Many roads, one surname

In yesterday’s SMH Catherine Deveny asked Why do (don’t go there) most children(don’t go there) still end up with (don’t go there, don’t go there, don’t go there!) their father’s surname?

She’s fairly clearly talking about a certain, already small and reportedly shrinking, milieu, that of heterosexual couples forming a nuclear family where the male and female partners have different surnames. She’s particularly talking about legally married couples, because in that case there is a socially visible ‘choice’ available to the female partner to use her birth surname or adopt her husband’s surname, or, I think even more rarely, some combination thereof. (Deveny has discussed women’s own decision here and it made it to Hoyden in 2007.)

Of course, we’re already in problematic territory here, in our last surname discussion WildlyParenthetical had a great comment in which she wrote:

[A structural analysis of surname choice as a feminist decision] assumes to know, in advance, the entire significance of a choice. In fact, it says that the entire (feminist) significance is given by its capitulation or resistance to a particular dimension of patriarchy…

… it can erase the heteronormativity of the issue to begin with… it can erase a colonialist, imperialist and racist history… it can erase the moments in which one has been disowned, or a survivor of violence, the moments where the very nuclear family structure enforced by surnames has been the cause of great damage…

Here I am under the microscope though. I had a son last month, my own first child and the first child of my long term heterosexual relationship. Moreover, his father and I are legally married. I’m white and of largely British Isles descent: this surname tradition is my cultural heritage. And I use my birth surname both socially and professionally, as does he: of course, my choice to do so is marked, and his isn’t.

My son? His surname is the same as mine, rather than his father’s.

While I was pregnant, we worked over this problem a lot, because I was very struck by the comment of zuzu’s that tigtog brought to our attention: You may feel you have great reasons for choosing the option which just happens to be what the patriarchy has greased the rails for you to do rather than taking the harder path of going against tradition. But having good reasons doesn’t mean that you’re not adding your own grease to those rails… Deveny observes much the same, that there are many many many reasons, but very much one likely outcome.

I come with a great big helping of privilege, and I’ve greased plenty of rails already and figured that the punishment I’d take for thinking about adding a teeny smidge of friction here was small, but it still took a great deal of energy to reach this decision. It took a great deal more for me than for my husband of course. I considered a lot of options: the children using the surname of the same-sex parent, inventing a new family name entirely, and so on.

I’ve ended up liking using my surname because it’s a distorted mirror of the usual decision. There’s very few objections to it that don’t also apply to the most common decision. Input from others vastly tended to focus more on what he and his family would lose than what mine would gain. Neither of us has brothers: sisters are so unreliable when it comes transmitting surnames! Several people took it out to cousins: I have more male cousins with my surname than he has with his. Trouble he might have dealing with travel or school documentation were raised more often than trouble I might have.

I am not kidding myself that this was Big Activism for me, it was low risk to my safety, my relationships, my right to parent my son. And I’m much more pleased to share a surname with him than my husband is sorry not to. (Of course, if he becomes very sorry, he can always change his name…) In some ways though, that makes me extra glad with the decision to do the, or at least an, unusual thing.

Categories: gender & feminism, relationships

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32 replies

  1. Same here, virtually word for word (except there’s no legal marriage involved). The Lad has his father’s surname as his second middle name; when he’s grown, he can choose to switch or hyphenate or do whatever he likes with his surname.
    If anyone has a problem with it, they’re keeping it quiet around me. Either they don’t mind, or they fear the Lauredhel Look of Doom…

  2. Names caused my Mum a lot of angst after she and Dad split up and she remarried. Her instinct was to revert to her maiden name, but she was worried how I might feel about living in a household where I did not share the surname of either caregiving adult.
    I was sixteen. I said; “We all know how we’re related. If other people can’t work it out, that’s their problem.”
    Simplistic response (yay teenagers!), huh?

  3. I’m guessing the Lauredhel Look of Doom. I took the greased rail way out to avoid clashes with the in-laws because you can guarantee that it would have come up time and time and time again.
    @KM – sometimes teenagers just have a way off cutting through to the real issues. I admire that.

  4. Lauredhel, unsurprisingly there’s a lot of people in the SMH comments who’d be prepared to say something to you. Or at least, in your general direction, perhaps while running away from The Look.

  5. Because of reasons that I won’t disclose on-blog (‘though if any of the usual crowd want to contact me off-blog, I’ll happily tell you), we went with his surname. I feel regretful about that sometimes, but I think it was the better thing to do in our particular situation. But it definitely contributed to the rail-greasing.

  6. Oh, Mary, I sure believe that! I meant close friends, family, school people – no one there has disclosed that they have a problem with it, as far as I can recall.

