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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Ask a bitchy feminist: What about the Children?

posted by bitchphd
Two readers write in to ask what to name their future children. I believe that all readers--everyone, actually--should consult with a bitchy feminist, preferably me, before major life decisions, so I am especially pleased by these questions. Reader one writes:
So what's your take on surnames for kids? My husband and I have different last names, and I'm conflicted over the whole last name thing for when/if we reproduce. I don't want to give my kids the hassle of a hyphenated name, but I don't want my identity to be left out, either. He is a really progressive, supportive guy (he plans to stay home with the kids, etc), but he thinks a kid in a married relationship should have the father's name. Anything else is making the kid a political statement, which is unfair. He grudgingly agrees to give them my name as a middle name. What do you think? What did you do? I know a lot of feminists who give their kids their husbands' names, even when they have kept their own. I'd like to know what their decision process was like, and if they ever regret it.
And reader two, whose reproductive plans are more vague at this point, asks more generally,
As a woman who recently got married and was firm about keeping my family's last name rather than "taking" his, I've been thinking a lot lately about what to do about children's surnames. The husband and I have a few ideas (pick a new name for all, hyphenate both our names for all, hyphenate just for kids, etc.), and I was just curious as to what others did. How did you choose PK's surname?
First of all, congratulations to both of you on not changing your own last names. This is obviously the right decision, and I approve wholeheartedly. Let no one ever ask what they should do about their own name; if you want to change your name because it sucks or your family was abusive or something, change it, but don't do so just b/c you're getting married. Otherwise you're just wussing out. (And at least, if you're gonna wuss out, have the courage to admit that that's what you're doing.)

But the kids thing is, for me, slightly more complicated. I suspect that the proper answer is, "give the kids the mother's last name," for a couple of reasons: first, the mother usually is the primary parent, even in families where people think they're going to parent equally; second (and more importantly), maternity is never in doubt. Seems reasonable to me that if you're the one that makes the baby, you're the one whose name it should carry--assuming that it has to carry someone's surname, which is the expectation nowadays.

But of course that's not the way we do it, given the illogical nature of ideology. The case in favor of patriarchal naming is the one I used to decide to give PK Mr. B's surname: given that maternity is never in doubt, paternal surnames function, socially, as a man's acknowledgement of his paternal responsibility. Using the man's name amounts to a public signal that the man believes this is his child, and accepts his parental role.

I actually think that this is a perfectly valid and rather nice feminist rationalization in favor of patriarchal naming, but I confess that in my own case I feel somewhat regretful about the choice for a couple of reasons. First, we had decided on a name for PK that we both liked and that vaguely recalls (for me) my paternal grandfather, of whom I was very fond, and PK's middle name is a masculinized version of my own. These made me feel okay about "balancing" his name with his father's surrname--but then two things happened. Mr. B.'s father, of whom we were both very fond, died shortly before PK was born, and Mr. B. suddenly wanted to give PK his father's name as a middle name, so we added it (thereby, in my mind, somewhat diluting the importance of my name; whether this is assholish of me I am not sure). Also, I deferred to Mr. B.'s preferred spelling of the my-nameish-middle name. There were two choices, one of which used exactly my letters, and another that was phonetically the same but spelled differently (these are two different ethnicized versions, you understand); Mr. B. preferred the latter (which reflects his own ethnic background), and we went with that, and I wish now we hadn't, because again it kind of masks the intended nod to my own name.

That said. I felt at the time that using my first, rather than last, name as PK's middle was not a bad solution--it addressed, sort of, the fact that my surname, while my own, still reflects patriarchal tradition, and since my real name is kinda unique, it pretty clearly marked PK as mine for future researchers.

If/when we have another kid, I am not sure what I will do. Definitely, however, one of my names (first or last) will be in there somewhere: either we'll trade back and forth, or we'll end up (unintentionally) with a boys-take-papa's-name, girls-take-mama's name situation (back before we had kids, Mr. B. used to propose the opposite), or we'll go with my surname as middle, or my first name as middle. Maybe even my first name as first.

I think my advice is to make damn sure that, if you defer to patriarchal naming, your own name is represented either as a middle name, as a first name, or in hyphenating. I'm not the least bit sympathetic to the whole "there's no point in hyphenating" argument; yeah, the next generation will have to figure something out when they themselves get married, but hopefully by that point no one will change surnames on marriage, and there are some good examples in other cultures of how to deal with children. My preferred way to depersonalize this whole issue is to think of it in terms of archival research: with a maternal and paternal surname, children will be easy to identify; and if grandchildren's names reflect half that tradition, the lineage is still pretty easy to trace.

Anyway. Don't, for god's sake, accept the stupid argument that refusing patriarchal naming convention unfairly "politicizes" the child; patriarchal naming is itself political, and kids are, like all human beings, social creatures and therefore part of the political public sphere. Deal with it. My advice is either hyphenate, or go with "Tommy Mama Papa" (as, you'll note, the upper class has traditionally done--which demonstrates the politics behind surnames, by the way--people with social status darn well hold onto theirs one way or another, i.e., surnames are a marker of status, and don't think that using the man's name isn't therefore political). Or, if you wish to be really progressive, "Tommy Mamapapa," which I think would actually be a lovely solution--if your surnames are too long, come up with a decent-sounding blend that uses characteristic and identifiable syllables from each.

And if one of you really doesn't wish to put mama's surname in there, for whatever reason, then use mama's first name (or some version thereof) as a middle or first name for the child. Erasing mama altogether is unacceptable. It shouldn't be this way, perhaps, but the fact is that names matter, families matter, and gender matters. So let's not pretend they don't.
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