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