We’re thinking about creating a family name — how can we avoid losing our heritage in the process?

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By: rickCC BY 2.0
My partner and I are thinking about coming up with an entirely new last name for our family — one that isn’t attached to either family in any way.

I only have one reservation: names often have a long history attached, and it’s likely we’d want to share this history with our future kids.

For families who have created a family name: what do you do when your children ask you about your family name’s history? — Maggie

Have you and your partner created a family name? How did/will you explain the name to your kids?

Comments on We’re thinking about creating a family name — how can we avoid losing our heritage in the process?

  1. OH MY GOD!!! My partner and I “joke” about coming up with our own family name all of the time considering neither of us are attached to our last names but we are too afraid of offending his brothers. This is a very interesting question, I didn’t know that people actually do choose their own family names.

  2. My wife and I created a family name. We don’t yet have children, but we did want to honor our lineage, so we crafted our new surname from syllables of our maiden names.

    • Yes! My husband and I did the same thing. It didn’t exactly go over with the family as well as we hoped, but friends of our generation think it’s pretty cool. Plus, I feel like it’s one of the most personal-is-political decisions you can make, because whenever anyone asks me about it, I get to explain why I felt it was important. If even one person feels like I’ve opened up a different path, as opposed to the “way it’s always been done,” then all the family drama is worth it. We don’t have kids yet, but I feel like the syllables thing gives us a connection back to our original names and family history.

  3. I love the idea, and I’ve known a few couples that wanted to do this, but it never seemed to work out for the very reasons you mention; offending other family members, confusing for the kids, etc. I also have a couple of friends who changed their names due to family messiness (step-parents, etc.), but this was before they were attached to anyone. Both my family of origin and the family I married into have lots of surnames that they have traced back, and even preserved their heritage by naming their children with surnames. My nephew’s middle name is his mother’s maiden name. Another cousin’s first name is his grandfather’s surname. There is no one “right” answer.

  4. My sister and her partner combined their last names. They’re not going to officially change them from what I know, but they even sign cards and stuff with it. I love it. I think it would be the most awesome last name ever if they did it–combining Scottish and Vietnamese heritage 🙂

  5. Surnames are pretty recent development in Western culture that’s why a lot of surnames are based on location or occupation. I really like the old Scandinavia naming which I believe Iceland still uses which you are the parent’s son or daughter. So the last name would always be changing with each generation. You can still teach children their heritage without the surnames which tends to be only one name when there are so many branches on a family tree. Go with what fits you and your partner.

  6. I’m getting married on September and this has come up several times. I am quite attached to my name. Although not enough to not want to change it. I think his name is OK but i’m not totally in love with it. So now what do we do? I wish I was more feminist or more traditional!
    I guess if your creating a name then you are going to have to tell your kids from a very early age so they get used to the fact that the place their name comes from is not the normal route (although what is normal these days)
    Maybe make them a book that has the history of your families, one half yours one half your partners with the middle page your joining and your chosen name. Now saying this I want to do this what ever route we choose with our name!

      • Great idea! That’s what I’m doing too! I felt sad to completely change my name. It’s the name I’ve always known, it’s on my college degrees, and it’s even the name of my business. Thank you for sharing!

      • That’s what I did as well. I even passed down the second middle name to my daughter. I’m going to enjoy seeing what she does when she gets married.

  7. My partner and I did create our own last name – I really have to thank folks for the great some great support and help we received from members of the Offbeat Bride Tribe. For a variety of reasons we were not comfortable with taking either of our own last names so making our own was the perfect solution. The name we choose is significant to us and even gives a nod to our heritage. To be honest it never would have occurred to me to worry about explaining it to our kids and it doesn’t worry me. I would probably be pretty frank with them – why we choose it, how etc. We’ll still talk about family history and the other names in it. I guess I think of it like my maiden last name – it had a family history but that name alone only covered a very small part of my family history. There’s a lot of surnames in my family history with some very colorful characters and I want our kids to know about them just as much as anyone who shared my maiden last name.

  8. My partner and I did create our own last name – I really have to thank the members of the Offbeat Bride Tribe for the great support and help they gave us. For a variety of reasons we were not comfortable with taking either of our own last names so making our own was the perfect solution. The name we choose is significant to us and even gives a nod to our heritage. To be honest it never would have occurred to me to worry about explaining it to our kids and it doesn’t worry me. I would probably be pretty frank with them – why we choose it, how etc. We’ll still talk about family history and the other names in it. I guess I think of it like my maiden last name – it had a family history but that name alone only covered a very small part of my family history. There’s a lot of surnames in my family history with some very colorful characters and I want our kids to know about them just as much as anyone who shared my maiden last name.

