Illustrator Hallie Bateman isn’t sure about changing her name when she gets married — but then what? And what will her kids be called? Here, she talks to seven couples about the different choices they made…
When Jack and I started dating, I’d drop occasional comments about us having kids together, pretending to be totally chill while secretly thinking about it all the time.
A couple years later, we began talking about it with more comfort and seriousness. It was exciting to imagine having a family, but we kept getting hung up on a particular question: What would our child’s last name be? It was, and continues to be, a stymying question. While giving our kids Jack’s last name would be the easiest route as far as society is concerned, I’m not comfortable with it.
“The burden of naming rests unfairly on women,” says Elizabeth Aura McClintock in Psychology Today. “Moreover, women’s desire to pass their own name onto their children is often criticized as selfish and a sign of poor commitment to their spouse — while the same desire in men is expected and accepted.”
I feel this. In my conversations with Jack, a loving and progressive man, it still feels like I must decide how much to ask for in breaking a thousand-year patrilineal naming tradition in English-speaking countries.
It originated in England in the Middle Ages with the law of coverture, which essentially made a man’s wife and children his property. Coverture ended in the 1800s as women gained rights, but most U.S. families still embrace the tradition of patrilineal naming.
Curious about other ways to do things, I reached out to seven couples who went in different directions:
Strike a deal.
“I got to pick my son’s first name since he was getting my partner’s last name,” says Lucy, a Chicago-based cartoonist. “We agreed that if we had a girl, her middle name would be my middle name, Louise; and if we had a boy, his middle name would be John’s middle name, Karl. But when we found out we were having a boy, it didn’t sit well with my husband that two-thirds of our child’s name would come from him. So, John came up with the idea that I would have the lion’s share of picking the first name — John would still have input, of course, but I’d be the ringleader.”
“We have two last names, first the father’s and then the mother’s,” says Rebeca, who lives in Costa Rica. “Having two last names doesn’t complicate things in our country because you retain them for all your life.”
Alternate last names.
Rachel, an Australian with feminist parents, had a different last name than her siblings. Stick with me here: They were each given both their parents’ surnames, but the order was swapped. Rachel got her dad’s name first, then her mom’s. For her brothers, it was reversed. Rachel says they were met with some puzzlement at school, but they got through it. “If anything, it has made me proud to be my parents’ daughter and taught me not to care about the reactions of others,” she says. “I can draw on the experience whenever I catch myself caring what others think.”
Combine your names into a new one.
“When my husband Tanner and I were getting married,” says Jaime Greenring, a Brooklyn-based writer, “I wanted to keep my last name, but Tanner wanted us to have the same last name, for the sake of possible future kids. I was Green, he was Ringerud — Greenring was the only feasible combo.” So, how did it go? “Our families were very chill about it. Maybe a bit of ‘Huh, that’s interesting!’ but no pushback.”
Adopt a favorite literary figure’s name.
Ofra and Aryeh Amihay considered keeping their names, or hyphenating, but ultimately decided to each take the name of a poet they both loved. “When we first met, we were attending an event in Jerusalem commemorating Yehuda Amichai, a poet we both admire,” she says, “I sang his songs, and Aryeh read one of his poems. Later, when we were choosing a new last name for ourselves, we immediately knew this would be it. We went with the different English spelling, but in Hebrew the name is the same.” This solution has worked well for them. “It’s about realizing that becoming a couple is starting something new,” says Ofra.
Take your wife’s name.
When Kit and Andrew Parker in Spokane, Washington, decided to get married, Andrew insisted he wanted to take Kit’s name. “You have to be the change you want to see,” Andrew says. “Inevitably, our kids will realize that many American women take their husband’s last name, but they’ll also know that there are alternatives to social norms and expectations.”
“Ultimately, we have zero regrets,” says Kit. “Many times, it leads to really good conversations. Sometimes the conversations aren’t good, but those are important, too. It’s our little rebellion, something we’re proud of and connected through.”
Choose the name that sounds best.
“Oddly enough, we talked about our baby’s last name way more than we talked about his first name,” says Wynn Rankin James, who lives with his husband Ryan in California with their son, Benjamin. “We were both against hyphenation from the get-go. For us, it just felt like we were passing on our indecision to our kid to figure out. But I wanted to have the same name as my kid — and for the family to have the same name. To me, it just felt weird for one dad and the kid to have the same last name, and the other guy to have his own name. Finally, we landed on Ryan’s last name — James — as the last name for ‘the family,’ pretty much only because Wynn James sounds kinda cool, and Ryan Rankin sounds like a weatherman. Oh, and Ben James! Good, sturdy name right there.”
What inspires me about all these couples is their willingness to create a meaningful identity for their new families. When their children are old enough, they’ll learn the origin of their name, and how and why each parent had a say. Jack and I still aren’t sure what we’ll do, but we agree it’s a decision that belongs to both of us equally.
Hallie Bateman is a Los Angeles-based illustrator and writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, the Awl, and elsewhere. Her second book, What To Do When I’m Gone, came out this past April.
I’m so curious to hear about other people’s names, as well. Did you decide to change yours? Did you keep it? What about your kids’? xoxo
(Illustrations by Hallie Bateman for Cup of Jo.)