“On My Journey to Finding a New Name, I Had to Unlearn What the Patriarchy had Drilled into Me”

Writing by Anonymous // illustration by Rasato

(content warning: contains discussions of family violence.)

For as long as I can remember, the patriarchy has defined my life. In so many ways, I’ve felt stuck in a little box, controlled by people and systems designed to hold me back. Be quiet, be pretty, be cool; be feminine but not too emotional, be weak enough to be liked by men, but strong enough to withstand the general toxicity and undertones of violence that accompany masculinity, all while smiling through gritted teeth at the sexist jokes and vile unwanted flirtations. While I might not have been aware of it, even as a little girl, I was crushed by the weighty structures that uphold men’s power, and contain women and girls in a place for those who are lesser.

In my mid-thirties, after a very tumultuous few years through a pandemic, withstanding a toxically masculine workplace, becoming a parent to a little person, and watching my life flip inside-out and upside-down through the controlling violence of men too many times to count, I was ready for change. After a truly horrendous separation, where my partner of many years tore apart our relationship only weeks after the arrival of our first child, I made a decision that I had known for a long time that I needed to make. For this was only one chapter of a story that began many years before.

When I was a small child, I would visit my grandparents’ house in rural Victoria, especially over the roasting, sweaty summers. Everything was dry, grass crinkled into brown dust, sprinklers irrationally attempting to moisten the ground without any success. A small, quaint colonised town which, in the early nineties contained only a primary school, a church, a pub and a corner shop. There weren’t even post boxes at the houses. The town was too remote for a postie to reasonably deliver directly to homes, so the mail was taken to the shop where it could be collected by the townspeople, along with their magazines, cigarettes and voluminous amounts of salted hot chips in greasy white paper packages. The town was homogenous, catholic, hetero and very white. Diversity was scarce, and the households were all headed by men. Farmers and their wives, local factory workers, or those who drove large semi-trucks across the country. The women, of course, stayed at home to care (unpaid) for children and none attended university, rarely finishing secondary school.

My pop is, and always was, controlling. As a young child, I didn’t understand why I was a little bit afraid of him. I knew he wasn’t someone I enjoyed speaking to or being alone with, but I didn’t know why. Later in life, I understood his behaviour as what it was – violence. I knew that when it was time for dinner, I needed to be quiet; no, not quiet, silent, while he watched some deafeningly right-wing bigoted news channel reproduce his own neoliberal, capitalist, antifeminist views back to him via the television screen. He was the king of his household, and he was terrifying. I have vivid memories of him brutally barking orders at my nan, my mum, my aunties, or at times me if I was ‘naughty’ enough. My mum did her best to shield me, hiding me away in other rooms to maintain the silence he demanded. The other people in my family carried similar burdens, also being victims of his control.

My mum changed her surname when she married my stepdad. She rid herself of the very British, colonial name her father passed down to her. But this was not ever my name. Rewinding a bit, when I was born, as was expected (and still usually is), Mum had given me my father’s name – the name of a man I barely knew, and did not grow up to know as an adult. He was flippant in his parenting and blamed his dislike for my mum as the reason he left us when I was two years old. He, like many men, discarded his responsibilities as a parent as easily as a discarded Bubble-o-Bill wrapper was tossed into the bin of the sun drenched nineties streets I grew up on. He wrote to me in my mid-teen years, attempting to connect but, predictably, he was self-interested and I saw through it. He is as an older adult, an academic; someone who teaches keen young adults about the world, inculcating methodologies on how to research the intricacies of other people’s lives. Interestingly he never seemed to understand himself and his foibles as well and he learned to study others.

As a little girl, I watched Disney film after Disney film, learning that my value was heavily associated with my appearance and creating a performative demure persona. I also understood early that even though life was tough, once I found my prince, I would live ‘happily ever after’. Life for a princess, the culmination of what every little girl could hope for, in fact no longer worth documenting from the point of ‘happily ever after’ onwards. She only became relevant again once she bore a child, then likely died, to set the dramatic, traumatic scene that would build the origin story for the next princess. I spent many nights in my youth looking up to the sky, searching for the brightest, most dazzling star to wish upon, just as the princess narrative had instilled in me. I wished that my father, who I did not know other than the gentle, kind stories my mum had told, would return. His love would complete me, like so many little princesses, it was a man’s approval I needed to ensure I was whole. The rhetoric was planted so deeply into my mind, that as a school-aged child, I knew that I simply could not live without the validation of men.

