When our first child was born in 2000, my husband and I did something weird. We gave her my last name. His surname became her second middle name.
We did the same thing with the three children that followed.
Nearly two decades later, I can report that our decision turned out to be a disaster. People have often assumed that my husband is the kids’ stepfather. Sometimes, when he would pick up the kids from an activity like summer day camp, staff would regard him with suspicion. And it’s been hardest of all on the kids. They have told us how self-conscious they feel, and wonder why they have to be different from everyone else.
Just kidding! None of those things happened.
The truth is that people haven’t paid much attention to our last names, starting with the birth certificate lady who didn’t bat an eye when we told her what to put on the form.
But I didn’t invent those consequences, either. Those were the things people had warned us would happen if we thumbed our noses at naming tradition.
Our parents were not among the naysayers, which made things easier. My in-laws firmly believed in letting their adult children make their own decisions, and bit their tongues. My own parents, used to our odd notions about things, shrugged.
Yet we heard through the grapevine that some members of both families were puzzled and unhappy. Our choice was outside of their experience. It seemed contrary to the natural order, as if we had announced that my husband was the one planning to give birth.
Fortunately, the joy of a new baby in the family (and then another, and another, and another…) trumped concerns about names. Everyone just got on with things.
In fact, in all these long years, I can’t recall a single negative incident related to our names. Unless you count the many occasions where one of us is called by the wrong last name, which I don’t. We do, however, get the occasional curious “Why?”
At which point we will offer one or more of the following reasons, depending on our mood and the vibe we get from the person asking:
It was an act of protest against millennia of tradition in which a father’s surname signaled his primary rights to the children, while mothers did the biological and practical work of parenthood.
In a perfect world, neither partner’s last name would take precedence over the other. In the actual world, it’s almost always the father’s that gets chosen, so we chose mine to try to balance things out.
The extended family on my dad’s side is tiny, with almost no one else to carry on the name. This isn’t the case in my husband’s family, where his surname will endure for generations even without our help.
(Smiling) Oh, well, we just decided to do something a little non-traditional.
That’s cool, most people will say. Good for you. Once, when this topic came up at a friend’s baby shower, her gray-haired aunt pointed out a biological basis for going matrilineal: Girls are born with their lifetime’s supply of eggs; therefore, the eggs that become their children are inside them when they are within their own mother. Real-life Russian nesting dolls. Sperm can boast no such heritage.
Occasionally, after hearing why we made our decision, someone will push back a little, trying to understand. Here are the FAQs:
Q: Why didn’t you just do the normal thing and hyphenate your last names?
A: We decided it would have been cruel. No one needs to go through life dragging that many syllables and consonants behind them.
Q: We have friends out in [insert West Coast city here] who chose a brand new last name for their kids. Why didn’t you do that?
A: That seemed unnecessary when we had two perfectly good, real last names to choose from.
Q: You realize, don’t you, that if this is supposed to be a feminist thing, you’re just giving them your father’s last name instead?
A: Yes, but our kids will have a different choice when they name their own children.
Q: Your husband was OK with that?
A: It was originally his idea.
Happily, the whole name thing has been a non-issue for our kids. We know lots of families in our community whose members don’t all share a surname, for a variety of reasons. Often it’s the mom who is the odd one out, but there are also families with different cultural naming traditions, blended families, families with same-sex parents, single mothers. And the Gen Z kids I know are far more concerned about Insta handles than last names, anyway.
Indeed, last names seem less important all the time. The medical assistant in my doctor’s office calls me by my first name, and so did the person I interviewed for a job last week. Social media is largely a surname-free zone. For identification, biometrics are more reliable: you can use a million aliases, but your irises never change. Surnames may eventually be more ornamental than functional, and choices about last names will be less weighty.
Only one thing about our experience has surprised me. When we named our first baby, I imagined that we were part of a vanguard. I thought that opposite-sex couples giving their kids the mom’s last name would become, if not commonplace, at least not something worthy of writing about years later. But I’ve only ever met two other families who have done this. Even the proportion of women simply keeping their own surnames after marriage to men has barely budged since the 1970s.
I get it. People like the traditions surrounding the joyful events of marriage and childbirth. Attaching men’s names to their family members is not the scaffolding of the patriarchy; it’s simply a convenient way of signifying a family unit. To buck tradition in the way we did might cause major conflict in some families, which is a good thing to avoid. There are plenty of reasons to stick with convention.
But naming the kids as we did is also a valid option. And so I encourage any expectant couple who is thinking about giving the baby her surname rather than his to consider our experience. Because even this far into the 21st century, it feels like a radical choice.