If you take a look at my bio here on the Buffer blog, my Twitter account or my website, you’ll see that my name is Belle Beth Cooper. That’s been my name for about eight months. Prior to that it was Corina Mackay. Corina Mary Mackay, in fact, since about ten days after I was born.
Changing your name so dramatically isn’t something many of us do, so I thought it would be fun to tell the story of why I changed it, what the process was like and what I learned from it.
Why I changed my name
Changing my name was a complicated process that took lots of things into account. It’s difficult to really point to one reason that made me do it. Here are some of the contributing factors, though.
My old name was hard to spell and say
Corina isn’t too unusual a name, but my spelling can be. It’s often spelled with two r’s or two n’s, or with an a, as in Carina. My original surname, Mackay, also has it’s problems. My dad told me once when I was a kid that he thought it was a Scottish name that had been brought to Australia generations ago and the pronunciation had been mangled, so we actually said our own name wrong. Who knows if that’s the case.
Anyway, the way we pronounced it was ‘mack-ay’, even though it’s spelled more like ‘mack-eye.’ So quite often it would be pronounced wrong by others, or it would be spelled McKay, or MacKay. The fact that Australia actually has a city called Mackay that’s pronounced ‘mack-eye’ didn’t help.
Needless to say, this got pretty tiring as a kid. When all you’re trying to do is fit in at school and seem cool, the last thing you want is to have to wrestle with every teacher over how to say or spell your name.
I wanted to choose it
Choosing a unique name that nobody else in the world has is pretty hard unless you’re willing to go for a word that isn’t even considered a name (yet). Or a crazy spelling, which we’ve already discussed was not something I enjoyed dealing with.
Having chosen your own name, however, is pretty unique, regardless of what that name is. There are lots of people who’ve change their names, I’m sure, but I’ve never met one. It feels pretty cool to have done something not many others have.
On that note, I’m also fiercely independent and I love the idea of being in control of something so often seen as ‘out of our hands’. I really like knowing that I’ve done something many people would assume is not even an option.
I wasn’t very tied to my name
As a teenager, I really outgrew my family ties in a sense. I don’t place a lot of importance on people because they’re my family, but rather just because of who they are and whether I get along with them. For instance, I don’t see many of my family members who still live in my home state, because we just don’t have much in common. I don’t make a point of traveling back there on a regular basis simply because they’re my family.
Other family members who live closer to me happen to have more in common with me as well, so I spend more time with them. The fact that they are family doesn’t hold as much importance for me as it does for many people.
Mostly, this is just because of how I grew up, and the roles that family did (or didn’t) play in my life as I developed. What this means is that the fact that my name holds some kind of ties to my family doesn’t affect me a whole lot. A little bit, yes, but not a lot.
In my case, the ties are that my dad chose my first name, my mum gave me her middle name, and my surname comes from my dad’s family. I was pretty lucky in that most of the family members who know I’ve changed my name didn’t get upset, even if they didn’t understand why I did it. I was also really lucky that I had total support from some people, like my sister and my friends.
My dad did feel a bit taken aback by it. Although he knew I was using my new name already, talking to him about the process of changing it legally was pretty tough. That conversation was a huge lesson for me in empathy and communication. My dad suggested I was changing my name out of anger towards my parents, almost in revenge or as a way to hurt them. That’s a pretty hard thing to hear from someone you love and respect, and it wasn’t easy to explain why I was changing my name and to convince him it was no reflection on my relationship with him or my mum at all.
Although for me the legal process was more about convenience (having my preferred name match my legal name) and an exciting new chapter in my life, it brought up some tough discussion about my feelings towards my parents now, and how I feel about my childhood. I definitely didn’t expect that, and I think it was a surprising benefit that my dad and I could get some deep issues out in the open as a result of discussing my name change.
New name, new me
Choosing a new name is a funny process. Essentially, I could choose anything I wanted to, so long as it was deemed appropriate by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (it’s not quite as easy as sitcoms make out).
By the time I was filling out the paperwork to get my name changed legally, I was still deciding between two name variations: Belle Beth Cooper and Belle Verity Adams. Each name has a little bit of significance, though the overall choice came down to how I thought all three sounded and looked together, since I knew I’d have to get used to that being my name.
Here are the three parts I chose, and why:
Belle: this was a nickname my sister gave me when I was about four years old, after a character in my favorite movie. My sister was really the only one who used it until about three years ago.
I started using the name Belle well before I started the process of changing it legally. One of the good things about working in theatre is that you can use pretty much any name you like. For a couple of years I was working on lots of theatre projects, and I used the name Belle each time. I experimented with a few different name combinations as I tried to choose something that would go with Belle, so I have programs stashed away from various shows, all with different names on them.
Beth: I was an exchange student in the U.S.A in 2004 and both my exchange mom and sister have this middle name. While I was looking for names to go with Belle, one of them suggested this and I loved it.
Of course, this was a point of contention in the discussion with my dad that I mentioned above, as well, and I can see why. Giving up the middle name I had, which matched my mum’s, to take one from another family could certainly be taken the wrong way, regardless of how I meant it.
Cooper: A distant relative on my mum’s side has this last name. I don’t even know who it is—perhaps a great-aunt. Having heard it before, it popped into my heard early-on as a possibility. In the end, the real pull for this name was just that it’s easy to spell and say, and I thought it went well with Belle.