  7. @ Lauredhel – my first thought was “that’s good”, my second thought was “what’s it got to do with them anyway!” but such choices are never made in a vaccuum. Considering the choices I made, I can’t talk anyway.

  8. When I married my wife, I took her last name and moved my maiden name (I can’t begin to tell you the layers of irony in that phrase) to my middle name, jettisoning what had been there.
    It works out well. I now have three names of five characters each which pleases the part of me that is pleased by symmetry. I still have something of the name I was born with remaining, and its connected to one of the few relatives I have a hope of maintaining a relationship with. I no longer have the middle name chosen in the wildly misplaced hope that it might induce my abusive grandmother to understand that I really do love her. It didn’t, so getting the opportunity to shed it during the free name change that comes with getting married presented me with a not-difficult decision. My initials are now MAB and I am very fond of them. Finally, it makes my wife happy to see my name on stuff. I like making my wife happy. 🙂
    I think it’s pretty damn feminist, especially considering we managed to get legally married in Texas.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  9. See, I’m already stressing about this, and we’re not planning on kids for a few years (still, probably better to figure it out now!). I think what it comes down to is that we do put such an emphasis on names and heritage and lineage and yet going with one surname or another, or basing it on sex, it all seems just arbitrary – and yet of course it’s no more arbitrary than good old patriarchal tradition.

  10. Thanks for this article, these issues have been percolating in my head since my own marriage is now impending (sometime before the end of the year, hopefully, if US Customs and Immigration Service plays nice). Not the kid thing, since I’ve chosen not to have them and gotten myself sterilized, but the whole name thing.
    I am going to change my last name to his but haven’t decided what all I might do in terms of my step-father’s and mother’s last name. I have the last name of my estranged biological father and mostly I just want to get rid of it. I might have been born with it, but it was only the name of my “family” for the first 3 years of my life and I don’t have any good memories associated with it. So WildlyParenthetical’s comment really, really resonates with me. I may be capitulating to patriarchy to get rid of my current last name but damn, there’s no name I could take from anywhere in my family tree that wouldn’t be the name some father had passed on to his children. Keeping my current last name just continues to align me with the father I’ve never really known, and if I’m going to tag myself with a man’s last name, I might as well use my step-father’s and my new husband’s in some combination, because at least I care deeply for both of them.
    There’s other options there, it’s true, but I don’t particularly care for any of them. I’m still struggling, though, with the feeling that I should be doing something all rebellious and difficult, like choosing a new last name entirely, even though that’s not what I want to do.

  11. I’m still struggling, though, with the feeling that I should be doing something all rebellious and difficult

    As the OP shows, I’m more than happy with what I ended up doing for my family, but I also ended up feeling a bit trapped as well: that having to care about it was women’s work.

  12. As I’ve written about before, we decided to hyphenate for the children, although our choice there had its own minor problems, because the conventions around hyphenation have changed over time and most people don’t understand the history, or how arbitrary and irrelevant that history is to families where great estates are not on the line. At this point I just want to break out the (now-extinguished) family line of quintuple-barrelled British aristocracy – the Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenvilles (aka the Dukes of Buckingham) – an accumulation which represents multiple estate mergers over several centuries where a sufficiently well endowed noble heiress kept part of her family name alive in subsequent generations.
    On a purely pragmatic level, that hyphenation of our surnames for the kids has meant that we’ve had no problems with travelling or education or medical matters in terms of anyone questioning either one of us about being the parent. But I’m pretty sure that there wouldn’t have been that many problems for us as educated middle-class Westerners who know our way around the legal system if we had chosen just one surname for them instead.

  13. Interesting bit of history, tigtog. (Have you ever thought about importing the Blogspot posts to here?)
    I’m always surprised by the regularity of the “woe, what happens when Ms Double-Barrel has children with Mr Also-Hyphenated, ahahaha four surnames as if, QED” argument, actually. I have adult friends who have both parents’ surnames hyphenated, if people want to know what these people decide to do for their children it is now possible to go and look at what they did, there are many of them who are old enough. And yet every comments thread on The Family Name Issue will have several people pointing out the four names problem as if it’s a new argument.

  14. For people who wonder what will happen to the children if both parents have hyphenated last names (often with a bit of shyeah like that will happen along with the what about the children won’t somebody please think about the children!? false moral panic), I should like to draw their attention to the many Spanish-speaking countries in the world. (Also, anyone wanting ideas for how to work this for themselves might find it useful.) Where they have had a tradition of using something very like hyphenated names for a very long time now.
    It all seems to work out pretty okay. There are systems. The children seem unscarred by it.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  15. I liked the old commune solution that gave all the kids a brand new surname …Wild.