  9. We did this, but not really. We didn’t legally change our names because what we came up with was hideous, but it also honored our families. We took the first two letters from each of our last names and our mother’s maiden names and came up with McCupaca. Our friends all call us this, even my brothers call us by this name. They thought it was really weird until we told them how we came up with it. They still think we’re weird hippies, but they thought that even before we made our own family name 🙂

    When we were having our first child we even got the name engraved on a lamp we bought here while on vacation. We love our little family name!

    • Sounds like you’ve named yourselves ‘Son of Cupaca’. Probably for the best that you didn’t change it legally. From a Scottish point of view it’s a bit, “WTF?”

      I’m not meaning this to sound like a fly-by cruel comment; I’m meaning to say that people don’t often look up name meanings (look at the sheer amount of baby girls named McKenzie, with various spellings). It can pop up later and prove a little embarrassing.

  10. A lot of queer couples do this. My partner and I took my mom’s maiden name so technically there’s still a family link but just a thought about attached history: in my family, everyone is divorced. Both of my sets of grandparents divorced and the women remarried and took new names. Many of my aunts are divorced, and some kept their married names, some didn’t. My sister married and took her husband’s name. Basically, in my very basic family tree, we have at least 20 different last names.

    I know this isn’t the norm for everyone but I do think it’s pretty common. Our kids haven’t asked about our name yet but when they do we’ll just be honest with them: we wanted to have one last name as a family, and we chose my grandpa’s last name because he’s one of those most accepting people of us in our extended families, and my partner’s family is very polish and we didn’t want to stick our kids with a complicated, hard-to-pronounce-and-spell last name.

    But I think a family’s rich history is about much more than a name. I used to love listening to my grandma describe all of her siblings and aunts and so forth and their many exotic (to me, as a kid, anyway) names. I can’t wait to regale my kids with all kinds of stories about the characters (with many names but shared DNA) who came before them.

    • We have this, too — even just in small family clusters. My aunt, for example, has been married 3 times. She went from a T (her maiden name, also her brother/my dad’s name and mine) to a Z in her first marriage. We have a Z cluster (her stepson and his wife and their kids; her son and his wife and their kids; her daughter). When she married again after being widowed, she became an H. After they divorced, she married again and became an M. She’s not any less a part of the family!

  11. Great question! My husband and I are both attached to our own surnames, but we are thinking of combining our surnames (which contain three of the same letters) into a new surname for our children… But like others, I am concerned about the confusion this will cause in school, etc, if each family member basically has a different surname. Then again, hyphenated surnames for children are still fairly common, right?

    • we did this. for a variety of reasons, neither of us wanted to give up our last names when we got married. and when it came down to choosing a last name for our new baby, we didn’t want to give him one surname to the exclusion of the other, we didn’t want to hyphenate our already cumbersome and difficult to pronounce last names, and we didn’t want to do that “mom’s maiden name as middle name, dad’s surname as kid’s surname” thing.

      so we took 3 letters from his last name and 3 letters from my last name and made up a new name. that’s our son’s surname. to help with school confusion, travel confusion, etc: we each took on that new name as a second middle name, thus giving us a shared “family name.” so i am now legally nicole [original middle name] [new name] [my last name] – husband is similar – and i go professionally by nicole [new name] [my last name] all together.

  12. My husband and I did this… sortof. We’ve been married two years and still haven’t made it legal (and as time goes by it seems less likely that we’ll ever get around to it, but who knows?).

    Here’s the story: When we first started dating, I said something to him about how I didn’t think it was reasonable that women were asked to change their names while men kept theirs. He said “I’d take your name!” and I thought the discussion was over. Years later, when we got engaged, I assumed that he’d meant that seriously (and that he remembered it!) and started telling everyone that he was taking my last name. When he overheard this he was confused – he didn’t even remember the conversation. We spent several months thinking about what we wanted to do, and in the end neither of us felt comfortable taking each other’s name. We couldn’t come up with any combination that felt good to both of us, so we decided to create our own name. Several more months passed while we thought about the name, and we finally decided the night that we drove up to Maine for our wedding.

    We tried hard to come up with something that reflected our families and heritage. Here are some of the ideas we had:

    – Combining names. Nothing here felt good to both of us.
    – Choosing a word from a language we heritage we share: Our shared heritage is Gaelic. We made a list of words that were meaningful to us (peace, joy, grace, etc.) and translated them (in Irish and Scottish Gaelic) to try to find something that would work for a last name. Still couldn’t find something we liked.
    – Choosing a place that is meaningful to us. This is what we ended up doing – choosing the name of the place where we met.

    Our extended families – his very traditional and mine very loosey-goosey – were mortified, although I think it was just as much that I wasn’t taking his name that we were Our parents were mostly fine (especially mine – hippies!)

