The Name of the Father: How the way we name our children has failed to keep up with our social realities.

Cultural practices are fixed. But social behavior is not. It changes rapidly. So our customs almost always lag behind the way in which we actually live. One clear example of this fact is the outdated, patriarchal way in which we name our children. The world has changed, but our naming practices have not.

According to Sally Bedell Smith’s new book Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, one of the main personal challenges that Queen Elizabeth has faced during her long reign was the extremely negative reaction that her husband, Prince Philip of Greece, had to being informed that his wife would rule Britain under the name of her own family (Windsor) instead of under his family name (Mountbatten). Their children would also go by the name Windsor.

Philip, apparently already struggling with the fact that his wife held all the power (she would be Queen while he would remain only a prince) and all of the money (Philip and the rest of the Greek royal family had to flee into exile when Philip was still a baby, surviving off of the charity of wealthy relatives), loudly complained:

“I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children. I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”

(Smith does point out that Philip’s insistence on giving the children the name Mountbatten was itself somewhat ironic, since Mountbatten is the name of his mother’s family. His father – following the European royal tradition of having only a first name – had left poor Philip with no patrilineal family name. Nonetheless, Philip was quite attached to stamping his kids with the last name he carried, and not with the name of his wife.)

Who’s your daddy? This concern about having one’s children bear their father’s last name is not limited to male royalty. In fact, the vast majority of people seem to feel that it is imperative that their children should carry the father’s family name. This intensely patriarchal practice probably seemed less problematic back when nearly all married women took their husband’s name, when children were far less likely to be raised outside of wedlock, and before alternative insemination allowed same-sex couples to raise children of their own, and before single women began to use it to have babies without having a known male involved.

But times have changed.

In regard to ensuring that children carry their father’s last name, the Australian columnist Catherine Deveny asks: “Why are so many people still clinging to this convention in this day and age of divorce and DNA? A convention that insidiously reinforces power, control and ownership. It's a patriarchal minefield we deny even exists. Despite so much social change, this is a rusty nut that will not budge.” ( )

Since so many marriages split up, Deveny argues, and since there are now other ways – other than naming – that we can use to establish paternity (not that naming was ever that effective a way to prove who your father is anyway!), what exactly is the justification for this vestigial hangover from a more patriarchal time when women and their children were the actual property of the man? (When of course they would have his name stamped all over them!)

But these days married women are increasingly keeping their own family (“maiden”) names. And, increasingly, children are being raised by parents who were never married. (In the United States over 40% of children are now born to parents who never married. In Sweden this number is 55%, and in Iceland it is 66%.) There has also been a great increase in the number of lesbian and gay couples who are raising kids, as well as in the number of women who are using alternative insemination to bear children whom they plan to raise entirely on their own. In this last case, the (typically) anonymous male’s contribution ends at conception.

And now there is talk of being able to develop sperm cells from stem cells. It may soon be that if a woman wants to bear a child, no man will have to be involved at all!

But what has not changed is this dominant cultural practice of children bearing the name of the father. And it no longer makes any sense

Other solutions? There have been other solutions that people have come up with to try to deal with this situation.

Hyphenation. One of the more common solutions to this problem in North America has been the use of hyphenated names – although this is a trend that the social scientists say is now dying out. Children who are interviewed about this practice give it mixed appraisals, and many wind up just using one of the last names (usually their father’s). Aside from some challenges with alphabetizing (do you file the name of the famous American runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee under the letter J or the letter K?), there remains the problem of what to do when those children marry and/or have children of their own. Again, when a choice is made, children of hyphenation typically default back to using only their father’s last name.

Both names. In Spanish and in Latin cultures the historical pattern has been to incorporate both the father’s and the mother’s last name legally, but in common usage only the father’s name is mentioned. As Wikipedia points out, when Julio Iglesias de la Cueva (popularly known only as Julio Iglesias) had a child with Isabel Preysler Arrastía, their son was called Enrique Iglesias Preysler. But he is known popularly only as “Enrique Iglesias.” So while the mother’s family name is indeed there, it is generally ignored. And his mother’s mother’s family name (Arrastía) was dropped entirely. After one generation, the mother’s line disappears.

