As women increasingly retain their birth name in marriage and family structures become more blended and non-traditional, it’s no longer safe to assume a new baby will be given its father’s surname.
While it’s still the most common option — 90 per cent of children born in Victoria between 2005 and 2010 were given their dad’s last name — a range of options are on the rise, whether that be for children of heterosexual or same-sex couples.
Research, such as that in the 2002 publication Re-inventing the Family: In Search of New Lifestyles, suggests surnames are becoming more “individualised” rather than seen as a representation of family connectivity.
Lorelei Vashti said there was no one-size-fits-all approach for what she calls “the baby surname dilemma”, because people were motivated by different values.
Vashti is the author of How to Choose Your Baby’s Last Name: A Handbook for New Parents, and said for some, family unity and identity was most important, but for others gender equity and fairness were the priority.
“And sometimes, how a surname looks or sounds with the first name trumps all other considerations,” she said.
“No perspective is better or worse than the other, but within couples there can be disagreement.”
What am I choosing from?
Vashti said there were six options when it came to naming your child:
- Father’s surname
- Mother’s surname
- Hyphenation, or a double-barrelled surname (without a hyphen)
- Alternating the two parents’ surnames between siblings
- Combining the two surnames into a portmanteau or blended surname
- Making up a completely new surname.
For Vashti, her partner suggested they combine their last names for their children.
“Our surnames are Wortsman and Waite — I use Vashti, my middle name, as a pen name — and we have given both our kids the last name of Waitsman,” she said.
Can parents really just make up a new name?
Swinburne University research from earlier this year found 3 per cent of parents had created a new surname for their child that the parents didn’t share.
“In a nutshell, there are no laws surrounding surnames, apart from the standard laws that relate to first names. You can therefore give your child any surname you want,” Vashti said.
Like for first names, there are some rules around choice, according to Births, Deaths and Marriages, for example it can’t be “obscene or offensive”, or “too long”.
Why do men get so offended?
For some men it’s a tricky subject to broach — the idea of not passing on their family name often goes against everything they consider traditional.
Surnames of children born in Victoria 2005-2010
- Children with surname that matches both parents: 54.80%
- Children with surname that matches dad/partner but not mum: 35.30%
- Children with surname that matches mum but not dad/partner: 4.51%
- Children with surname that matches mum and no dad listed: 1.35%
- Children with hyphenated and double-barrelled name that are a combination of parents: 2.46%
- Children with newly created surname: 2.92%
Source: Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages via Swinburne University
“It’s so entrenched in our culture, in heterosexual relationships, to hand down the father’s surname,” Vashti said.
“But recognising that there is a lot of power attached to the last name is important, and for many men to start thinking about this and to have it challenged, well it might be very confronting for them.”
She said it was a “major shake-up” of what men were socialised to believe.
Aside from the outdated tradition of “bearing sons to carry the family name”, Vashti said reasons for passing on the male surname included “it’s easier to spell or say, or the mother doesn’t like the surname anyway, or because of ‘tracing the family tree'”.
Double-barrelled name a ‘celebration’
Rosemary Shapiro-Liu said the decision to keep her maiden name and take on her husband’s surname, Liu, was what first prompted the discussion about what they would name a child in the future.
“The basis of this was for me as a woman in a patriarchal society. I wanted to have that connection to my husband but not give up my identity and history,” she said.
When they were expecting their son, now eight, the conversation continued.
“We were already an unusual couple … he’s Australian-born Chinese Catholic and I’m South African Jewish,” the Sydney mother said.
As for the argument a double-barrelled name creates problems down the line if their son were to marry someone in the same boat, Ms Shapiro-Liu said “this is now and that is then”.
“Life changes all the time, traditions change, processes and rituals change.”
Do motivations for same-sex couples differ to heterosexual couples?
Vashti said because the issue of tradition didn’t exist for same-sex couples, choosing a name was often simpler.
“It seems a lot more straightforward for same-sex couples in general, without the whole woman-as-man’s-chattel thing humanity has been burdened with for the past several thousand years.”
Swinburne University found surname strategies including double-barrelled names or creating new names were more popular among lesbian couples than heterosexual.
It also found because the “stakes of non-recognition as a family loom very large for lesbian couples” they were conscious of choosing names that would accurately reflect parental relationships.
“Despite their differences, what links the lesbian and heterosexual couples in our study is their mutual concern with surnames as a powerful signifier of the visibility and status of family relationships,” the authors wrote.