Chances are that when you were born, you were given the surname of your father, of his father, of his father’s father and so forth. And if you’re a woman married to a man, it’s likely that you are part of the 93.6 percent who dropped your dad’s surname and adopted your husband’s. This tradition of taking the name of a man in your family is called patronymics. And if you are about to have a kid, it’s likely you will keep it going.
I, however, never changed my surname when I got married for all the reasons my spouse didn’t change his (plus some others). I call this tradition neutronymics, which is a term I coined myself because it is a term that should exist — but doesn’t. Neutronymics includes a couple keeping their separate surnames, hyphenating both, middle name swapping, adopting a completely new one or inventing a portmanteau (a name combo). Now, my spouse and I are expecting our first child — and the big question looming on everyone’s minds is what the kid’s surname will be.
Most assume our kid will bear the name of his or her father, because Western culture, which is predominantly patriarchal, almost always puts men’s name first. Men are expected to continue the family name — which is why they are more commonly Jrs., I, II, III, etc. and women are not (except if they are royalty or have significant power and position). The reality is women’s surnames are not valued in American culture. Their surnames, often referred to as "maiden names," are often considered impermanent and invaluable assets to be changed when they get married in order to join their husband’s identity (i.e. Mrs. John Smith) and unite as a family. When I kept my surname after marriage, reactions I experienced ranged from offensive to insensitive. Some mocked my feminism or accused me of emasculating my spouse. Some outright ignored my decision and used the surname they thought was appropriate. Even fewer high fived me for my boldness and progressiveness, secretly revealing they wished they had done the same, which disappointed my feminist sensibilities. Every modern women should have the strength and empowerment to break from tradition when she wants to.
However, my spouse and I are breaking from tradition, because our kid will have my last name – Majkut. I expect reactions towards our kid’s surname choice to be similar to the reaction I got for keeping my own surname, which is why we’ve avoided sharing it with others until the ink is dry on the birth certificate. The most supportive response to our kid's moniker so far has been a passively polite, "Well, this is your adventure."
This decision was not made lightly by either of us, nor does it only come out of our political, feminist beliefs. Having formally studied name change in grad school and then further pursued the topic in my blog, TheFeministBride.com, I discovered that the history of patronymics is downright horrible. So far when preparing for Baby Majkut's arrival, most people from doctors to bankers (got to set up that college fund already) naturally give our baby his father's surname, but...
I have no desire to cater to a biased name system just because it’s easier to follow the status quo.
Patronymics customs were mostly formed and then enforced in Europe by English monarchs and the Catholic Church from the ninth century to King Henry VII’s rule into Victorian times via religious edicts and coverture laws; Colonial American merely adopted these European practices. Patronymics functioned as a civil and social way for people, religion and other powerful institutions to control women. It went so far as to limit the rights of U.S. women into the 1960 and 70s; for example, until 1972 Alabama required women to adopt their husband’s surname in order to get a drivers license (Forbush v. Wallace) – because, you know, a woman can’t follow a stop sign unless she has her husband’s surname.
Even in other developed countries, patronymics still trumps women’s civil rights today. Recently in Japan, courts confirmed that married couples must share one surname. The Guardian pointed out, “While the law does not stipulate which name married couples should adopt, in practice women take their husband’s name in 96% of cases – a reflection, critics, say of Japan’s male-dominated society.” Patronymics is strong with the patriarchal force; it’s not an easy culture to overcome.
And while historical and modern evidence inspired me to personally stand up to the status quo, my research revealed that patronymics was also used as a way to discriminate against children as well and that didn’t sit right with my spouse and me. Shouldn’t the standards we hold for ourselves be upheld for our kid, too?
In another patronymics case where a woman wanted to keep her surname, In Re Petition of Kruzel (Wisconsin, 1975) the trial judge believed, without evidence or explanation, that it was healthier for any children of a marriage to share one surname – the father’s. "If they [the parents] cannot at that time agree [on a surname], it would be better for them, any children they may have, and society in general that they do not enter into the marriage relationship." The judge denied the woman’s petition to keep her surname. It was eventually overturned when it was revealed that social traditions like patronymics don’t always result in common-law practices contrary to popular belief, but that didn’t stop the trial judge from forcing her to for the welfare of nonexistent children. While this was 40 years ago, one of the main reasons women today practice patronymics is so the family can seem united as a family. Though I'd like to point out that families under one name get divorced all the time and no one (to my knowledge) has ever cited "different last names" as a cause for divorce or a disadvantaged child.
Historically, in both Europe and the U.S., children could only inherit dad’s surname if the mother also shared it, meaning the mother had to be legally and/or religiously married to the father. Before DNA paternity tests, this was how families ensued proper genetic lineage (not that it was foolproof — but that’s how things were done). There was even a point in history when giving a kid the name of the mother was a sign that he or she was a bastard. Having the name of the father carried with it certain perks, like not being socially stigmatized as a bastard, as well as a right to an education, an inheritance and his title. While this affected the 99 percent, a good modern example of these limitations is Prince Albert’s two children born outside of wedlock, who have no claim to the throne per modern Monaco’s laws. Most of these laws lasted until the majority of coverture laws were overturned in the 19th century, but the cultural precedent was set and most authorities and people merely assumed it continued to be common law, which caused a slew of problems for both women and children.
Patronymics and its perks were a way to push the prerogative of marriage and punish anyone who operated outside of it, i.e. unmarried, sexually active women and any children that came as a result of that activity. In Levy v. Louisiana (1968), the state justified treating illegitimate kids differently on the grounds that it encouraged marriage by: “…granting greater rights to legitimate offspring than those born of extra-marital unions.” A shared name was the glue to and symbol of a wholesome family unit. While in the last century there weren’t any specific patronymic laws applied to children, as a social practice it did help inspire a legal and cultural precedent in which to discriminate against out of wedlock kids.
