Why is there still such a reluctance to give a child the mother’s last name?

Why is there still such a reluctance to give a child the mother's last name? thumbnail

The birth of a child is supposed to be a celebration that brings family members together. But when my friend Simon* recently became a father, his parents disowned him and his extended family members accused Simon of betrayal and selfishness.

What could he possibly have done to provoke such a response? A name, that’s what. Specifically, his wife’s name.

See, rather than conforming to the patriarchal custom where children inherit the surname of the father, Simon opted to give his son his wife’s surname. Apparently, by refusing to follow naming conventions, Simon has robbed his family of its legacy.

It seems like some bizarre episode straight out of Game Of Thrones, where Simon’s family will now be banished from their castle and their lands in the North will pass to the long-lost bastard son. Or something.

But this is no cruel Medieval-esque fantasy world. It’s happening in 2016 in suburban Melbourne and the only real thing at stake is a few letters on a birth certificate.

If Simon had been born “Simone”, the issue of family legacy wouldn’t have even been considered. Simon’s father wouldn’t have felt insulted, and the family would not have be torn apart over a name.

Simon’s is an extreme example, but the reluctance to give a child the mother’s name remains extremely strong in our culture.

I know several single women who have given their children their name, but partnered women almost always give their kids the father’s name.

One of the few exceptions is when the father’s name is something like “Cock” or “Dick” or “Seaman” and the father doesn’t want his kids to endure the same schoolyard taunts he did.

But let’s not pretend that these cases are progressive or any less sexist than the paternal naming convention. The mother’s name is not being chosen for the children. Instead, it’s the father who’s choosing to give up his name, and the mother’s name is used because it’s the only other name available. If dad’s name didn’t have something to do with genitalia, the kids would almost certainly be given his name.

Even when a couple give their children double-barrelled names, the female name is an addition to the male name. Crucially, the man has not had to give up anything, the way women are almost universally expected to.

I don’t know of a single case of where the mother’s name is the first choice rather than the last option or a concession.

The paternal naming tradition is so ingrained that we don’t even see it. There would have been no freaking way I would have changed my name to my husband’s when I got married. It would have felt like relinquishing my identity and becoming my husband’s property. And until just as many men choose to take their wife’s name when they get married, then I cannot believe that it’s just a matter of personal choice.

But I happily gave my children my husband’s name. I’m fortunate to be married to the sort of man who wouldn’t have felt emasculated if we gave our kids my name instead of his. But we still didn’t do it.

It’s sexism, plain and simple, and it was a total blind spot for me.

Paternal baby-naming is not just some quaint little tradition that’s not worth thinking about, let alone questioning. When you combine it with the equally antiquated tradition of family name legacy, it’s part of the systematic erasure of girls’ and women’s identities and, along with it, their value.

Carrying on the Edwards name is such a preoccupation with senior members of my family, that they don’t even disguise their preference for male children. When the grandsons had daughters and not sons to carry on the family name, the disappointment was palpable.

I grew up feeling like I was “just a girl” and now the next generation of daughters is destined to be treated the same.

Gay male children can also suffer the same fate as women. They’re less likely to produce heirs to pass on the family name, so can therefore be considered less valuable than straight male children.

It’s time we start recognising the paternal baby-name tradition for what it really is: just another way to perpetuate inequality.

*Not his real name

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4 thoughts on “Why is there still such a reluctance to give a child the mother’s last name?

  1. “I don’t know of a single case of where the mother’s name is the first choice rather than the last option or a concession.”

    Hi Kasey,

    I’m married and when my now 6 year old son was born my husband and I decided to give him my surname as it sounded better with his first name. We were both indifferent to the idea of only a male surname being passed down. We did however include my husbands surname as a one of 2 middle names. However when we received our new Medicare card with my sons name on it they had hyphenated his surname putting my husbands surname first and my surname last – it took quite a while to have it changed as Medicare didn’t seem to understand the issue.

  2. Here’s an example for you. My four (now adult) sons all have their mother’s surname. I like it better than I like mine. I don’t think my parents entirely approve, but their opinion is not something I lose any sleep over Other people seem more puzzled than disapproving, and sometimes people assume it’s my surname too. Once again, neither attitude worries me; in the end, you’re going to get called whatever people want to call you.

    Disapproval of the practice is, though, horribly patriarchal and offensive.

  3. Hi Kasey,
    this is a topic that has been discussed around me fairly frequently (maybe I raise it in conversation). the general response from the generation of women under me (I’m 50), is to look puzzled (I’m finding that many young women are taking their husband’s surname upon marriage (what?? Why??)). The response I get from men is most frequently quite offended. Nobody has yet to provide me with an answer that satisfied me for giving a child the father’s name other than the one you have provided – ugly surname, copped a lot of teasing at school. All the answers seem to revolve around “tradition” etc, yet we are seeing unmarried couples having babies (this is not traditional) and the babies are still being given the father’s surname. In many cases I’ve been told it’s so as not to confuse the children/teachers/doctors/general public (what??). Does the world’s population walk around in a daze because some mothers have children to more than one man so the children of that one woman have different surnames? Or are we scratching our heads over common surnames in cases where people aren’t even related? (!).
    My personal view is that since in most cases, it is the mother who was pregnant for over 9 months, is more than likely to have done the bulk of the child-rearing, lost opportunities to progress at work, lost sleep, lost her physical independence amongst other things; and, given that mitochondrial DNA is passed through the mother’s line and mother’s are, on the whole, the one constant by which a family tree can be traced, why isn’t it a given that children will take their mother’s surname?
    I know that there are men who take on the traditional role of a mother, through choice; there are widowers and many other guises of men as primary care-givers (I’m sure to miss some of the categories) so I’m not trying to detract from the care that many men provide and the responsibilities they take on. It is still the case however, that mothers, be they biological or adoptive or foster, are the primary carers for young humans and it would be fairer and more logical for this to be reflected in the naming conventions we have in the west.
    Let’s not forget, that surnames are the result of a man imposing his ownership on his property. Women today and children are no longer the property of the man they married/their father/stepfather.
    On another note, one of my friends and his (then) wife gave their two sons his surname and their daughter the wife’s surname. Please don’t tell me that would confuse people. Surely as a species, we’re not that stupid.

  4. When I was in hospital with my first born a friend of mine (who didn’t change her name when she married) phoned me and advised me not to give my daughter her father’s name. She told me how sad it made her that she was not automatically recognizable by name as her children’s mother. At that moment, holding my new baby, it made a lot of sense. I gave my daughter a double-barrelled name with my name first! I haven’t regretted for a moment. If not for that lucky call, I would have just given them his name as expected.

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