Just one name. Some cultures have traditions of people only having one name. People in Thailand only had one name until 1913, when surnames became legally required. (At that time it was declared that each family needed to have a last name that was different from every other last name, which is why so many Thai last names are so long.)

Until 1997, people in Mongolia only used one name as well. Then, in an attempt to “modernize” and to simplify the tracking of its people, the government also required all of its citizens to adopt family names. But most people simply adopted the same family name: Borjigin, the clan name of Ghengis Khan. So things did not get much easier for the government trackers. (source:

Many First Nations communities in North America also had a tradition of only using one name – until the white authorities came along and decreed that family names must also be used. (In fact, it was only relatively recently in the Canadian province where I live that a First Nations family finally won a long legal struggle to regain the right to follow their traditional cultural practice of giving children only one name. It turns out that the government bureaucracy is one heck of a foe to take on!)

Chromosomal alignment. The magazine columnist Marilyn Vos Savant, said by some to be the smartest woman in the world due to her extremely high score on I.Q. tests, writes: “I believe both men and women should keep their premarital surnames throughout life. When they get married and have children, sons would take their father’s surname, and daughters would take their mother’s surname. The benefit to girls and women would be enormous while costing boys and men nothing—except the fun of claiming ownership of the opposite sex!”

Ms. Vos Savant is very bright. Perhaps too bright for me. Because I do not understand her reasoning. I do know that some heterosexual-parented families have adopted this solution that boys should have the father’s family name, while the girls should take the mother’s family name. But to me it seems like a very odd notion that children should automatically be expected to identify most with their same-sex parent. Certainly I am aware of instances in heterosexual family situations where daughters feel closer to their fathers than to their mothers, and I know of many, many situations where sons feel much closer to their mothers than they do to their fathers. To me this non-solution of naming by gender alignment puts far too much of a genital focus on one’s self-concept – implying that the most important thing about a child is her or his biological sex. Boys named after Daddy. Girls named after Mommy. It seems kind of inane. And terribly uncreative.

Creating a new name. On the other hand, I also know families who have gotten very creative and have invented an entirely new name. And that is certainly a solution. An expensive one – since both parents must legally change their names. It is an idea that I think has some merit. But in all honesty, to me it would be kind of like designing my own tattoo. I am just not sure that I am creative enough to come up with something good. And when it comes to naming, I hesitate to wipe out both family lineages in one fell swoop.

Using the mother’s family name. I am married to a woman. She kept her family name when we wed. We have a four-year-old daughter. When we were awaiting my daughter’s arrival, we briefly discussed what to do. My partner was willing to hyphenate our names, but we ultimately decided on having our daughter carry just my wife’s family name. One of the main reasons for this is that we live in a historically Acadian region, and my wife’s last name is of Acadian origin. Her Acadian family has been settled in this region for over 400 years – when they were not busily escaping the British soldiers who were hell bent on deporting them to France or to Louisiana or to other places – all in the name of ethnic cleansing!

My wife’s family name can be associated with resistance, with tenacity, and with the great strength of a minority people who have survived and ultimately thrived despite great odds. It is a deep cultural legacy that my daughter will hopefully embrace as a part of who she is.

An imperfect solution. Although it is not (yet) common practice, I believe that if a child is to carry the last name of only one of her or his parents, that name should be the last name of the mother. Despite the gains that have been made in recent years, the reality is that women still do the vast majority of childrearing. And in cases where the relationship between the parents breaks up, more of the responsibilities for raising the children still typically fall to women.

Does it make sense that a woman should carry a child in her body for nine months, labor to bring the baby into the world, most likely suckle the baby at her breast, probably bear the lion’s share of parenting responsibilities, and then not have that child share her name? Not to me it doesn’t.

The other day I was registering my daughter for an event. The person filling out the paperwork asked for my full name. I provided it. Then she asked for my daughter’s full name. I provided that too. Noting that our last names were different, the woman looked at me, confused, and said, “But isn’t she your daughter?”

“Yes,” I replied. “She is my daughter.”

And she will always be my cherished child – whether she is stamped with my name or not.