Here’s something you wouldn’t know unless you sit near me at work: my surname – Lee – is not my surname. It’s my middle name. I dropped my surname in my mid-thirties in a protest against my family. This is the story of why.
My mother has been married and divorced* three times; she left my biological father when I was four and my younger sister was two and a half. I can still recall my father – who I now have no contact with – asking me when he left, who I wanted to stay with. I chose my mother, because at four, what did I know about the ramifications of our choices?
At the time he left, I believe my mother was having an affair with a barman – a handsome Scot, considerably older than her – from the local pub. I don’t know how they met, but clearly, it was enough of an issue for my father to pull up stumps. She ended up marrying this man, and he became my stepfather and legally adopted my younger sister and me. His surname became ours.
My mother and my stepfather had a child together – my half-sister – and she was very much doted upon by my mother, often to the exclusion of myself and my other sister. From what I can gather, my sister and I reminded my mother too much of our biological father, her past. It was easier to ignore us than deal with the reality that she had children to a man who was no longer a part of her life, or ours.
When I was 11 or 12 – I know I was in the latter stages of primary school – my mother and step-father parted ways. It turned out, unfortunately, that he had mental health issues – the word “schizophrenia” was bandied around a lot at that time – and I think alcohol** abuse was also an issue. My mother was dreadfully unhappy, and she took her unhappiness out on my sister and I. My half-sister always escaped what were often quite brutal beatings with whatever was close at hand. Shoes were my mother’s weapons of choice, and her beatings were vicious.
When my mother and stepfather split, both my sisters and I were required to participate in fortnight access visits with my stepfather. These visits weren’t unpleasant, but they were awkward, and eventually petered out by the time I was in the middle years of high school. I rarely saw my stepfather in my later teens, and he died a recluse when I was in my late 20s. By that time, I had moved to Adelaide, and while I maintained spasmodic contact*** with my mother and sisters, I didn’t see anyone else much from my extended family.
I remember my stepfather as a presence that hovered, but was never really felt. I’m not sure if he realised how cruel my mother was to my sister and I. And how difficult our lives were because of my mother’s violence. My stepfather worked long hours at the local paper mill – I have often thought that he worked those hours to escape my mother – and I believe he travelled a bit when he retired.
When he died, he was quite wealthy and he left everything – and I mean everything – to his biological daughter – my half-sister.
My mother – who later in life looked like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, by the way – dissuaded my sister and I from contesting the will. I was not really interested because I had my own life, and my sister had moved to Perth, so it wasn’t on her horizon either. To cement her position as a pseudo-beneficiary, my mother promptly embarked on an affair with the executor of the estate, whose wife was dying of cancer. This ensured that my mother was in a position to also benefit from everything**** my half-sister inherited. To this day, I am unsure as to how much my mother benefited, but suffice it to say that she retired at 55 when she only ever worked part-time as a teacher’s aide.
At 29, a couple of years after my stepfather’s death and settlement of the estate, I became a mother. I went back to university part-time and studied teaching, and I did this on what was then the Sole Parent’s pension. It was enough to get by on, but I was never flush with cash. My mother reneged on her promise to care for my daughter and I was forced to put her in child-care***** on campus, which took quite a slice out of my weekly budget. But I scrimped here, saved there and managed to make ends meet. Ironically, I remember those years – when I was as poor as a church mouse and it was just me and my baby daughter – as some of the happiest years of my life.
When I became a mother, I mistakenly expected my own mother to step up and be a grandmother to my daughter. My daughter was a beautiful baby – and I’m not just saying that. She had a sunny disposition, was rarely sick, ate anything, and slept, well, like a baby. What I didn’t factor in was my mother didn’t have the skills – or inclination – to be a grandmother to my daughter, although she bent over backwards for my half-sister’s children. Yep. That old chestnut.
Knowing that I was fighting a losing battle, and based on a number of other incidences where my mother just didn’t come through for me or my daughter when promised, I phased her out of my life. At the same time, it was clear to me – after years of trying and being perpetually disappointed – that I wasn’t their people, so I had to start my own clan. Capitalising on the fallout from my stepfather’s will and my mother as a non-existent grandmother, I decided to change my name. I wasn’t part of this family, so changing my name sent a resounding message that I was done, finished, outta there.
But change it to what? I played around with perpetual favourites Prettejohn and Deeprose (I always wanted to marry someone with either of those names), but they didn’t seem quite right even though I liked them. And then it hit me. Lee – my middle name – is a perfectly acceptable surname. And it was still me, still part of my identity and who I was. So when my daughter was around eight, and I had access to a Justice of the Peace at work, I changed my daughter’s and my surname by deed poll to Lee******. I have been Diane Lee since my mid-30s… more than 15 years now.
So there you have it: the true story of why I changed my name. It is underpinned by a highly dysfunctional family and me wanting to make a statement about who I was, and where I belonged. I have never married, but I think if ever I did, I would keep Lee as a surname, because it is more than just a name to me. At the heart of my name change is me forging my own path and making my own way in the world, unencumbered by unrealistic expectations about a family that was never my family.
And it thrills me no end to think that I have started my own dynasty.
* Fun Fact #1 – I have two sisters and none of us have ever married. We all have children, though.
** Fun Fact #2 – my biological father also had issues with alcohol, apparently. Her third husband was a tad unstable. Notice that my mother was the common denominator.
*** Fun Fact #3 – for my own mental well-being, I rarely see my mother and half-sister. After years of beating myself up about why they didn’t love and accept me, I finally worked out that they just weren’t my people.
**** Fun Fact #4 – everything is gone, baby, gone. Spent and squandered in a few short years.
***** Fun Fact #5 – this actually worked out in my favour. The standard of child-care was excellent, and with the added benefit of flexibility, my daughter stayed there until she started school.
****** Fun Fact #6 – the Tang Dynasty was the founded by the Li family in 618AD and considered a high point in Chinese civilisation.