The Embedded Patriarchy of Surnames
It kind of goes without saying that in the many cultures around the world norms around surnames are deeply patriarchal. In so far as I identify with a culture I guess we are “Western” where wives traditionally abandon their own surnames in favour of their husbands, and children automatically take on their fathers’ names.
Since Mou and I are unmarried, I still go by own surname. Of course, even, if we were married, I would keep my surname. It actually means a great deal to me, since it is my mother’s maiden name* and represents the strong women in my family for the past three generations. It’s not the surname I was given at birth but one which I took on at about 16. There were a number of reasons for changing my name, including the fact that it was a damn nuisance to have a different surname to my single-parent mother, who was the only parent my school (or anyone else) interacted with. It was a conscious decision and hence I feel rather more strongly about it than I guess I otherwise would.
Nevertheless, Rose and Fynn both have their father’s surname.
Initially, I thought this would be one of the issues I would fight to the death, but pregnant and ill it somehow didn’t seem worth it. Our surnames don’t double-barrel easily and so instead we opted to include my surname as a middle name. I thought this was a great solution until the first time I saw my daughter’s name written out on her clinic card with the middle name discarded. Suddenly she was her father’s daughter, not mine.
Over time, I have gotten used to it, and have even gotten used to occasionally being called Mrs Mou. (The opposite happens frequently enough for it not to rile me.) Nevertheless, it continues to amaze me that amongst my circle of feminist friends and acquaintances, I only know one family where the children have intentionally been given the mother’s surname. (A shout out to my current boss: he is an awesome feminist).
I also need to give a shout out to my friends, J&W, whose rather complicated naming strategy is inherently equal, even though it ultimately didn’t pan out. They agreed that the first child would take the surname of the parent of the same sex, the second child would take the surname of the other parent. Unfortunately the plan has been derailed by the fact that they have decided to have only one child.
I’ve raised the issue a few times with friends whose kids have their Dad’s surnames without pushing them to explain themselves, and none of them have ever volunteered much of an explanation.
As I mentioned, my own justification is that I was just too sick and tired to fight about it. And it would have been a fight, which really surprised me. I had not expected Mou to care one way or the other, but he did, and I conceded, and consequently am a little annoyed with both of us.
Since it is much more common these days for women to keep their own names when they get married, there are a lot more children out there with names that are different to their mother’s. So the practical challenges that I experienced as a child are mitigated somewhat. Yet I am surprised at how little discussion of this issue there is in feminist circles, or at least in the feminist, suburban, working mom circles that I move in.
* It suddenly occurs to me how awful the term “maiden name” is