First name vs. Surname
In my last post, "Sharing the Choice," I talked about the value of parents sharing and compromising in baby name decisions. Among the examples of non-sharing I mentioned was this occasional refrain:
“I figure he gets the surname so I should get the first name, it’s only fair.”
Not surprisingly, some of you called me on it. Isn't it "only fair"? In the words of one reader:
"You gloss over the fact that the last name is still a 'solo domain.' Very few children (especially of married parents) have the mother's birth surname as their last name. Even if the mother has a beautiful, easy to spell surname, the children inevitably get the father's name, even if it's harsh-sounding and impossible to spell. When is there going to be a discussion about women being automatically cut out of that naming picture?"
So let me clarify.
I don't think giving up first-name rights because you "get" the surname is a natural tradeoff, because I consider first and last name decisions fundamentally different. The choice of a surname is about relationships, roles, traditions, and power. The choice of a first name is about individual identity.
In my years in the name business I have never, ever heard a parent say something like, "We're totally stuck on surnames. He wants Picard after Captain Picard, and I want Bronte after Charlotte Bronte." I've never seen an expectant mom's face light up in delight as she describes why she chose the surname Fenstermacher for her baby. And I've never heard a dad worry that if they name the baby Jessica, people will think she's not his child.
Sure, you can decide to trade first name rights for surname rights. You can also trade name rights for, say, the right to choose your next car, or responsibility for 4 AM feedings. Personally, though, I wouldn't do it. A first name is a unique bridge between you and your child, and between your child and the world. Nothing else really compares. Plus both parents are going to be saying this name countless times every day, so they'd both better like it.
Now, about those surnames. In my personal circle of friends and acquaintances I've seen an incredible variety of responses to the surname challenge:
- The woman took the man's surname after marriage.
- The man took the woman's surname after marriage.
- The woman hypenated her surname after marriage, the man didn't.
- Both of them hyphenated their surnames after marriage.
- Both of them changed to a whole new surname, created out of parts of the two original names.
- Both of them changed to a different family surname that would have otherwise died out.
- Both kept their own surnames, and the kids were given the dad's name.
- Both kept their own surnames, and the kids were given hyphenated names.
- Both kept their own surnames, and the kids were given a new surname created from the two parents' surnames.
- Both kept their own surnames and the sons got dad's surname, daughters mom's surname.
Doubtless there are even more creative permutations that I haven't encountered. (Please do share!) The right choice for an individual family depends on how you weigh many competing values. But whatever your approach to surnames, I'd suggest trying to work out the family identity before it's time to start shaping your kids' individual identities. It's better to have two shared decisions than two offsetting resentments.