  13. My husband and I have been talking about this. (When we got married I kept my name, but now I’m pregnant and we’re trying to come up with a last name for our baby…) We’ve been looking through our family trees to see if we have any heritage in common. We do, both German and Irish, so we’re considering choosing an ancestral name from one of those lineages to preserve our heritage.

  14. im not in a partnership but when i changed my last name i chose something that still had ties to my heritage – I just added another step, which is what heritage is really… so instead of my story being that my last name came from Ireland where my poppy’s dad was born, i took the nickname based off that name – gran and poppy doran were always known as the d’s to people outside the family, I use Dee because i didnt like what Doran represented to me but didnt want to lose the connection completely, in my mind I have added the australian step in the heritage. If I pass on Dee to future generations then I become part of the story. Maybe something like that would work for you?

  15. So, we didn’t officially change our name either but we combined it informally. And we have two kids, both of whom have his last name. And mine is different. Lots to explain.

    When explaining, I’ve been finding (in my whopping six years of parenthood, whuhu!) that honesty is the best policy without getting negative or detailed. So I don’t say “You get daddy’s last name and mine is different because of the patriarchy dammit.”

    Instead I say, “Well, you have all of my history in your cells and your blood because I grew you, and so daddy gets to add his history with his name.” And also “I kept my name because my dad died and it was a part of his name that is a part of me (just like you!)” And then “but we like people to know that we are one family, so we made one NEW name for fun.”

    One idea would be to drill down to the positive truth of why you want a new family name, and then the positive truth of how you value and honor your family history, and practice saying those things and be ready for questions that make you grow and think deeper, and then just go for it! Good luck 🙂

  16. My husband and I chose a new family name when we got married, though it is connected to my husband’s side. We decided to go with my husband’s great-grandfather’s last name. My mother in law had done some historical research and found ancestors that existed in like the 15th century with the same last name but the Old English spelling (it’s her surname in the SCA). We decided to go with the Old English spelling instead of the modern (so I felt it was more ours than just coming from my husband’s heritage).
    This is how I explained it to others (even my husband who needed convincing to change his last name): I’m was not becoming part of his family and he wasn’t becoming part of mine, we were starting our own new family and that deserved its own unique name. If our little guy (and his future siblings) ever asks about our last name, I’ll probably tell him this.

  17. My husband and I combined our last names into one long, cumbersome name that really sounds like two. We thought it was the most elegant solution- hyphenating would have been more elegant after all. I love it though, the elephant of a name, so we’re keeping it for us and our progeny.
    When picking a name, if it’s not already a family name, do due diligence.
    Especially do this if the name is in another culture or another language. Someone I love renamed himself a Gaelic name that turns out to be the name of a terrorist group- it was a little difficult explaining it while traveling in Ireland.

  18. This reminded me of a post I read a while back on the blog “from two to one” called Our New Name. This couple chose a new last name when they got married, using a Dutch word since keeping that heritage was important to her husband. Danielle walks through the process and the different options they considered. She also hosts a series called The Last Name Project with a lot of interesting stories about people’s decisions to keep or change their last name.

  19. My husband and I kept our respective last names (Fetz, Stallings), and gave our son both of them (Fetz Stallings). That said, most of our friends call our family The Fetzllings — a name far too silly for us to ever actually take on officially, but one that seems to have stuck in terms of usage.

  20. I discussed this with my daughter in a loose fashion after I had been seeing my boyfriend for a while and I told her that we could make up a new family name and she loved the idea. It gave us good giggles to come up with names. My daughter said that she just wanted to have the same name as me if I ever got married.

    I think it is a great idea and I have mentioned it to my boyfriend and he agrees. I think that honesty is the best policy and I like what Amy said about her family deserving its own unique name.

  21. My fiancee and I are getting married in September and we just finalized our last name choice! It was hard to pick a name that we both felt connected to (it’s not something either of us had ever felt about having to pick!) but it was easy to decide that it was what we wanted to do. We’re both feminists, and we both have icky feelings about the way last names have been used to imply ownership historically, and neither of us would have been comfortable on either side of that. But we want to have a child, and we want to clearly present as a family unit. So… we searched. And we thought. And we waited. And we got frustrated. And then we thought we decided. And then I quibbled. And then we REALLY decided.

    I don’t feel that we are depriving our future child of the heritage of my father’s father’s father’s father by not passing on that name anymore than we are depriving them of my mother’s father’s mother’s mother’s heritage or my father’s mother’s mother’s heritage by not choosing to give them one of those names. I realize it is more loaded for some people, but as we can’t fairly pass on the names of every single ancestor, we decided this made the most sense for us. If we have a girl, we do have an ancestor’s first name that we would like to use, and THAT feels nice.

