How do you choose a last name for your child?

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Photo by NatalieMaynor, used under Creative Commons license.

My husband, D, and I are eagerly expecting our second child in a few weeks. And while we’ve honed in on a handful of first names we like, there is a big, looming question about the last name this child will have. Through somewhat unlikely and eerily parallel familial situations, we are both the very end of the line for our last names.

Hyphenating is not an option, as both names together would be too long and unwieldy. Others have suggested using my name as a middle name, and maybe it’s just my pregnancy-hormone-influenced headspace, but to me, that feels less like a compromise (where all sides gain *and* sacrifice something), and more like a temporary appeasement to ease the sting of the status quo.

Our firstborn carries my husband’s last name, and he suits it to a T. D is supportive of giving our new one my last name, but I am certain that the family backlash (on all sides) will be formidable. How many of you have wondered about this, too? Has anyone any experiences to share about having struggled with this, and/or having gone against the last-name-grain? — Karla

Comments on How do you choose a last name for your child?

  1. My husband and I had the same issue with our last names before kids. We decided hyphenating is too long and unwieldy as well. Ultimately, my half-brother surprised me. He decided to change his last name (from his mother’s maiden) to our dad’s. I also made my husband agree to change his last name to mine just so he knew the sacrifice I was going to make (I was able to use all his arguments against him, just to prove that it was equally difficult a choice). If my brother had not changed his, I don’t know what I’d’ve done. I do not envy your position. Though I think you and your husband have your solution: first child one name, second the other. Family backlash, oh well, you’re not ‘offbeat’ for the joy or easiness from others.

    Best of luck.

  2. We used both last names without a hyphen. We plan to just use my last name when they are in school etc. for ease and also, my last name is pretty cool (It’s Smylie). But the boys will have both last names so they can use either when they get older. I am sure the more traditional relatives have an issue with it, but I don’t really care. I am sure they have an issue that I will not change my name anyway.

    • We’re doing this, too. We’re both the last ones with our family names. We’re giving this baby (due in 16 weeks!) both last names and agreeing not to have terribly hurt feelings if the child chooses to go by one or the other as he or she gets older.

  3. I’m actually really curious about this too!

    My husband and I have different last names (he kept his and I kept mine), and we’re discussing starting a family in the next year or two. Hyphenating is possible, but his last name is really long and combined together they could be awkward.

    I don’t want either of our names to be left out of the naming process…so we’re at a stand still. We’ve decided to cross that bridge when we come to it, but I’d be interested see opinions.

  4. What about using a completely different last name than either of you? Or no last name at all? This might be more tenable if you didn’t already have one child with his last name.

    Also, ‘family backlash’ is a reasonable fear, but sort of a terrible way to make decisions. You’ve already taken the very uncommon step of keeping your maiden name – IME anything beyond that will cause someone to get riled up.

  5. I mean this in a totally non-snarky way: I think you should think about why the name is so important to you. What is the significance? Does having one last name v. another mean anything that you can describe? If so, what?

    Ultimately, I decided to change my last name to my husband’s because when I thought about these questions, I realized that I had no attachment to my name other than it was mine from birth, but it wasn’t the strong connection I have to my family, and letting go of my name didn’t in any way impact my relationship with them. It was more important to me to have the same last name as my children, and even that was more from logistical concerns rather than emotional ones.

    That was my choice. But I think that you should clearly put out your emotional, legal, and logistical reasons for choosing any of your name options, and then hopefully you’ll have your answer. And you might find that, even though name choices are fraught, it’s often for symbolic reasons that can be addressed in other ways.

    • I agree with Jane. I thought for a long time about whether I would take my husband’s name. And for a while I tried to convince him that we should both take a new name (or actually an old name, I was advocating for the unanglecized version of his last name).

      I the end my background in anthropology influenced my decision. I live in a society that organizes family ties based on a certain naming convention. And that’s okay with me. I don’t believe that taking the man’s name over the woman’s is purely a sexist thing, I think it is just a long-accepted standard used to organize and make sense of the complicated relationships in our world. And I’m fine with that. So if I wanted my children to have the same name that I do, and if I wanted my descendents to be able to easily trask their family history, I’d stick to my culture’s convention.

