Dialogue: Like father, like son and daughter

By SHELLY BRIDGEMAN*

One of the thrills for parents of a newborn baby is the opportunity to name it.

First names tend to move with the fashions. These days, Sophie and William seem to have taken over from Jessica and Samuel in the popularity stakes.

Names can also provide a creative outlet - as in the case of Moon Unit and Zowie.

Sometimes the names are especially meaningful. Place names, of course, are hot and may even denote the place of conception. Take your pick from romantic spots (Paris and India), American states (Georgia and Indiana) and even New York avenues (Madison) and suburbs (Brooklyn).

Much care and attention is lavished on the choice of first name. Does it roll off the tongue nicely? Is it a strong name? Is it original enough? Is it easy to spell? Does it convey a sense of character?

All these issues and many more are considered by parents before bestowing their child with a handle that is not easy to shake off.

Even middle names are given due reflection, although they are only referred to in two infrequent situations - when filling out official forms and when friends ask what your middle name is.

Yet as redundant and cumbersome as they are, they are still a subject of much debate between anxious parents.

Isn't it ironic then that, through all the earnest consideration and dialogue, the part of a baby's name that is arguably the most prominent and most visible to the world at large is generally given no real thought at all?

For some reason many people consider that there is no choice as far as surnames are concerned, that it is simply a societal prescription that the baby is given the father's surname.

Even women who are liberated enough to defy convention and have a child outside of marriage still mainly bow to custom and give their child the father's name.

And the same married women who shun one sexist practice by keeping their own name, perversely then buckle to convention and allow their child to be dubbed with their husband's surname.

Proponents of hyphenation smugly believe they have solved the problem by incorporating both parents' surnames in one convoluted mouthful.

But hyphenation is irresolute and short-sighted. Clearly, the couple is simultaneously unable to make a decision and unwilling to cause offence, so an unworkable compromise is settled on. Often the two surnames don't sit that well together.

Under this scenario, within a couple of generations children would have eight-barrelled surnames and their offspring 16 names to remember.

Perhaps we ought to question the core assumption that it is right and desirable to want to pass surnames down a family. It is surely an outdated notion driven by some primitive instinct to stake a claim on another person.

It is the human equivalent of an animal marking its territory.

Making up a fresh surname for a child - a name that is perhaps a combination of the two parents' surnames - may be an equitable and positive option. But such is our addiction to preserving these handles intact, it is unlikely to catch on widely.

Given that, another fair option is to give one child one surname and the second child the other surname. This is a promising and practical solution since most families do have at least two children in them.

Those from the old school claim that siblings will fail to bond with the family if they have different surnames. This is a spurious argument.

In fact, the idea that an issue such as the choice of a name could destabilise a loving family is simply absurd.

Of course, the ultimate solution would be to redress the imbalance that has existed for so long.

It is time that women stopped being trampled on by the ones who supposedly love them and seized the opportunity to reverse the trend.

Children should be given the mother's surname. Women gestate the child, give birth to it and breast-feed it. Women are typically the main caregiver of the child, even if the father happens to be present.

And women are almost invariably left with responsibility for the offspring when the relationship fails.

To give a child the father's surname defies logic - which just goes to prove how programmed we have been by tradition and convention.

* Shelley Bridgeman is an Auckland writer.

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