A Middle Path On the Surname Dilemma?
Ms. Smith and her husband Mr. Jones have a baby, Little Timmy. What should Timmy's surname be?
The situation is common, the answers many and contentious. In some cultures Timmy would simply use two surnames, but the United States expects him to have just one. The two most common approaches for U.S. parents are to hyphenate (Timmy Smith-Jones) and to choose one parent's surname, most often dad's (Timmy Jones). A scattering of parents combine their surnames in other ways, or use mom's surname as a first name, or give mom's name to daughters, dad's name to sons. Same-sex couples may face different social expectations for their surname choices, but their actual options for kids' names are much the same.
Whatever answer you might choose for your own family, you can probably see both the positives and negatives of each approach. For instance, using Dad's surname is simple and traditional, but it cuts out mom in a way that's unequal in the present, and an echo of historical disempowerment. Hyphenating is fairer, but it creates awkward surnames that match neither parent, and has the effect of passing off the problem onto your kids. (What happens when it's time for them to name children?)
A perfect solution may not be possible, but parents struggling with the standard options might be interested in a compromise that’s popping up on more and more school rosters. I'll call it the "three name solution": call one parent's surname a middle name and the other a surname, but use them both. So Little Timmy is "Timmy Smith Jones," known as...Timmy Smith Jones.
There's nothing groundbreaking here. The double surname with one part optional is familiar in the Spanish-speaking world. Even in English, using mom's surname as a middle name is an age-old custom and including that middle name in your self-identification is a classic way to highlight your family connections. You might think of it as a throwback to the age of men like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a scion of the influential Cabot family on his mom's side. Yet you might also hear a link to a very different three-name style: that of women like Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom the extra surname underlines their independent identities and accomplishments.
You could argue that the three name solution combines the drawbacks of the more common approaches. It still makes only one surname the heritable family name, and it still makes the kids say both surnames. What's more, it introduces new potential for confusion in a society that's accustomed to ignoring middle names.
Yet the virtues of the other approaches converge here as well. Timmy gets a simple, punctuation-free surname that he shares with one parent, and his name reflects his relationship to both. On an emotional level, that may feel more balanced. On a practical level, it should help ease the familiar irritations surrounding "I'm Ms. Smith, Timmy Jones's mom." For parents torn between hyphenating and not, that may be a welcome compromise.