  16. I think that giving children a parents surname can have the same problematic aspects of a woman taking her husbands name. It denotes ownership and heirarchy. I like the idea of a brand new surname, but I imagine that’s not going to be an attractive alternative for most people.
    That being said, my children have my surname and it’s not been a big deal for us; sometimes people ask “how he feels about it” (meaning my partner) but it’s certainly not ever been a issue with anyone.

  17. “As the OP shows, I’m more than happy with what I ended up doing for my family, but I also ended up feeling a bit trapped as well: that having to care about it was women’s work.”
    I think that last bit is a lot of it for me, now that you mention it. It’s not something my intended has to worry about unless he *wants* to but whatever I do is going to be viewed as a political choice and used by some to judge my commitment to either the feminist movement or my new husband or possibly both.
    It’s tiring.

  18. My children have the same set up as lauredhel’s Lad. We’re a tiny minority.

  19. We had the conversation (although no children yet) and hyphenated sounded good to both of us. The order happens to be straight-forward as the other way around is unmelodious and that sort of thing is important to both of us, and likely to be to any child of ours.
    In fact, he wanted the hyphenated name too, when we were married, but in Australia, while a woman can change her name freely on marriage, a man must go through the same charges and bureaucracy (deed poll) as though nothing important was happening in his life.
    Another idea that always seemed fair to me was give the boys the mother’s surname, daughters the father’s (because the other way around seems to me to still reinforce the patriarchial notion that it’s the male line that’s really important, and besides, that’s what the Y chromosome is for). I’m somewhat more questioning of things like gender identity these days so I’m now more reluctant to have a rule that sets gender at birth.

  20. In fact, he wanted the hyphenated name too, when we were married, but in Australia, while a woman can change her name freely on marriage, a man must go through the same charges and bureaucracy (deed poll) as though nothing important was happening in his life.
    Goodness! When we got married 20 years ago, in New Zealand, it was open to each of us to change our family names, if we wanted to. Neither of us did, as it happens, but we could have.

  21. My 5 kids, from two different long term relationships, have two different two-word surnames (no hyphens, I’m a copyeditor and I hate the things). Because it sounded better, my name appears second in some and first in others — the first three are HisName MyName, and the second two are Myname HisName. They all have middle names that honour other members of their extended families.
    The kids all know they are related, schools seem to cope, and the eldest has already decided to choose a name from the selection she was given, because it fits better on forms. Naming seems like a huge deal before you do it. Not so much after.

  22. Baby anachronism has my partner’s last name as her last name. My last name is one of her middle names. I struggled with it but in the end I just didn’t have the emotional attachment to my surname that my partner has to his. I feel bad about that sometimes, like I should have cared more but when it comes down to it I am attached to my name as a whole, not my surname as my family name (the way my partner is attached to his surname as his family name). So I added a bit more grease to the rails and it does irritate me that I did. I sometimes wish that I cared enough to stand my ground because if it really mattered to me the other anachronism would change his name – for him it’s more important to share a name with his child. Of course it’s going to make things easier in the school run and all if everything goes as planned.
    But yeah, I’ve got no inlaws to fight over this and I would have if I’d decided that her last name should be the same as mine.

  23. “in Australia, while a woman can change her name freely on marriage, a man must go through the same charges and bureaucracy (deed poll) as though nothing important was happening in his life.”
    I don’t know whether some of this is recent, but NSW, the ACT, WA, South Australia and Tasmania all allow you to change your name to your spouse’s name on marriage, with no mention of gender, the Victorian website isn’t working, and only Queensland specifies wife changing name to husband’s name
    The WA website, for example, says
    “Change of name after marriage
    Any person who marries may choose to assume their spouse’s surname. This is done as a matter of custom and not of law.
    A certificate of marriage issued by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages is usually sufficient evidence to have personal documentation changed to a married surname.”

  24. My son was officially ‘registered’ at a time where I was going through a rather traumatic separation with my then-husband. I used my own name – I’d tried out signing as his name once and it felt weird so I didn’t do it again. But during the separation, my ex husband was grinding me down, stalking me and being abusive. I was so tired and confused that I asked my mother for her advice on which last name to register my son under. She advised me to register him under my then-husband’s name…so he’d feel as though he ‘had’ something. I was so tired I just did it and regretted it almost immediately. However I’ve enrolled him in preschool, primary and high school under my own surname. There were never any major questions or problems – except that one time his Dad picked him up from the school on a brief visit from Germany to remarry out here and went ballistic on discovering my son was enrolled under my name not his.

  25. Certainly in the ACT (Australia) either or both parties can change their surname after marriage without any issue. When I got married my husband wanted us both to have the same name largely for ease of legalities regarding future kids and movement between countries. I refused outright to change because I didn’t see the need and I had publications under my name, so he changed his name. On a practical note as well, both of us had names that no-one could spell but at least mine was shorter!

