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Choosing Children’s Surnames

When parents do not share a surname, how do they pick children’s surnames?

Uber Images/Shutterstock
Source: Uber Images/Shutterstock

When naming our first child, my husband and I were faced with a difficult decision: Not only did we need to pick a first name, we also needed to pick a last name.

Traditionally, in Western society women take their husband’s last names upon marriage. This is still strongly normative in the U.S. with over 90 percent of women complying (Gooder and Kreider 2010). Surname choice can be contentious, within couples, extended families, and popular opinion—a topic to explore in another blog posting. In this post, I consider the minority of married women (myself included) who do not take their husband’s name. How do such couples then decide on a surname for their children?

Even among couples who resisted patrilineal naming conventions upon marriage, the majority follow these conventions in naming their children. In a sample of 21 self-identified feminist academics married to men, 17 women gave their children the father’s surname, two hyphenated, and two gave their children the mother’s surname (Eshleman and Halley). These women offered predominately individualistic rationales for their choice, such as aesthetic preference and minimizing the influence of patrilineal expectations (Eshleman and Halley). Yet, if non-gendered motivations governed surname choice, one would expect that roughly half of such children would receive their mother’s surname. Interestingly, in the same sample of women, most respondents offered articulate critiques of patrilineal naming conventions as a problematic domain of male privilege (Eshleman and Halley).

Similarly, another, larger sample of female university professors found that over 90 percent of women who had not taken their husband’s name nevertheless gave only their husband’s surname to their children (Johnson and Scheuble 2002). The strongest predictor of deviating from this convention, by hyphenating or using the mother’s surname, was the mother’s political liberalism. Choosing to keep one’s birth surname upon marriage is an unconventional choice, but non-patrilineal naming choices for children are dramatically less common.

Among those few couples who deviate from normative patrilineal naming conventions, solutions include incorporating both the mother and father’s last names (with or without a hyphen), alternating surnames between children, assigning surnames based on the child's sex, and creating a portmanteau of the parents’ surnames or a new name entirely (Nugent 2010). But most women, regardless of their own name choice, do not question the expectation that children be given their father’s surname (Nugent 2010). Indeed, in deciding whether to adopt their husband’s name at marriage, many women weigh the advantages of family unity and a shared name with future children against the personal and professional identity associated with their birth surname. Implicit in this debate are the assumptions that children will receive their father’s name and the husband/father will retain his birth name (Nugent 2010).

Both in choosing their own name and naming their children, many women draw on the cultural expectation that women (but not men) subjugate their personal desires for the good of the collective family (Nugent 2010). Exacerbating this gender inequality, the possibility of men changing their names upon marriage is largely an invisible option—few couples consider it in their decision set. Thus, the burden of surname choice rests disproportionately on women. Moreover, women’s desire to pass their own name onto their children is often criticized as selfish and a sign of poor commitment to their spouse—while the same desire in men is expected and accepted (Nugent 2010).

Obviously, there is no universally right answer to this dilemma. In my own family, gender norms governing patrilineal naming were inapposite—we wanted to make a gender-egalitarian decision. If we hyphenated our surnames, we would be giving our child a seven-syllable, 19-letter surname—in our opinion, hyphenation was a non-starter. Nor did we have any practical or aesthetic reason to favor one name over the other—both are equally hard to spell and we like both names. Alternating surnames between children requires a commitment to have a second child—and deciding which surname to give first. Creating a portmanteau of our surnames would be egalitarian but then the child would share neither parent’s surname. Ultimately, we decided that a coin toss would be the fairest way to pick a surname.

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Eshleman, Amy, and Jean Halley. 2016. “Self-Identified Feminist Mothers’ Naming Practices for Their Children: Accepting Being ‘as Feminist as Everyone’ Else.” Women’s Studies.

Gooding, G. E., & Kreider, R. M. (2010). “Women’s marital naming choices in a nationally representative sample.” Journal of Family Issues, 31(5):681–701.

Nugent, Colleen. 2010. “Children’s Surnames, Moral Dilemmas: Accounting for the Predominance of Fathers’ Surnames for Children.” Gender and Society 24(4):499-525.

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