Friday, May 7, 2010

The Name Game, part two

Name-changing is a complicated subject for couples of any stripe. But when you throw present or future kids into the mix, things get even messier. As a follow-up to my previous post on last names and marital partnerships, here's further food for thought!

While the traditional route is that a woman marries a man, takes his last name, and then gives his last name to their children, it's a lot more complicated today- especially when the mother (because, for the purposes of this discussion, we're assuming a male-female couple) chooses not to change her last name. What implications does that have for her children's last names? And, more importantly, what implications does that have for her parental rights and responsibilities?

There are so many options available these days, you'd think that people would hardly blink at last names. Many parents with different last names hyphenate their children's names- in which case there's a whole new debate to be had about whose name comes first- but many others pick one parent's name or even combine their last names into a whole new name. I grew up in a family where my sister and I were given our dad's last name, while our mom kept her own. This was pretty common for my friends whose parents had made similar choices regarding their own names- when the mother kept her name, the kids usually got his. A couple of my friends growing up had hyphenated names, but for the most part, many of us had only one. And, if I remember correctly, all of us had our father's last name.

The politics behind such a choice are obviously individual, but do play into a collective trend. For some, the choice has to do with the fact that the last name acts as a surrogate bond between the children and father for the bond created between children and mother by the process of pregnancy and childbirth. "I carried you for 40 weeks and then laboured for you, so this was his contribution," the argument seems to go. Of course, surrogacy and adoption don't really fall into this argument with any sort of neatness, and again the politics of last names brings us to the historical Western tendency to view women and children as the property of male heads of the household.

There's also a problem when children become older and travel with one parent at a time- whether the parents remain together or are separated. When I was about 11, my mom took my sister and me up to Montreal for a brief trip. In order to do this, she had to carry our birth certificates and a notarized document stating that she had our dad's permission to take us abroad. The reason for this, according to the border officials, was that mom's last name wasn't the same as ours. As she ranted later, our aunt- who had taken my dad's family name when she'd married my uncle- would have been able to take us across the border without anyone batting an eye. Nowadays, with heightened awareness about the risks of parental kidnapping, this reasoning may have been different. At the time, however, it was a reflection of the belief that all members of a family ought to share a last name. Similarly, mom generally had to go through a more rigorous process of proving herself to be our parent when she wanted to accomplish anything within our school district, simply because our last names didn't match.

These aren't necessarily challenges that will go away anytime soon, either. When the reverse happens- when children have their mother's last name but not their father's- there's certainly a kerfluffle not only because of the tendency to view the father as somehow weak or wrong, but also because of the social phobia we have about men with children that aren't obviously theirs. This is something I expect my cousin will face as her daughter grows up- she and her husband chose to assign their children's last name on the basis of the first child's assigned sex, and since their first child was assigned female, their kid(s) will have her last name. While her husband is a wonderful person and parent, I would not be surprised if he faces suspicion from institutions when he picks her up, takes her on father-daughter trips, or does anything- however innocently- that involves just him and her in public.

I would also expect that, unless she looks a lot like him as she grows up, the public assumption will be that she's his stepdaughter because their last names don't match. And I'd be willing to bet that, if she shared his last name but not her mother's, no one would assume that she was my cousin's stepdaughter.

I'm not sure what else to write on this topic, since a lot of it mirrors what was said previously. The social tendency to view women and their children as the property of a male partner is pretty deeply ingrained in our general cultural norms, even if it's not our conscious philosophy, and is reflected in the way we create expectations for individuals and treat those who defy them.


  1. I had no idea your mother faced so many complications by being Ms. S. instead of Mrs. L. I knew people sometimes got mixed up and called her by the wrong name, but it seems outrageous that she would have to carry not only your birth certificates when she took you and your sister to Canada, but also a note from your father. I mean, her name was on your birth certificate.

    As if she couldn't have forged a note if she'd been trying to kidnap you...

  2. Oh wait, you said she had to bring a notarized document. They had the forging in mind.