    • I also chose to change my name to my husband’s name. Both of our names hyphenated sounded ridiculously long and cumbersome. We’ve discussed the idea of having and naming kids and settled on our joint last name, his originally, family names from my side for middle names, and non-family names for first names. It seems like a good mix for us.

    • Good questions! And yes, striking to the heart of why the name matters is definitely important to knowing how to proceed in this kind of dilemma. 🙂

      As for why my name, specifically, is important to me, it comes down to a combination of history and present. History, insofar as it relates back to some amazing Icelandic broad who went against the time’s naming system and created something new and unusual. Present is important, as well, as I’ve had experiences all over the globe where someone will recognize the name through knowledge of my dad or his sisters. On one hand, it’s a bit annoying to have so big a shadow to crawl out from under, but on the other hand, it’s a neat feeling to see the impact my family has had. It makes me want to live up to them, and to not be shy in trying big things to improve our world. These have been important things to me, and I love the idea of passing them on to a new generation. 🙂

      Ack, sorry for the longwinded response… it really is an interesting question, opening up all kinds of neat mental pathways! 😀

  6. My partner and I have thought about this as well, and I think we have less to worry about since we plan to homeschool. I’ve picked out some Dutch names that I’d like to pair with my Dutch last name, plus some more Irish sounding names to go with his last name, so we’ll likely just alternate, plus use the other name as a middle name.
    We’re offbeat in so many ways that his family has likely given up on us being “normal” according to their standards, but we have my side to back us up on whatever we decide to do.

  7. I haven’t completely decided. However, here’s my plan to avoid the backlash. The truth is that almost everyone will assume that the kid’s last name is your husband’s name. Especially since you took that route with your first. My plan is to just let people keep their assumptions as long as possible, that way I’m out of the hospital and it’s all done before anyone can protest. Family members think I’m weird anyways so I might as well buy myself some peace while I can.

  8. Unless the family backlash will be formidable enough to end relationships, or you have other reasons for feeling unsure about giving your child your last name that you didn’t mention here, I really, really support you in your child having your last name. I had friends growing up where the family alternated last names for the kids, and yeah it was a little weird, but more in the “unusual” sense of weird than the “bizarre” sense of weird. People get used to these things, or at the most call your child by the wrong last name. In five years, what would feel more difficult to you, someone getting confused about your child’s last name, or knowing that your last name is the end of the line?

    • I may be the first woman I know who kept her own name when she married, so I’m glad this is a question. Our firstborn has my husband’s name, but I’ve been thinking about asking for the second to have mine. Or finally changing mine; the main reason I didn’t initially was because I like the rarity of my last name, and my husband’s is everywhere, and then we were dealing with immigration forms and everything on top of getting married and it seemed like just too much to bother about. But my family is all girls–my cousins and my sisters and I. We have some distant cousins whose children will have our last name, but it’s not the same.

      At the same time, though, I sometimes feel that keeping my last name has made it harder for me to think of my husband as my primary family; I still tend to refer to “my family” primarily as the one I grew up with. Of course, that may be because I’m usually talking to my husband when I talk about my family.

      Sorry, I’m apparently no help, other than to say, “I’m right there with you.”

      • Wow, it seems amazing that someone else could tell a story about themselves and have it sound SO MUCH like my own life! My husband has a very common, Hispanic surname, and mine is also Hispanic but much less Smith and Jones-in’. He was mad when he first found out I’d signed our kid’s last name as my own, but, in my defense, I had made it clear since our second date that any child of mine would continue the line of my own last name and no one else’s. I’m not sure why he decided not to believe me, but ultimately he saw the error in his judgement and now takes my convictions much more seriously.

        In a way, I agree with a comment just a few posts back about doing it and letting people realize it later. After all, if it matters to you, people should damn well know it and not have anything to do with standing in the way of your decisions.

        So there.

    • Amen! 🙂 Thank you! And actually, this is exactly what we decided to do, was alternate last names between kids. (And since we’re only planning two, it’s extra easy to decide.) 😉

  9. It’s nice not to be alone. Husband and I were in the same boat with being last of the line. I always knew I wanted to keep my last name and did. He chose not to change his. We decided while I was pregnant that it it was a boy it got his last name; girl got mine. My daughter has my last name though we still went back and forth. I was all for hyphenating or giving her both, but he didn’t like that. If there is a next child it’ll have his name regardless. Names don’t make families. My mom kept her maiden name and , no, it wasn’t confusing when I was a child and its even more accepted today.