Making it official
The actual process of changing my legal name wasn’t much fun or super interesting, but I’ll break it down briefly so you can see what goes into it. Of course, this will differ by state and country, but it should give you a basic idea of the process.
As I mentioned before, my name had to be accepted as appropriate. I also had to specify a reason for changing it in more detail than simply “personal” or “professional reasons.” Since I’d been using the name for a couple of years in the theatre industry already, my reason was that it was confusing for my legal name to not match the name I was using professionally. It got through, so I guess that’s an acceptable reason!
I posted this tweet on my visit to the local government office that handles name changes. I didn’t quite have everything I needed that day, so I was a bit pre-emptive in pointing out to my co-founder Josh that I was about to have a new name!
— Belle Beth Cooper (@BelleBethCooper) November 19, 2012
To get it done, I had to fill out a form and get a whole stack of papers witnessed to prove who I was. I paid a fee and sent off my paperwork and my original birth certificate. Just a few weeks later I received a Change of Name Certificate in the mail. This means I get to keep my original birth certificate and I just have another one that proves I changed my birth name to the one I have now.
Below are photos I shared on Twitter on the day I sent my forms away—on the left is my application, on the right is the letter addressed to the government office that handles name changes.
I’m holding life-changing documents in my hands RIGHT NOW. #noodlebake
— Belle Beth Cooper (@BelleBethCooper) December 21, 2012
Some surprising lessons that came from changing my name
It’s funny how many things I noticed after doing this, that I had never expected. Here are some of the more fascinating things I’ve learned or noticed since changing my name.
Changing my first name
I read an article once about actors choosing stage names that said you should never, ever change your first name. The reason for this is that as an adult, you’ve spent so long having that name ingrained into your subconscious that you’ll always respond to it even if it’s not officially your name anymore. I guess I must have read that after I’d changed mine…
People are usually surprised that I changed my whole name, and it’s nothing like my former name. I guess this is because it’s such an unusual thing to do. Even when I say I’ve changed my name, people often assume it’s a surname change due to marriage.
Keeping my signature
One of the first things I did was head into the bank and get my name updated in my file. I had to sign some paperwork while I was there, and I’d forgotten to pick a new signature so when they put me on the spot, I just used my old one.
By this time it’s just a squiggle anyway, so it doesn’t matter too much, but it seems odd every time I sign something to be essentially writing my old name.
Trouble with three names
I like the idea of using all three of my names, i.e. Belle Beth Cooper. This is probably another exercise in being original, I suppose. One thing I didn’t foresee would be an issue is that a lot of people call me Beth by mistake. I’m yet to work out why this happens, and it’s definitely one of the more puzzling aspects of my new name.
I can only assume it comes from the confusion of using three names, which has proved to be a problem elsewhere as well. When we recently tried to set up Google Authorship for my posts on the Buffer blog, we realised that having three names brings up a bug in getting Google to recognize my posts.
What a name means
Changing my name has made me think a lot more about what our names mean to us: how and why we choose them for our children, how we think about them and use them throughout our lives, how we associate them with our personalities. In fact, I found out recently that our names affect our lives much more than we might think.
Something I’ve noticed in particular is that it’s not uncommon for people (even strangers) to see my name change as offensive (especially towards my family) or unnecessary. I think the ideas of “giving up” my chosen name, that link to my family and our ancestory and any tradition that comes with the name (for instance, my middle name matched my mum’s) really seem upsetting to some people.
I’ve found it quite difficult to explain to people who think this way that those links don’t mean as much to me, and I don’t feel that I’m being offensive to my family or anyone else.
Another one in this vein is when people say they could never change their names. Again, it’s hard to explain how I feel about it to people who see this as something they just couldn’t do. For me, changing my name has made me feel quite good in terms of bucking the status quo and questioning things that we’ve taken for granted for generations (i.e. you’re stuck with the name your parents give you).
Who I am
Here’s a really odd thing that I’ve noticed since changing my name:
When I’m having a bad day and I look in the mirror, the first thing that pops into my head is my birth name. I don’t know why, and I think this is a pretty interesting phenomena—I’d love to find out if other people experience this as well. It could be related to how I think about myself relevant to my new name though: i.e. I’m the new, improved me with the new, improved name, and the past, less-improved me had the old name.
I also think I subconsciously relate my old name to not being in control and/or having things decided for me. Because I’m so fiercely independent, I think I’ve probably attached negative connotations to my old name because I was stuck with it—constantly correcting people on how to spell or say it, and I had no choice in the matter.
Saying it right
Interestingly, I’m less concerned about people spelling or saying my name wrong now. I like to correct them because I like my name and want to give it its due, but I don’t take it so personally when people say it wrong, (or call me Beth—though that one does puzzle me a lot). On the other hand, I think I’m more aware of other people’s names, and try harder to get them right.
I do take it personally now when people compliment my name, since I chose it. Another lesson I learned in empathy: I notice some people seem offended or frustrated when I compliment their names, because they didn’t choose them. Someone even said that to me once when I said his name was cool: “Well I didn’t choose it.” This reminds me that my case is unique and many others don’t feel excited and proud of their name because they chose one they like. In this case, his frustrated tone reminded me we often feel like our names are the kind of thing we can’t change.
I feel like my new name represents me better as who I am now. Having said that, I’m fully open to the idea that I might want to change it again someday. This whole process has made me see my name as a more transient aspect of my life, rather than a definitive description of who I am as a person.