His surname? Her surname? It’s not so simple any more.
I struggled with the concept of fairness when I was a kid. As the third of four children, and the one who always had to sit in the middle back seat, it often seemed like everyone else was getting a better deal than me. As an adult, I’ve learnt that in relationships lots of things aren’t fair either, but instead of kicking the seat in front of you and screaming, you’re meant to have mature discussions to try to work it out.
Mature discussions are what my partner Jeremy and I found ourselves having a lot of last year when we found out I was pregnant with our first baby. The discussions were about her name – not her first name (which we agreed on early), but her surname: whose should she have?
His surname is Wortsman, mine is Waite (although I use my middle name, Vashti, as a pen name). We’re not married, and even if we were we’d have different surnames. We didn’t want to hyphenate because it would be too long and clunky, so we needed to choose one: Waite or Wortsman. But neither felt entirely right to us; neither felt entirely fair.
Another perspective: I know no children who have their mother’s surname.
Some people don’t think surnames are significant, but for me, they are: I’m a writer, and words and language are important. Jeremy and I tried to work out what surnames are for these days anyway. What would we be giving up if our daughter didn’t take his name? What would she be gaining? And more generally: what stops other women who’ve kept their own surnames from passing them down to their kids?
We sat up late in bed on our phones, synchronised googling, trying to find out how others had solved this problem. It wasn’t exactly an argument because there didn’t seem to be any right or wrong, but still we jumped back and forth testing out all the sides. Who cared the most about their name? It reminded me of that river crossing puzzle where the farmer has a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans, and he has to get them all over to the other side of the river in a boat but can only take one thing at a time. No matter how many different ways we tried to make it work, we could not get all our possessions safely over to the other side.
Read more: What about your own name? The sad and surprising reason this woman changed her name.
Starting in twelfth-century Europe, surnames have been a way to organise society and differentiate people from each other so that ‘John the Blacksmith’ wasn’t confused with ‘John the Little’. The nobility eventually decided to stop changing names every generation, and by the sixteenth century the idea of a family surname, still used for order and organisation, had spread throughout most of Europe.
While traditionally in Australia children inherit their father’s surname, families are changing and thus surnames are changing too: it can now be a decision rather than a default. We now see more examples of hyphenation, of children taking the mother’s name, or a step-parent’s name, or of each successive child in a family taking, alternately, their mother’s or their father’s name. But the majority of heterosexual couples choose to pass the father’s surname, even though many explanations (“I didn’t like my surname anyway”; “I hated my own dad so why should I pass his name on to my kids?”; “We wanted to have a name that unified us as a family”) are also perfectly good reasons to give children their mother’s surname, too.