    • In Quebec, it’s actually the rule of thumb that the woman keeps her maiden name. If you want to change your name when you marry, you have to go through a separate legal name-change– it’s not just a box you check on the marriage form. Hyphenated last names are pretty par-for-the-course, as are daughters taking the mother’s last name/sons taking the father’s, and other combinations. And it works out pretty well here.

      • Is it just a checkbox on the marriage form in other places? Everyone I know (from the US, anyhow) had to go through a legal name change. There was even a Friends episode about the process when Phoebe got married.

        • In most of Canada, a wife can just “assume” her husband’s last name. I just carried my marriage certificate around with me and spent a month getting a new drivers license, bank card, passport, health card, etc with my new name. I did not have to see a judge for a formal name change. My birth certificate will always have my maiden name.

          • This. In Canada, you are ALWAYS whatever name was given to you on your birth certificate. So technically you have two names. Your “real” name that appears on your birth certificate, and your “assumed” name if you decided to take your husband/wife’s name. I am always Lauren MyLast. But if I wanted, I could assume my husband’s name and become Lauren HisLast…but I don’t legally change my name. I just fill out a form and change the necessary documents.

    • My friend’s parents also chose to use the father’s last name for a boy and the mother’s for a girl. The only problem that occured was that while she took her mother’s name, her parents divorsed and her mother remarried taking her new husbands name.

  10. Even tho we aren’t married there was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted our children to have dad’s last name. My last name is very important to me because of my dad passing when I was very young but the day we get married I will be very happy to change it to my future hubby’s name. It was never something we even thought about, even tho some of my family members and friends wondered why I would give my children his last name while we were married. I wouldn’t want to go thru the trouble once they were older, if they would like it changed at one point then thats up to them.

  11. I just dealt with this issue and it felt like such an identity crisis. I still wonder if we did the right/sane thing for us and our child and she is 5 1/2 mo. old.

    My husband and I each kept our last names and I was pretty tied to mine with a very strong sense of family and a lot of my identity (both personal and professional) tied to my name. My husband was very supportive of this.

    With a child we went back and forth A LOT – always with the intention of having both names and not hyphenating. We finally decided to have the last name be my husband’s then mine. In part to let our daughter choose as she develops her own identity but have both of us represented. I think for us it came down to it mattering more for me than my husband.

    Personally – I don’t think it matters if either of you are “last of the line”. My husband has two brothers, but what’s to say that they will have kids or if they do that their kids will have their last name? Who knows, they may be Off Beat people and may be Off Beat parents, too.

  12. I can’t be of much help, other than to suggest that you not allow family backlash issues to influence your decision. Our son’s last name is hyphenated because I chose not to change my last name in marriage. It didn’t feel right to me to become Mrs (insert hubby’s last name here). It didn’t sit well with me that my child would have my husband’s name only, when I was the one who did all the work to get him here! So hyphenating made sense for us. Several family members grumbled about it and were not the least bit shy about showing their disdain over our decision. I know hyphenating seems ‘complicated’ and people sometimes take issue with it, but it’s the decision we made because it was our way of compromising. Ultimately, I don’t care what anyone else thinks of it!

    I like your idea of one child having your husband’s name and the other having yours. I guess you’d only run into trouble if you had a 3rd child! You should comment once you’ve made your decision, I’m curious to hear what you decide on. Good Luck with your upcoming labour, I hope it’s a speedy delivery!

      • I think hyphenated names really depend on the names that are being hyphenated. My husband and I hyphenated when we got married (in part because I am the last in my line).

        I am, overall, happy with the decision and I don’t think that there is an alternative I would prefer. However, we both had two syllable names that were routinely misspelled. The resulting name is a real mouthful. A year in, I am already kinda tired of spelling it out. I also have a little insecurity about it that was sown by a reporter who was utterly incredulous when we gave our name right after we changed.

        • I disagree that it depends on the name. I think it depends on the individual. My last name is also difficult to spell (it’s a complicated French name) and no one says it right. It doesn’t bother me.

          To someone who has a complicated name and hates it, this might sound completely unbelievable, but: not everyone is bothered by a difficult to say or difficult to spell last name! Seriously! I love mine.