Due to America’s 14th amendment and a guy named Henry Krause, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned most patronymics-inspired laws relating to illegitimacy (i.e. “common-law disabilities of bastardy”) in the 1960s and 70s. The court rulings made the entire tradition of patronymics socially irrelevant — which is good because 41 percent of today's U.S. births are to unwed mothers.
Knowing all of this, I couldn’t in good conscious practice a tradition with such a history, and my spouse agreed. When it came to figuring out what to name our first born, we wanted to put aside the patriarchal tradition and start with a clean naming slate.
So the ultimate question for us became: how do two individuals fairly name their offspring? Our decision to name our child after me (matronymics) can seem as unfair as patronymics. It raises the totally fair question of whether it does any good to just swing the pendulum in the opposite direction, as opposed to equally in the middle.
Technically, we will be applying neutronymics. Our kid’s middle name will be their father’s surname. My spouse led the charge on not combining or hyphenating our surnames, because he thought doing so would be unwieldy given their tongue-tying structures. This meant we had to decide whose name would be the middle and last name.
First came the small, logistical decision-making factors. Alphabetically, my name should go last. Convenience-wise, mine, believe it or not, is actually the easier name to spell and pronounce; his gets butchered vastly more often. Then there were the heavier influences, like genetics and childcare sacrifices.
Genetically, my ethnic contribution would make our kid half Ukrainian and my spouse’s would make the kid a quarter Lithuanian, an eighth French and another eighth miscellaneous white people. If we went by patronymics alone, our kid would have a French last name…and barely be French, which made no sense to us. Having a Ukrainian surname would be a more accurate representation of the kid’s ethnic makeup. Besides, being Ukrainian is incredibly important to me (given geopolitics, Ukrainians tend to be very protective of their identity and culture). The kid will participate in Ukrainian culture, whereas my spouse brings no ethnic identity or traditions to our family.
Genetics may be 50/50, but parents’ contributions to actually raising a kid are not. A Harvard Business Review study showed that even the most feminist or progressive households tend to revert to traditional gender roles after major life events, like having a child. Women are more likely to cut back on work or opt out completely as a result of the wage gap, career advancement potential, better parental leave and general sexism in the workforce. Even if they don’t, women still bare the majority of household and childcare work on top of a 40-hour workweek unlike men.
The financial, family and cultural system is still rigged to encourage women to become the primary childcare giver over men. Even as a staunch feminist, I am no exception to this. I earn less than my spouse and have lots of job flexibility; it’s not as financially sound for him to become the primary parent. So if that job falls mostly on me (even if it’s only for a short period), doesn’t that extra work and sacrifice at least deserve some byline credit?
And it’s just not the career disadvantages that inspired this decision; it’s also the physical requirements of becoming and being a mother. While I understand that pregnancy is not the only way to become a mother, I’m really compelled by the level of physical commitment it takes to bake a bun in the oven. It necessitates massive sacrifices over the course of 40 weeks — sometimes more, depending on how long it took to get pregnant — and the post-partum recovery is no walk in the park either. Over the course of my life, I’ve had many projects that required plenty of blood, sweat and tears, but none so literally. Those other projects have always bore my name, even if it was a team effort. How could this undertaking, where I’ve done most the work, not represent me in some way at least?
There are always counter points to our decision-making factors. Some argue having one family name is important in terms of giving the kids a sense of belonging or argue that two last names might confuse them or be a logistical nightmare in the real world. I just can’t believe that a parent’s love is contingent, or only apparent, if they share the same surname as a kid. Besides, I know plenty of families who share surnames and couldn’t like each other less. Kids are smart and intuitive; they might not understand the identity politics that led to their chosen surname(s) for a long time, but if they can tell all the Ninja Turtles or the Olsen Twins apart, they can comprehend parents with two different last names and not doubt the love they have for them. And if they can’t, that’s not a surname problem; that’s a parenting problem.
As far as it being a real world problem, say if there’s an emergency and an authority can’t prove our guardianship based on a surname alone, that’s name discrimination and a system failure, not a failure on our part. As I mentioned, I have no desire to cater to a biased name system just because it’s easier to follow the status quo. What kind of example am I setting for my kid if I take the easy way out and do not stick to my convictions by not pressuring a system to be more accountable to diverse lifestyles and families? I also think the risk of there being a serious problem and my spouse being not being granted access to his child because he has a different surname to be extremely low and arguably just another scare tactic to maintain the practice of patronymics. I’ve also suggested we replace our middle names with each other’s surnames so there is just-in-case identifiable evidence connecting all of us, but my spouse thinks it’s unnecessary.
I understand everyone will find their own reasons and methods for what to name their kid. I know one couple who gave their son the father's name and the daughter the mother's; each of their middle names represents the opposite parent. Our way certainly shouldn't be the standard method, but my spouse and I felt it was imperative to understand the history of patronymics, the complexity of choice and all naming options first and foremost. This way we could make a healthy decision free from the patriarchal society we live in; a decision based on a desire to make the world a more equitable place for our kid, rather than one based on a less-than-stellar tradition. After that, we identified our personal reasons and motivations, which hopefully fairly reflected where our kid came from and the honest dynamics of his or her parents’ relationship and contributions to their upbringing. And it just so happens that the best option for us was not naming our kid only after their father, despite the generations who had done so before.
Image: Katrina Majkut; Giphy (2)