    The process did make me realize how much of MY identity is tied up in my current last name. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to keep it as a second middle name. I think.

  22. My husband and I chose a new family name when we got married. Neither of us was particularly fond of our last names (Gray and Bolton) and we knew once we had kids we wanted all of us to have the same last name. We test drove dozens, but ended up taking on my grandmother’s maiden name, Logan. She was an only child and her last name would’ve otherwise disappeared. Both of our families were definitely confused by our choice initially. But now it’s just a fun bit of history for everyone to share.

  23. When my mom divorced for what she claimed will be the last, she wanted to come up with her own last name and asked me for ideas. She loves word puzzles, so I said to take letters from all three of her children’s first names, scramble them up, and see what came out. She ended up using 2 letters from each of our first names, mixed, to create her own meaningful last name. (Bonus for my mom, the name ended up being “Charms,” and she practically squeed at how cute it was.)

    So that might at least be one possible way to go about coming up with the name itself… taking words (or parts of words) that are meaningful to you both, and seeing what you come up with. Then you’ll automatically have a story to go with the name!

  24. My husband and I legally changed our surname when we got married seven years ago. It’s in my username and has no relation at all to either of our birth surnames. When we tell people about it now, it still seems crazy to some folks, but everyone tends to agree that it works for us (who knows what they might say behind our backs, but then again, who cares?).

    Phoenix has no personal history attached to it, and was generally chosen because it just seemed right, as well as a few other reasons. I actually get asked about this a lot, so I took the opportunity to write about it here: http://thefeministmystique.blogspot.com/2012/10/abby-last-name-project.html

    There’s not a lot there about what we’ll tell our almost-two-year-old daughter though, so I wanted to address that here: I think it is what you make of it. I’ve never thought about our kid asking about our name’s history, but if you’re thinking about that, then maybe your family places more value on having a strong sense of its own ancestry, especially tied to surnames. If that’s the case, maybe it’s better to try to pass along those names in some sense. For us, not having that family-connectivity-through-names, the narrative we plan on telling our kid is the probably same one we tell anyone who asks: we didn’t feel right taking each other’s respective surnames, but we wanted to somehow mark the creation of our new family when we married. So we made our new name, and our new family.

    It’s possible that I’m more flippant about this because I wasn’t really raised to think that I’d be keeping my surname when I married anyway (not that I didn’t know some women who did, but it definitely wasn’t the norm)? When I got to the point of making that choice though, my husband and I wanted to clearly mark the type of marriage and family we wanted to build together, one based on equality and with dabs of silliness and creativity. I think that’s really the main thing I’ll want to pass along to the littlest Phoenix.

  25. We have kept our names the same but hope to hyphenate them if/when we procreate. Only thing is I don’t know if we’ll be allowed to have 2 hyphens in our sprogs’ name (I already have one) so we’d have to get a bit creative if that ends up being a problem.

    • I work in a hospital and we have a patient with a double-hyphenated surname. Interestingly, the first and last parts are the same (e.g. Smith-Jones-Smith).

      • I’m so glad to finally have more than anecdotes that this is possible. I love my already hyphenated last name, but want at least a good chunk of our last names to be a family name, so I’ve been looking for sighting of the last name version of a unicorn, the triple hyphen.

        • I mean no disrespect… only curious- what happens if your children get married and want to hyphenate their three part last name with their new spouse’s last name? What if his or her last name is also hyphenated? It becomes a quintuple or sextuple hyphen… Is there a limit to how many hyphens one can use legally?

          • I’m going to go out on a limb and say no, mostly because even though he only goes by his first and last name, my kid legally has six names (none are hyphenated) and no one ever bothered us about it. I’m pretty sure you can hyphenate all day long.

          • To be honest, this question (“But what will the kids do when they get married?”) always confuses me. The answer is Whatever They Want. You and your spouse decide on a last name that works for both of you, whether it’s hyphenated or make believe or ridiculously long or whatever. If/when your child gets married, the child and their spouse will pick out whatever name works for them – whether it’s hypenating or picking certain portions of the name or making something up or going with Smith.

            That’s the beauty of moving past the patriarchial rule that “woman takes husband’s name” – everyone gets to do it. You make up your own rules, and you help make it okay for your kids to make up their own rules, and maybe eventually the old patriarchial rule won’t be the standard anymore.

          • Yeah, like Carolyn Ellstra, this question always confused me too (and, I’ll be honest, it kind of annoys me, even though I know you don’t mean badly!). No matter what, our children will have to make choices when they get married. I don’t see what difference it makes if they have one more name to choose from.

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