          Overall, it’s impossible to predict how potential children will feel about any name.

          • I don’t think my first and last names are complicated in any way, but everyone else seems to. With Aurora, you have the aurora borealis, so I don’t understand why people can’t spell it or think it’s “Laura”. And for some reason, people can’t get my last name right either. People almost never spell or pronounce my name correctly, and I still love it. My sister, on the other hand, kept her husband’s last name after the divorce because “It’s bad enough that people always get my first name wrong – I don’t want to go back to a last name that nobody can get right either.” Her daughter, my niece, has a really easy name to spell and pronounce, and has expressed interested in changing her name completely – first and last, and the last name she is thinking of taking is one I have considered taking as well – my paternal grandmother, her paternal great-grandmother’s last name. And the name she wants to take is going to really confuse people. While never having been in your situation (also, I suspect my family wouldn’t really care – they’re pretty laid back), I’ve thought about a few different scenarios. Some people have mentioned the idea of girls having the mother’s last name, and boys having the father’s last name. I really like that idea, but there’s no guarantee of how many boys and how many girls you’ll have unless you adopt. I also really like the idea of everyone in the family having a different last name. If that’s something you might be interested in, look into your family history and look at maiden names and old family names. Again, I’ve never been through this situation, but I think it’s safe to say that your family is always going to find *something* to harp on you about – goodness knows mine does! If you do decide that your second child takes your husband’s last name, the same as your first, you’ll probably have family members get on your case about how your last name is different. You may also have family members who say, “Oh, you said that this was your plan for the last name and you changed your plan and I knew you would, thank goodness you turned out normal and came to your senses”. It’s much easier said than done, but my advice is to not worry about it. Like I said, they’ll probably find something else to pick at. That being said, I don’t know your family, how conservative they are, and what you mean by “formidable backlash”. Good luck, whatever your decision is!

  13. My wife and I got to make it up! I was adamant about keeping my name, and she wasn’t particularly attached to hers, and it was important to her that everyone had the same last name. We’ve been Involved in youth organizations and having to match the cheque-writers name to a kid when they all have different last names is a big pain in the butt. Thus, wife took my name, and all our kids will also bear it! Yay!

  14. We struggled with this. My last name mattered to me just as much as my husbands mattered to him. We each kept our own when married.
    Our son ended up with my last name as his first name and his dad’s last name. It wouldn’t work for everyone but it worked for us.

  15. We flipped a coin. (But then, we make a lot of decisions that way.) Our son has my last name. My partner (who was not my husband when we had the baby) is totally fine with that, and no one on either side of our families have said anything at all about the last name. Of course, that might be because he has a strange first middle name. We also gave him a second middle name, which is a family name on my partner’s side. My partner’s mom loves it.

  16. I kept my surname, but the kids have my husbands’. My surname is a boring anglicised Jewish name that nonetheless sounds really nice with my first name, so I kept it. His surname is a cool middle-European one that no one can spell – so the kids can have it (and deal with people’s inability to spell it).

  17. I love the idea of making up a new last name combined with parts of both original last names and having the entire family under that new last name. It’s different, but fun and a real compromise.

    I would suggest on a more formal note (from personal experience) not to give 2 last or middle names. I have 4 total names (all on the longer side) and when signing legal documents it’s a major pain in the butt… something I didn’t think about when I decided to keep my maiden name, first and middle, AND husbands last name.

      • Yes! This is something my husband talk about time and time again, even though we aren’t planning on conceiving in the too-near future. My last has an “ard” in it and his has a strong T sound so it’s difficult to find one that doesn’t sound disparaging. I think we might just mix and match letters instead of syllables.

        I’ve considered taking Scrabble tiles with just the letters of our names, putting those letters in a bag, and seeing what I come up with in random order.

    • My fiance and I discussed this. In the end he realised the idea of giving up his name for an amalgamated name felt like too huge a step for him to make, and as part of that realised that it was totally ok for me to keep my name. I still like the amalgamated name we chose for babies but I suspect they’d have his surname – it’s much less common than mine and I don’t like my surname that much, I just like my name as a whole. It’s MY name.

      Or, when we have kids (rather than when we get married) might be when I decide to take his name. We’ll see!

