What's in a Name? For Some, Identity : Marriage: More than a convenience, keeping one's maiden name can be a highly personal decision to ensure that marriage bonds don't bind self-image.

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

The form letter arrived just 10 days after our wedding.

"County records indicate that you may have recently changed your name," said the official-looking letter, which sported an etching of the U.S. Capitol. "It is important that this change be processed as quickly as possible so that you may be issued a new Social Security card."

Sure, I could get a new card free of charge, the letter said, by contacting the government myself. But why waste my valuable time? For a $10 service charge, a "non-governmental agency" called the National Records Advisory would handle the "chore" for me.

But I had already decided to avoid the name-changing chore altogether. When I got married last month, I kept my own name--in large part because of my profession. Journalists spend much of their time reminding sources to remember them. After years of tacking my name to my work, changing the byline seemed self-defeating.

I also had personal reasons for the decision. As much as I have envied more exotic bylines (Crystal Nix, a former New York Times reporter, is a longtime favorite), this name has served me well for 28 years.

Professionally and personally, my name is my identity. And it took no more than one conversation with Betty Broderick, the La Jolla mother of four who was tried recently for the murders of her ex-husband and his second wife, to remind me of the potentially extreme consequences of losing that.

"I wasn't Mrs. Anything," she told me once, describing how her divorce had stripped her of all the things she felt made her who she was. Was it such a good idea to define one's self, even one's name, in terms of someone else? For me, the answer was no.

But the craftily worded solicitation in my mailbox reminded me--not for the first time--that each day scores of women make a different choice.

A few months earlier, at a bridal shower, a woman gave me a present I will never use: engraved stationery, with the name Amy Newton atop every sheet. She was flustered when she learned of her mistake--she had assumed that, since her own daughter had changed her name, I would too. Women are doing that these days, she said.

Another woman at the party nodded. A decade before, when she and her husband had divorced, she had wanted very much to take back her maiden name. But, in order to keep the same name as her daughter, she didn't make the switch. Now, she said disappointedly, her daughter was getting married and taking her husband's name.

A quick survey of my married friends in their late 20s revealed that more than half had done the same. They admit it's a hassle to get new a driver's license, passport and bank account (which is why, no doubt, more than a few women gladly pay $10 for services that, with a little effort, they could get free). But, in the long run, they say, it will be easier--for their children, particularly.

Children are, of course, the sticking point in any name debate. Does a name define a family? If it does, is it important for all family members to share one? To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?

No hyphens, say my name-changing friends, independent people all. Aware that they may be seen as forsaking themselves, they assure those who ask that they know quite well who they are. If the choice is between your father's name and your husband's, one friend asked, isn't it silly to stand on principle? When it comes right down to it, she said, she likes being linked to her husband by name.

Could it be that women my age, who were children as the women's movement took hold, are more conservative--less eager to fight battles already fought? Or is it merely that they are looking for other ways to uphold some of those feminist principles? Has feminism progressed beyond the point where one's name is the defining standard?

The example of another woman journalist in her 30s convinced me of the latter--and confirmed my growing suspicion that there is no one "right" decision in this debate. At work, for reasons much the same as mine, this woman uses her maiden name--let's call her Jane Doe. But, when the workday is over, the Doe all but ceases to exist.

At home, at the health club, on her credit cards, she uses her husband's name--Jones. She jokes about the oddities of her "double life"--the awkward times when her two identities overlap and she ends up juggling both.

But, ultimately, she feels that taking her husband's name is part of becoming a family. Particularly if they have children, Jane says, she feels it is important to be united by one name. By agreement, the kids will be Joneses--but each will carry Doe as a middle name.

Whatever works. Of course, there's nothing stopping men from taking the names of their wives. I know one man who did, changing his short, New England name to a long, complicated Hungarian surname so rare that his wife's family feared it was dying out.

I doubt if he ever received anything like the mail I'm getting, though. Yesterday's batch brought another solicitation from a "non-governmental agency," this one called the Document Service, which offered to handle the paperwork for $12. They acknowledged that I might want to keep my name, but said I should change my Social Security card anyway--"the best procedure is to use your last name followed by a hyphen and his last name."

No, thanks. I'll save the money.

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