What’s In A Name?

My baby surname dilemma.

Feb 17, 2015 · 10 min read

By Lorelei Vashti
Illustrations by Eirian Chapman

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.

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.

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.

Researchers Dr Deb Dempsey, senior lecturer in sociology at Swinburne University of Technology, and Associate Professor Jo Lindsay from Monash University, found that approximately 90 per cent of Victorian children have their father’s surname (this figure doesn’t include children who have hyphenated surnames made up of both the father’s and the mother’s names). Using data from the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, they broke the stats down further and discovered that 75 per cent of children with unmarried parents have their father’s surname. This figure particularly interested me, because the majority of my friends who have kids aren’t married (and of those couples who are married, the woman has usually kept her surname anyway).

“Some women said straight out that they didn’t think their partner would consider an alternative,” Dempsey tells me, while other women said that since they were the ones who gave birth, the man’s surname allowed a visible display of the father’s role. Other considerations included meeting the expectations of extended family and women wanting to assert their partner’s paternity. This last one bit me: do women today still fear social shaming for having a kid out of wedlock?

Many women also express a purely practical reason behind the decision: social ease, exemplified by “the school environment, and not wanting their family singled out for attention if they did something that was against the norm,” says Dempsey. “A lot of people probably wouldn’t see themselves as conservative, but they really want to go under the radar.” I’ve heard this a lot too: some people say that children who have a different name to one of their parents, or a sibling, will be singled out in the playground like a bastard in a Shakespearean play. I wonder if this is a real concern or just one perpetuated by anxious parents.

Illustration by Eirian Chapman

I was more than halfway through my pregnancy and we still didn’t have a surname for our daughter. “We’re going to have to give her your name after all,” I wailed to Jeremy. Talk about Shakespearean; I was dramatically unhappy. I felt defeated by everything: by history, by logistics, by our utopic vision of a fairer world. I wondered if any other country had solved the surname dilemma in a more suitable way.

I discovered there are countless cultural variations, way too many to mention. But here are a couple of examples: in Iceland there is a matronymic and patronymic naming tradition (where a daughter will be called “the daughter of” the mother, and a son will be called “the son of” the father), which means surnames change with every gender and generation. The Spanish tradition is to have two surnames, a combination of the mother’s first surname and the father’s first surname, which again means that parents and children have different surnames. Then there are the countries whose longstanding naming traditions are being shaken up even as we speak. In India, some families are choosing to drop off their traditional caste-based surnames for political reasons. And in Afghanistan, as the government conducts the country’s first census in 35 years, officials are urging people to take on surnames for the first time (many Afghans use only one name). “We tell them to please select a surname for themselves if they don’t have one,” an Afghan census worker told The New York Times in December. (“You can use anything,” he went on to explain.)

But one of the most interesting stories comes out of China, which, like Australia, has an established surnaming tradition of children mostly taking the father’s name. This, combined with the longstanding one-child policy, has produced tens of millions more men than women. In response, government officials in one province have introduced the ‘surname reform’ plan to try to remove the pressure of having boys to continue the family name by offering 1,000 yuan (AUD$198) to couples who pass on the mother’s surname. When I heard about this it gave me something new to think about: by giving preference to the male surname in Australia are we also, in a gentler way, making it more desirable to have sons? “If this really were a level playing field where it was just about people’s individual choices, we’d see much more evidence of mothers using their names,” says Dempsey.

Not long before our baby was due, Jeremy brought up a surname option we had briefly joked about months earlier. We’d melded both our surnames together and started referring to our baby as Waitsman. At first I thought this sounded ridiculous: a tabloid-ready blend, something akin to Brangelina. But as we got deeper into the mire of surname options, it started sounding less absurd. When he told me he liked it, I felt a massive weight lifting off my shoulders and I actually felt tears well up. I went over and hugged him. This solution — which obviously wouldn’t work for every couple — instantly felt right to both of us. We decided to give our daughter the surname Waitsman.

According to Dempsey and Lindsay’s study, we’re part of only 3 per cent of Victorians who have given their children a newly created surname. I really loved our choice, but I still had two major concerns about making up a completely new name: I was worried about disappointing our extended family, and of losing track of family history. Perhaps this is also partly why so few parents tend to opt for it?

The first problem is simply a personal one, and after many more mature discussions Jeremy and I decided it’s our baby and we’re the ones who have to raise her, so we get to choose her surname — our families will just have to deal with it. But what if we’ve callously severed a branch of the family tree that can never be traced back? What if we ruined our daughter’s life by cutting her off from her ancestors?

“Today, record keeping is significantly more detailed,” says Graham Jaunay, a professional genealogist and member of the Australasian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents. “A good genealogist starts with the subject and moves back in time, generation by generation, confirming all births with records.” Because birth certificates now give both parents’ names in full, the problem is lessened. There are at least a dozen other historical reasons for children having completely different names from parents, such as an unpronounceable foreign name altered to resemble an existing local surname or a misspelling at some point that switches to a new surname entirely. “As I tell my students,” Jaunay says, “pursuing the origin of your surname may prove interesting, but the origin of your surname is not going to indicate the origin of your family!”

Our daughter is now almost a year old, and my partner and I haven’t had any trouble with her surname yet. We’ve booked doctor’s appointments, plane tickets (domestic and international), and obtained Medicare and daycare in her name. Maybe it will all fall apart when she goes to school — but I doubt it. As more people do it (and there is evidence that same-sex couples are leading the way here) it will be less of an issue.

The biggest surprise was how easy it was: that we could give our baby any surname we wanted. There really was no default; all we had to do was write her name, first and last, in the blank space on the registration form when she was born, and a few weeks later her birth certificate arrived in the post. There were no questions. As Jeremy and I opened the envelope together our sleeping baby shifted her weight in my arms. Her lips fluttered faintly at the crackling of paper and her eyes opened. I thought back to all those nights spent googling surname options in bed, discussing and deliberating as names and ideas flew back and forth between us while she was still air, and now here she was, a real person. Seeing her name on the birth certificate for the first time made me giddily happy: a reminder of the discussions and deliberations we had, and will continue to have, as we try to raise her in a more fair world.

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All About Women celebrates what matters to women and is presented by Sydney Opera House.


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A melting pot of stimulating conversation and provocative debate. Presented by Sydney Opera House.

All About Women

All About Women celebrates what matters to women and is presented by Sydney Opera House.

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