  18. We had some discussion between when we got married & decided on kids’ names… We originally planned to take my last name as a second middle name when we got married & used his last name (again, his is too long to hyphenate) but the state of IL required that he pay ~$100 for a legal name-change to do so. Then, my dad died ~6wks before the wedding & I had to settle his divorce in order to settle his estate(long story) and everything was, of course, in my maiden name. So, I just left it & was thinking I’d just change my name when it was all settled.
    Well, it took a whole year to get Dad’s estate settled & I didn’t think about going to get my name changed until our 1st anniversary hit. I discussed it w/my hubby & decided not to change it. (Funny story, it took almost 3 yrs for his parents to realize I’d never changed it!)
    So, when we got pregnant we thought a little about the kids’ last names. My name is literally half as long as my hubby’s & both are unusual & require spelling/pronunciation explanations for new people, but we decided to be more traditional & give the kids his name.
    If, against our plans, we end up with a second son (we have 1 girl now & hope for one of each) he’ll get my last name as a middle name because it seemed to fit with the first name we’d chosen. My last name actually is a man’s 1st name, just not a common one.
    Neither of us is the end of the line for our names, though, so I can understand wanting to give it more thought. My cousin is the end of the line for my mom’s maiden name & I wonder sometimes if she’ll do something with it. She has yet to wed, so only time (or my cousin) will tell! 😉

  19. Oh, & my step-brother & his new wife decided to use his middle name as their new last name & were polling people to choose a new middle name for him. I don’t know if he’s actually chosen one or changed his name yet. It’s still the same on facebook. 😉

  20. I’d say that you should do what you two want to do. Family is important, that’s what this is about, but if they want to pitch a fit over a baby having your last name then perhaps they should think more about what family means. This sounds like they are having “ownership” issues with this decision. Whatever you do, be true to your little family.

  21. I didnt change my surname when i married. I like my name, its been my name for 26 years and i dont see why i should change it. Our first baby is due to be born in a matter of days and we decided simply to hyphenate her surname, mine first his second. Our surnames arent too long winded and they sound good together so there werent any problems there. My only issue is that as a teacher, i’ve found that many people make the assumption that a child with a double barrelled surname has unmarried parents and not that it should bother me, but i dont want people making assumptions about my babys parents and their relationship! I’ll get over it though, we’ve decided to give her a really short first name so along with a hyphenated surname it flows quite nicely.

    • Interesting! I never would have jumped to that particular conclusion because of a hyphenated last name. I definitely see parents who hyphenate their last names (especially for the children) as feminist, though. And I guess if I hadn’t met the parents, I might wonder if they were a same-sex couple. (Kids in middle school assumed that about my married opposite-sex parents with different last names all the time.)

      I got my mom’s last name as a middle name, as did my sister, and I’ve felt shortchanged for many years. My children will have “proper” middle names! 🙂 And the current plan (we have not married yet, and it will be a while before we adopt) is that my sweetie and I will each keep our own names, and we’ll hyphenate them for the kiddos’ last name. And, yes, it’s long, unwieldy, and annoying on standardized forms.

  22. Boys get his, girls get mine, which works for our hetero relationship.

    We also talked about alternating (his, mine, his, mine, etc) regardless of the child’s initial sex.

  23. My brother and I grew up with a hyphenated last name, and it’s a pain to fit it on forms! He’s changing his legally to just our dad’s name, but I figure it doesn’t matter that much to me until my name becomes important professionally, then I’ll see about changing it.

    I’m in a same-sex relationship, so when my partner and I have kids, what do we do about last names, especially given that mine is ALREADY hyphenated? The kids can’t have THREE last names!

    I’m tempted to just rename everyone Dragon and be done with it.

      • That’s how I feel too – it’s a one-generation compromise, not a workable system for a society. But I can’t think of anything that would work for everybody.

        • I have to admit I don’t understand this line of reasoning. Just as we have many options, so too will our children regardless of whether their surname is hyphenated or not. I’d like to think that I can trust my children to make a decision that is right for them, whether they change their name to their partner’s, create a new surname out of thin air or as a blend of theirs and their partner’s. I personally really like the system I’ve seen in a number of south American countries – everybody has two surnames, one from dad then one from mum (forgive the heterosexual bias here). Kids then get the combination of their dad’s first surname and their mum’s first surname. Although still a patriachal system, I like that nobody has to change their name (plus you could easily fool around with order and names if it suited you). Whatever my children do, all that matters is that they figure out something that suits both them and their partner, and for that I don’t think that already having a hyphenated surname limits your options.

