Riddle me this: Why do so many women who keep their maiden name give their children the father’s last name without a second thought?
I ask because the majority of women I know have kept their maiden names after getting married. But now that my friends have started having kids, I’ve watched with interest as child after child has been given the father’s last name. I’ve been really surprised by this, because I’ve participated in countless discussions with these women (and some of their husbands) dissecting the validity of gendered expectations surrounding name changes after marriage. These are women who generally felt strongly about keeping their own last names for a variety of reasons, some professional, some not.
But I’ve not heard a peep about passing their names on to their children. It’s as though all of the complicated feelings surrounding identity/family/etc. that were so carefully analyzed and discussed have just flown out the window. A few have given their children their last name as a middle name, but no one uses middle names, so it’s certainly not the same. I’ve asked a few of them why, and they all sort of say, “I don’t know….” and trail off. Some have weakly said, “Well, it’s tradition…”, without really getting in to why they have willingly cast off other traditions, but have adopted this one without much thought. And so I ask you, feminists of GT: What is up with this?
I have a number of theories on this subject, which are listed below. The answer probably involves a little of all of these, along with other things I’ve not yet thought of (but you guys no doubt will!).
1. The stigma associated with unrecognized paternity or single motherhood, even if only implied, still exists.
2. While the debates about keeping one’s name after marriage are well-tread ground, this is actually a new frontier of feminism. I’ve seen a million articles about keeping one’s name after marriage, and so it’s become a more accepted practice and part of the cultural zeitgeist. However, I’ve seen almost nothing discussing the issues surrounding deciding on a kid’s last name.
3. Pregnancy and birth are inherently female centric due to the necessities of biological procreation. Giving a child the father’s last name keeps him symbolically in the loop during a time where he’s basically just low level support staff. Or perhaps it is done to foster a connection between father and squalling pupa during what is generally a trying time. After all, men don’t have the benefit of crazy mother-love hormones when trying to refrain from tossing their non-compliant infant out the window. Maybe a name helps?
4. It’s important to their male partners in a way that having one’s wife change her name was not. This may be because, as in theory #2, there aren’t a lot of discussions on this topic or role models to follow and thus these men haven’t been forced to examine their feelings related to this. Or it could be that somehow feel more entitled to have stronger feelings regarding the last name of their offspring than that of their spouses.
5. Women don’t have strong feelings about passing their names down to their off-spring. This could be because they were not brought up with the expectation that they would ever be able to do so.
I will state that I am not bringing this up because I feel that women should be giving their children their last names at all costs. What is best for each family will differ on a case-by-case basis. But I do think that we generally assume that men have stronger feelings about passing down their names than women do, or are somehow more entitled to those feeling than woman are, and I question that. I also don’t have a good answer for how one should approach the issue of assigning last names, because it can get complicated fast. I imagine that this is something that non-heterosexual couples have thought more about how to deal with in an equitable way. I’m just surprised that there is not more discussion around this.
What say ye, GT? How did you decide on a last name?