Shelley Bridgeman 's Opinion

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Whose surname?

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Life was simple when women married, took their husband's surname and had children - in that order. Photo / Thinkstock
Life was simple when women married, took their husband's surname and had children - in that order. Photo / Thinkstock

Deciding on a surname for your child used to be straightforward in days gone by, when there was little diversity to family structures. The standard model of a married mother and father with their own children has now been supplemented by unmarried parents, blended families, rainbow families (such as the Jolie-Pitt brood) and families with same-sex parents.

There are also so called multi-dad families in which the mother has children to different men; a phenomenon I explored in my 2007 Herald on Sunday article: Who's the daddy?

Life was simple when women married, took their husband's surname and had children - in that order. There was no confusion about the kids' surname then.

But now these pesky women are having children before walking down the aisle and keeping their own surname even if they do get married. Have they no respect?

Of course, the fact that men are doing exactly the same thing - having kids out of wedlock and keeping their surnames upon marriage - is never commented upon.

Some people think that a woman choosing to give her children her surname is trying to cover up the fact they may have separate fathers when actually she might just be aiming for the same consistency in nomenclature enjoyed by people with traditional family structures.

And surely it's easy to understand why a mother wouldn't want her children named after a man if he isn't on the scene and actively helping to raise his offspring.

In the interests of equality and in an attempt to redress past imbalances caused by discrimination, I'm an advocate for giving children the mother's name (see Like father, like son and daughter, NZ Herald, 2001) or at least sharing the naming rights between parents.

I know couples who've decided that girls would take her surname and boys his - which of course is sexist in its own way but at least is more evolved than the status quo.

But then predictable concerns are raised about confusing the children if siblings don't share the same surname. However it's difficult to believe that in this dangerous, complicated modern world something as spurious as "surname confusion" could actually cause any child even a moment's angst.

I kept my own surname when I married. Our daughter also has my surname mainly due to our desire to not further propagate entrenched sexist traditions.

In eight years we've not experienced any problems as a result of this approach. Oh, except two weeks ago my husband was mistakenly called Mr Bridgeman when a teacher wrote to him about being a parent helper on a school outing.

An analysis of the class parental contact list when my daughter started school revealed surprisingly few women who'd kept their own name following marriage.

There were only a handful of mothers whose surname didn't match that of their daughter - clearly because the child had been given her father's name.

And, apart from my daughter, just one student had been given her mother's name at the expense of that of her father - and that, to use my daughter's descriptor, was the girl "with two mummies".

It seems that everyone's situation is different.

Our unique backgrounds, beliefs and circumstances influence what name we choose to bestow upon our children. And those people who think that nonconformity to patriarchal conventions will confound genealogists of the future are just wrong.

It is birth certificates, which have the name of the father even if the child is given the mother's surname, that fuel family trees not misogynistic naming traditions.

Shelley Bridgeman

Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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