Choosing my daughter’s first name was easy. Choosing her surname was not.
My partner and I weren’t married when our first daughter was born, but even if we were, we would have had different surnames. Since I was old enough to think about it, I knew that I would always keep my name regardless of my relationship status. That decision was simple. The real challenge came when it was time to name our baby.
It seemed less of a feminist issue than one of fairness. How was it that I would have to endure the discomfort of pregnancy and the ordeal of labour only to have the new human I’d grown inside me take someone else’s name? I’d given up sushi and soft cheese for nine months and I didn’t even have naming rights to show for it.
Matrilineal naming makes more sense to me. After all, mothers are usually the primary caregivers so why shouldn’t her children have the same surname as her, even if they have different fathers? While this option appealed to my feminist ideals, it failed the fairness test. If my partner’s surname wasn’t a standalone option, I felt that I couldn’t demand mine take its place.
The remaining options were problematic too. In the end, we settled on a double-barrelled surname – importantly, for my partner - without a hyphen. While I feel a flicker of regret every time I have to spell out their unusual surname over the phone, I wouldn’t change it.
Writer Lorelei Vashti faced a similar problem with surnames in 2014 when she was pregnant with her first child. Vashti’s solution – a blended surname made by combining her surname with her partner’s – is one of six options she outlines in her self-published book, How to Choose Your Baby's Last Name: A Handbook for New Parents. The others include the father’s last name, the mother’s last name, a double-barrelled last name, alternating last names for siblings, and a new last name.
“A lot of women are very fervent about keeping their maiden name and that’s a very well established feminist thing,” Vashti says. “I wanted to stay away from that. I wanted to talk about what happens if you’ve already made that choice…and you come to having kids with two different surnames. What happens then?”
While the question of last names “is traditionally, in most cultures, still solved in favour of father’s surnames”, that is changing.
In Australia, children are usually given their father’s surname. One Victorian study from 2012 found that 90 per cent of children have their father’s last name. Of children born to unmarried parents, 75 per cent had a patrilineal surname, a statistic Vashti initially found surprising in an age of supposed gender equality. During her research, however, she realised that while the issue is often solved in favour of the male surname, parents are arriving at that decision via long, often difficult and emotional conversations.
“You can’t judge anyone, especially a woman, for coming to that decision in the end. Because it’s not just her, it’s him, it’s extended family, it’s society,” says Vashti, who includes interviews from nearly 200 people in her book. “The pressures on this issue are enormous.”
The LGBT community is a good place to look for unconventional surnames. “Same sex couples come to this issue commonly,” says Vashti. “If they decide to have kids there’s not the same traditions in place for changing surnames.”
The LGBT community is a good place to look for unconventional surnames.
While the question of last names “is traditionally, in most cultures, still solved in favour of father’s surnames”, that is changing. In countries like France and Belgium, laws have recently been passed to allow for alternatives to patrilineal names.
Three countries where patrilineal surnames are not the norm
Surnames are not hereditary in Iceland. Instead, a suffix is added to the father’s name to create a new surname for each generation. For example, the Icelandic president Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson takes his last name from his father, Jóhannes Sæmundsson. If he had a sister, her surname would be Jóhannesdóttir.
While the Icelandic naming system is traditionally patronymic, since 1996 it has been legal to adopt a matronymic surname, or one taken from the mother’s name. It is not customary for women to change their names upon marriage.
One of the world’s best known matrilineal cultures is the Mosuo, a small ethnic group that lives in China’s Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. A female elder presides over Mosuo families, who traditionally live in multigenerational households made up of mothers, brothers, sisters and children. Spouses don’t live together; instead they make ‘walking marriages’ where a husband, or male sexual partner, lives with his extended family but makes surreptitious visits to his wife at night. Children from these unions live with their mother and take her last name.
In the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, babies take their mother’s surname for an entirely different reason. China’s history of sex selection and infanticide of female babies due to the one child policy has resulted in a serious gender imbalance across the population. In 2012, the country recorded 118 male births for every 100 female births. In an attempt to make girl babies more desirable, officials in Changfeng province reportedly offer a cash bonus to families who name their baby after the mother.
Spanish names generally consist of a given name and two last names, or apellidos, taken from each parent. The father’s name traditionally precedes the mother’s and is the one passed down to the next generation. However, it is becoming more common for the maternal name to take precedence.
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