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Clementine Ford: Kids Should Automatically Get Their Mother's Surname

A conversation popped up in one of my online mothers’ groups this week that touched on a perennial concern for many modern parents: whose name do we file the kids under?

I am firmly of the view that kids should automatically have the last name of the person who gave birth to them, and any further compromise should just be that the man gets to add his last name to a double-barrel. At least in hetero, biological parenting circumstances.

(I say it's a concern for “parents”, but I really mean “mothers”. I’m sure there are outlier cases of men involved in the deep discussion of naming rights -- not to mention same-sex couples pondering the issue -- but ownership denoted by ‘sur’names largely remains a western patriarchal construct. More to the point, these conversations happen regularly in mothers’ groups, along with discussions about screen time, sleeping, childcare, the domestic workload, children’s emotional development and so on and so forth. I’m not saying men aren’t interested in these conversations -- I’m just saying that, statistically speaking, they are more likely to leave the mental workload of them to their partners rather than establish community connections with other fathers from whom they can seek advice.)

But I digress! 😬

I am firmly of the view that kids should automatically have the last name of the person who gave birth to them. (Image: Getty)

Despite all the supposed progress we’ve made in regards to gender equality (LOLLITY LOL), we’re still staggeringly behind when it comes to eradicating sexism in the family home. A study of Victorian children revealed 90 percent are given the last name of the dude who had nothing to do with growing them, birthing them and, if the testimonials of infuriated women across the country are anything to go by, equally parenting them.

Gee whiz, I wonder why that might be?

(Spoiler: it’s patriarchy!)

Yep, it’s as basic as Australian men still expecting to be honoured and validated through the grand ole practice of ‘passing on the family name’. As Kellie Scott wrote over at the ABC in 2017, “For some men it’s a tricky subject to broach -- the idea of not passing on their family name often goes against everything they consider traditional.”

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Tradition, as we know, is sacrosanct and protected by Biblical doctrine. This is why we still hold onto the “tradition” of organised corporal punishment in schools that girls aren’t, by law, allowed to attend not to mention the stoning of women found to have committed adultery against husbands to whom their father’s property was handed over in exchange for marriage.

Nothing is ever allowed to change, ever!

Scott cites research out of Swinbourne University which found “gendered power relations among heterosexual couples appear to favour the visibility and continuity of men’s surnames” and codified the “legitimacy” of the nuclear family by “displaying the child has a father and the mother has a heterosexual partner, where using the mother’s surname might be mistaken for the still stigmatised step or sole mother family”.

Basically, this is just another way women have been conditioned to embrace ‘traditions’ that position them adjacent to power rather than full exemplars of it.

Spoiler: it’s patriarchy! (Image: Getty)

See also: the extremely outdated yet seemingly still-thriving practice of women adopting men’s last names following marriage. Despite there being no practical benefit to women at all (indeed, I have never known a woman who has expressed regret for keeping her name,  but many women will express regret for changing it), this ‘tradition’ has also been maintained in western heterosexual marriages.

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One can infer the same subconscious motivation here as those cited in the Swinburne study -- that single women of a certain age are stigmatised as broken, unmarriageable old hags, and thus rush to signal their attachment to a man by taking on his name. If these things were truly choices intended to create a single family unit, we’d see far more men embracing their wives’ last names and expressing frustration at their own difficult-to-pronounce-and-spell last names. (Do you think Benedict Cumberbatch ever bemoans the many hundreds of seconds he’s had to spend repeating his name over phone lines? How has Jake Gyllenhaal managed to navigate his way through almost 40 years of life? “No, I said TWO 'l's' and TWO 'a's'!”)

Get it right!

But men’s ownership of a name is considered sacred in direct proportion to how women’s possession of a name is considered temporary. I find it interesting that people continue to argue the point that women who don’t take their husband’s names are somehow still branded by a man -- ie their father (because children automatically get the father’s name, right?)

It exposes a lot about patriarchal thinking that men’s names are never treated as ‘just’ those of their father, but theirs to own and stake a claim in. Men’s names belong to them regardless of where they came from. Women’s names are treated as being on loan -- certainly not anything they would ever be allowed to claim for themselves.

Nothing is ever allowed to change, ever! (Image: Getty)

We can scream CHOICE, CHOICE as much as we like, but not a single one of us lives outside of the sphere of cultural influence. There is no truly free choice to be made in our society -- only decisions as to how we choose to navigate and survive its expectations. I’m not asking people to apologise for the choices they’ve made. But it would be nice if they could think a little more critically about why they might have made them.

In the meantime, maybe we could all just agree that it’s more than a little f**ked that the people largely charged with keeping the human race alive are so frequently denied the f**king right to take credit for it.