As an adult, I wore his surname for more than 30 years. And I hated it. I grew to understand that his callous disinterest in parenting his child was a choice, one that was reinforced by the structures around us all. Men could acceptably walk away, enhance their careers, pay very little maintenance to ensure their children just had the means to live, and never turn back for a second glance. Men could take hold of the power they were born to grasp, and let it cascade over their lives, emitting pain and violence and harm to others. This was only my story, and acknowledging of my privilege, I know that with an intersectional lens, there are many people out there who have experienced much greater suffering at the hands of men. Given the privilege I carry as a white-passing cisgender woman, I have been to university, I work in a job where I am respected and I have the capacity and just enough power to advocate for myself. Not all people have such ability; not all who live with cruel violent men live to tell their story.

When I finally married, I did not want to take my husband’s surname. But I also didn’t want my father’s, and I was exhausted by the idea of finding a new name that my husband would approve of. He of course wanted me and our children to take his name, presumably to carry on his legacy. I wanted to fit in; to be one of the so many happy, parallel women. The Stepford Wives all around us who just do what is simply done, because it is and always has been so. It all felt too hard, but then, I fell pregnant and everything began to change. I ruminated on my surname, a man’s name, “Mr and Mrs X”, ‘happily ever after’, and I vanished from existence in a puff of dull, soft, pink smoke. Why was it even called a surname anyway? Which sur(sir) did I belong to now that I had been branded with a new name, another man’s name. Everyone around me had a man’s name attached to them. We were all identified this way. Somehow we had become property, so easily captured as victims of unassuming normative structural, cultural control that was so innocently accepted. I wanted a name that was mine.

While so many men claim to believe in feminism and equality, most are unbelievably comfortable sitting within the structures that are built to retain their power and diminish the power of others. Even the most simple things like not being eligible for superannuation on paid parental leave are examples of structures that keep women down. They are the structures that enable men to be relied upon by us while compelling us into years of unpaid and inequitable household and care labour. Why are we accepting of these structures? Perhaps we’re not, but we haven’t figured out how to take power we need to change them.

This year, I made the “radical” manoeuvre to choose a new surname. After my child’s father perpetrated unspeaking acts, I knew I had to change my child’s surname too. I like to think that perhaps one day, this name will be destined to lead its own matrilineal line. In years to come, I hope that my relatives will bear this name I have chosen for us, and feel strong in the knowledge of the choice I made for us all. It might be a new name for us, in my family tree, but it carries the wisdom, strength and resilience of so many women before me. It is a story that I hope my son will tell his children – if he chooses to have them.

There is so much power in a name. I chose to take that power, to clasp it for myself and my child, thinking critically and deeply about the meaning. The name I chose connects to both of us and in ways we and those we love will understand, it connects us to generations past, as well as cobbling for us a route to our futures. I chose for us a name that flows lavishly along the strong currents of rivers and oceans, carving pathways through earth and stone. It grows deep, interconnected roots that bind rich arbourous trees, stretching branches up to breathe the freshest dewy air, high above the ground. It connects my son and me to the vast wilderness of Mother Nature herself.

And yet.

It is an odd thing to explain to people, how I came to this choice, one that is not the choice of the majority of women. I know that some people won’t understand; some will see this as an odd thing to do – too radical perhaps even for those who see themselves as revolutionaries. To them, I say, my identity has never felt more mine to own than as I sit typing this story for you. I have finished a chapter of pain, grief and oppression. The next chapter has begun, and I walk into it gleefully doused in glorious, sunkissed joy, that I have made all on my own.

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Rasato is an emerging illustrator and graphic designer currently based in Shanghai, China. Committed to exploring the relationships between humans and the world they inhabit, his work reveals often disregarded connections and experiences of life. For example, through drawing trees and people, he questions himself and his surroundings.

In this way, personal thoughts, passions and values are revealed to the audience and community. Combining digital painting with traditional media such as coloured pencils, acrylic and charcoal, allows him to comprehend the significance of illustration and its boundaries. By using visual arts practice to establish intimate connections with fellow human beings, Rasato attempts to redefine the field of contemporary illustration as an infinitely diverse and productive area of creative possibility.

Instagram: @rasato3240
LinkedIn: Rasato Ma

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