  26. I have gone with the grease the rails option, and the only thing I really don’t like about it is that it greases those damn rails. But in my case, having chosen any other option would have just been purposely mixing everything up only to just feel that tiny bit rebellious.
    I would never change my last name, but since we live in Argentina, where women do not change their names anyway, that’s not even slightly rebellious. For a number of reasons, we decided against hyphens or using both last names (as is the law here in Argentina!). And I have no sentimental or aesthetic attachment to my name, so we just went with papa’s last name. If I had a last name I loved, I definitely would have felt differently.
    I don’t regret it, but I do sometimes wish I had an equivalent type of fluorescent sign attached to me saying ‘I’m a feminist! I’m a feminist!’ – to give people a bit of a heads-up before they have to hear me go on about abortion and gender norms in preschool and such.

  27. Rebekka: it doesn’t surprise me if in fact we encountered a Queensland anacronism. I had no idea this sort of thing varied by state, and that’s certainly not how the issue was presented to us.
    The pattern I’m noticing through the comments that’s bothering me a lot is the number of women who say “we had the discussion and in the end I just wasn’t attached to my name the way he was to his”. And just why do you think that might be the case??? I can remember back in high school, girls were testing out what their signatures would look like with different surnames. The indoctrination of girls and boys re: their relationship to their surname starts very young.
    I am aware that a lot of women have problematic relationships with their fathers and that contributes to the lack of attachment to the father’s surname. But there is not exactly a shortage of men rejecting their fathers also, and the idea of changing their name as a result just doesn’t seem to occur to them as much.

  28. I didn’t change my name after getting married although I did consider it for a while. I was feeling lazy, I guess (intellectually, that is). But in the end physical laziness (bothering to change documents) and my partner’s objections (“Why the hell would you change your name to mine? That’s just weird.”) won the day.
    He was also happy for our little one to have my surname (suggested it, in fact), but his Granny was so excited to have her “first grandchild (actually her 7th, but the first from a grandson!) that I thought we should just give our daugher both of our last names (and a middle name that has been passed through all the women in my family for the last 8 generations) . They aren’t hyphenated, ’cause I don’t like the look of them, and so she can use one or both whenever she likes.
    I did have an aunt say to me when I was pregnant “Don’t you go and give her a double-barreled surname. It makes it so hard for us teachers!” I didn’t tell her that “roll call” was the least of my concerns on this particular issue.

  29. These discussions always make me feel kind of weird because to be perfectly honest when I got married 18 years ago I simply hadn’t thought very deeply about the issue at all and therefore went ahead and changed my name without us having had anything much by way of discussion about it at all.
    Now, in hindsight, I think that one of the reasons I felt no need to keep my surname was that I identified as a Whitfield woman – my mother’s maiden name – much more strongly than I did as being a member of the Fatherssurname family. Still do in fact, which is why I really love the photo of my Grandma, Mum, me and my daughter all together – 4 generations of Whitfield women. I suspect if I was making choices now I’d seriously consider changing my name to reflect that identity. Not sure what I’d do about the kids though, it’s hard to imagine them having different names that they already do.

  30. I love the fact that you gave your sons your name. In my case, I’m partnered with a British Catholic (I’m an American Lutheran). When we wed, we kept our names. We gave our first son both of our names. When I was pregnant with our second child, my husband shocked me by informing me that he thought we should hyphenate. Given the fact that our two names together consist of five syllables, and they both start with “G,” it’s a mouthful! But how could I say no?
    When it came to baptising our children, we ended up going Lutheran…because my husband cared less than I did. I have such strong opinions about the Catholic church’s treatment of women that I could not stand to go that route!
    I’m disappointed that more young women seem to be taking their husbands’ names nowadays–it seems like we’ve gone backwards. I applaud your choice to take a beautiful stand.

  31. This is something I have thought about a great deal too. I would never take my husband’s name but I always felt it would be selfish/hypocritical to say well, I think it is unfair for the child to have your surname…so it should have mine. It’s clear tho from these comments that many people have found the best arrangement to suit them, outside of tradition. I like the idea of giving both surnames, unhyphenated, and letting the child choose the form of their name when they are old enough to do so.

  32. @Aqua, I wrote to a bunch of people including the responsible Minister in QLD after I investigated, and they’re apparently going to change it so that men can take their wife’s name as well. I’m going to keep checking to make sure they have.
    @Nic, “I always felt it would be selfish/hypocritical to say well, I think it is unfair for the child to have your surname…so it should have mine. ”
    I always felt that if I’m the one who gestates and births them, then I’m putting in more effort, so naming rights are sort of commensurate. So not hypocritical at all.

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