          • In the end it probably isn’t a huge deal, but my brother (who has a hyphenated last name) is currently engaged to a woman with a hyphenated last name and you should see their faces every time someone brings it up. They haven’t decided what to do yet.
            I think the reason it is a one-generation compromise is because having a kid whose name is Emma Smith-Garcia-Patel-Jones does seem a bit much for today’s standards.

          • @Smatsy (because I can’t seem to reply directly)
            Whilst I don’t disagree that most people would not choose to give their children four surnames, I still don’t think that it limits their choices, even if both parents have hyphenated surnames (such as your brother’s case). It is still possible for them to choose a surname for their children that is representative of both of them if that is what they desire. They could blend syllables or choose two of the surnames (such as Smith-Patel) or even create a whole spanking new on; they just have to find something that works for them. I guess I just don’t see it as a compromise, let alone a one-generation compromise. All I hope for is that our children are able to make the best decision for themselves and their partners, whatever that decision may be. Just because I won’t change my last name doesn’t mean that my children can’t – they are free to make the decisions that suit them best.

          • Thank you for that mel_mel! I always feel that way when people talk about hyphenated names being a one generation compromise. I just don’t see why I should make a decision I’m not happy with just so that my children won’t have to make a difficult decision later..

            Besides, the name issue is complicated even for those who don’t have a hyphenated last name. No matter what, a difficult decision will have to be made.

            I have a hyphenated last name and I definitely don’t feel that my parents made a compromise that made my life more difficult. I feel that they made a decision that suited them, and now I have even more options to choose from when I get married/have kids. I feel pretty lucky, actually!

          • I like this suggestion I read on the Guardian’s website (although it needs tweaking for same sex relationships):

            Each person starts off with two surnames, the first from their mother, the second from their father. Each person changes one of their surnames on marriage to that of their partners, ending up with married couples sharing the exact same two surnames as each other.

            So, for example: “Julia Anderson Smith”, where Anderson came from her mother and Smith came from her father. When a woman marries, she changes her patriname (her father’s surname) to that of her husband’s. When a man marries, he changes his matriname (his mother’s surname he inherited) to that of his wife’s.

            So Julia Anderson Smith marries Fred Jackson Brooks. She becomes Julia Anderson Brooks and he becomes Fred Anderson Brooks. The kids (until they marry) are Tom Anderson Brooks and Kate Anderson Brooks. Simple.

            A few of you may have seen me expand upon this in another comments thread. One of the problems is it wouldn’t work with gay couples. My solution would be that gay couples could negotiate whether to take one of each other’s surnames, or whether to keep their birth surnames. Just as they currently do, I suppose.

    • I’m due in May. I have a hyphenated last name and my partner doesn’t. We don’t feel like getting married and neither of us wants to take the others’ last name. Growing up with a hyphenated last name was a bit of a pain as a kid, but as an adult, I really like it. It is an integral part of my identity to not be claimed by either family but really be a unique creation. I’m pretty attached to my name as-is

      We have NO idea what to do about the kid. We’ve actually been discussing the baby last name problem for longer than we’ve been TTC. Neither of us want for the kid to have the other’s last name, nor do we want one of our last names to become a first name. We’ve discussed a unique last name for the kid, but our families hate the idea and I’m not inclined to ignore them. We’ve actually discussed double hyphenating, which is incredibly unwieldy.

      We’ve got a first name and a middle name. The last name is a doozy.

  24. Interesting. We both kept our own name and decided to decide on a hypothetical kid’s name when the time would arrive. First we figured, boys his, girls mine or switching, but that’s illegal in my country. We can pick either his or mine, but it has to be the same for all kids (when they have the same biological parents). I’m not sure whether we can make up something new. We probably can but it will be very expensive, costing something like $500 per letter we would like to change. So, we’re still undecided.
    It sounds as if you have the solution right in front of you: give the 2nd kid your last name. And don’t worry about family. I agree with the first commenter: you are not offbeat because it was the easiest way to live :).

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