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The Last Word on Last Names

You’ve spent hours poring over baby name books, making lists, and trying out first and middle names to see how they sound. But what about your baby’s last name? Times are changing, and you have more choices than you may realize.

There are a lot of options available to you that you might never have considered when it comes to your child’s full name. Most babies are given their fathers’ last names because it’s the norm in our society, but did you know that you’re under no obligation to use that name? There are many choices that might work for you and your family.

Who Gets to Pick?

When parents are married, they usually decide together about what last name their baby will have, but when the parents are not married, there can be some disagreement. In most states there are no rules about this, though in Florida the baby of disagreeing parents receives both parents’ names hyphenated, in alphabetical order. If you and your partner are unmarried, the mother is usually the one who has final say about the last name. But when you’re married, it’s a decision you need to come to together and you’re not obligated to use any specific last name for your baby and can even make one up if you want.

Using Mom’s Name

Many parents choose to give their child the mother’s last name. South Portland, Maine, couple Elizabeth Edwardsen and Tim Beidel decided to give their daughter Harriet her mom’s last name. “I didn’t have any relatives left named Edwardsen,” says Edwardsen. “I also thought it would give her an early dose of feminism to be breaking away from the whole paternal name tradition. My husband agreed mostly because he has to spell his name every time he says it to anyone, and his name is routinely mispronounced. Harriet’s middle name, Lilah, was the name of her paternal great-grandmother. I guess I hoped that would make his parents feel a little bit better about the fact that their name wasn’t going on the new baby!”

While the decision was the right one for her, Edwardsen wasn’t fully prepared for the confusion it would cause. “[Harriet’s] classmates’ parents sometimes think Tim is not her father. I’ve been asked more than once if he adopted her. Also we confused the census person who called back twice to make sure she wasn’t adopted by Tim. Every once in a while we run into some person who is obviously offended by the fact that we did this, like we’ve violated an important rule.”

Some parents choose to carry on the mother’s last name as the child’s first or middle name. Cathy Burke Ondrak of Centennial, Colorado, is pregnant and tentatively plans to give her baby the first name Burke. “I had a really hard time changing my name when I got married,” she says. But the biggest reason for the choice is her father. “He had no boys, so his name will not be carried on. I think it is a great way to honor him and continue to remember him.”

Combining Names

Hyphenating your baby’s last name is a way to give him or her both parents’ last names. Belle Wong and her husband Ward Jardine, of Pickering, Ontario, chose to name their baby Dylan Jardine-Wong. Wong says, “I have some ambivalence about it. What if he marries a woman with a double last name, too? If the whole thing gets to be too much for him, I feel totally open to his dropping the Wong when he gets older.” But the decision to include her name was important to her. “Because I’m Chinese, it’s nice that Dylan’s heritage is reflected in his last name. I guess Dylan’s name reflects the relationship Ward and I have. We are equal partners and there are no strong gender roles in our marriage. I know that normally it would have been Wong-Jardine, but we both just liked the sound of Jardine-Wong better.”

Wong does find that people can have difficulty understanding. “We seem to have to explain it all the time. I know Ward’s family thinks it’s rather bizarre. When we call the doctor’s office for an appointment you can hear the confusion in their voices. Ward always sticks the hyphen in when he calls. He will say ‘Jardine hyphen Wong.'”

Another option is to give your baby two last names. Jeannette Moninger and her husband David Spurlin from Greenwood, Indiana, did just that when they named their twin sons Chance Garey Moninger Spurlin and Campbell Martin Moninger Spurlin. They considered hyphenating their last names for the children but felt it was too long and confusing. “I was content just knowing that Moninger was on the birth certificates and their Social Security cards. Keeping the Moninger name in some form in my children’s names was important to me because they are, after all, half Moningers. There are three Moninger men in my family who can carry on the Moninger name, but so far none of them are married. I felt like I was doing my part to ensure that the Moninger name didn’t completely die out.”

Because the boys are only three, Moninger and Spurlin have not explained to them that they have two last names and so far have only taught them the last name Spurlin. Moninger also has not explained to the boys that her last name is not Spurlin. “I figure it’s something I can correct later when they’re older and can understand the reasons.”

New Family Names

Some parents decide on a non-traditional family name that everyone in the family can share. Denver, Colorado, parents Susanna and Mark Donato chose to use Susanna’s surname for their family and for themselves (Mark’s given last name is Ritchey). “When we married, I wanted to keep my name,” says Donato. “Mark wasn’t particularly attached to his name, and his family has a variety of names from divorce, changing names, and so on, so he said he would rather our eventual family all have one last name.”

When their daughter was born, they named her Lydia Grace Ritchey Donato, intending that she would have both Ritchey and Donato as last names. “The biggest problems are the logistics. For instance, Lydia’s four names are on her Social Security card. But when we file taxes each year, the program usually kicks it back to tell us the IRS has a different last name, meaning that both last names don’t match her Social Security number.” The IRS is unable in this case to recognize two surnames.

Other people have had some trouble understanding the family name as well. “Grandparents still send us mail addressed to the Donato-Ritchey family. But new people, schools, etc., know us as the Donato family. Usually people just say, ‘Oh how liberated.’ Women tend to think it’s cool.”

Donato doesn’t know if she would be so insistent on keeping her own name if she had to do it all again, but says, “I think it’s easier for us to have one family name, so things being what they are, I’m glad my husband did what he did.”

Other families choose a name that is completely new to both of them, such as Michael and Rebecca Rohan of Buffalo, New York. Rebecca’s last name was Carey and Michael’s was Rook. She didn’t want to change her name when they married and considered hyphenating before deciding it wasn’t for her. When she got pregnant with her first child, “We met another couple who were expecting their first baby and were finalizing their forms to change their last name. I had never considered this option before and I decided this was what we should do. I didn’t want my kids to have a different last name from me, but I still wasn’t comfortable changing my name to my husband’s.”

Her husband finally picked a name, unrelated to either family, with which they were both comfortable. The couple then went through a simple court procedure to legally change their names. Then they were able to use that name on their child’s birth certificate.

The reaction from family was generally negative, but despite that, says Rohan, “I feel good about it. I enjoy having our new identity. I feel like we’re forging a new path together.”

Choosing a baby’s last name can require as much thought as a first name, and with the wide variety of options available, you can find a name that works for you.

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