Why you should care
Because the patriarchy is real and you’re only making it worse.
Being the partner of a queen can be challenging, even emasculating at times. One of the biggest indignities suffered by Britain’s Prince Philip, the 95-year-old husband/consort of Queen Elizabeth II who will retire from public life later this year, was reportedly when the queen, early in their marriage, decided their royal offspring should bear her surname (Windsor) and not his (Mountbatten). “I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children,” Philip complained, according to a biography of the queen by Sally Bedell Smith. “I’m nothing but a bloody amoeba.”
Even putting aside the fact that Philip did not himself adopt the Mountbatten name until he was 21, such a grievance might sound a tad old-fashioned. Alas, it’s not. In 2017, the queen’s decision remains unusual: In only 4 percent of families, according to a survey by BabyCenter.com, do the children carry their mother’s last name.
We may be celebrating fathers and fatherhood this Father’s Day, but we don’t need to celebrate a still-pervasive patriarchal culture in which children are almost invariably given their father’s surname. Truly enlightened, modern-day fathers should consider bucking convention by giving all mothers the queen’s prerogative. A woman shouldn’t have to sit on a fucking throne for her children to bear her name.
Names do matter.
When I agreed to my wife’s request that our children have her last name, it was not because I wanted to make a feminist statement, or that I didn’t like my own name. Rather, it seemed the least I could do given the disproportionate effort she would be putting into having them. At the time, I had no idea what an embarrassingly small club I was entering. Roughly 20 percent of women, according to a Google consumer survey, now keep their own names when they marry, and yet when a child enters the picture, the baby is almost automatically given the father’s name. Why?
You hear several innocent explanations proffered, among them that the man’s name compensates for his inability to give birth or any uncertainty over the offspring’s paternity. Others argue it’s simpler for everyone to have the same last name. Why complicate the family tree?
The reality, however, is that paternal-based naming does not exist in a vacuum; it is part and parcel of a larger and long-running social structure in which women were — and still are — expected to subjugate their identities in favor of joining their husband’s family. “We have a long history of names representing ownership,” says Kasey Edwards, best-selling author of Guilt Trip, and it’s a property-based convention we default to, often without thinking about it. Edwards now regrets giving her daughters her husband’s name, a “blind spot,” she says, that “shows just how deeply the idea of male ownership of women is entrenched in our culture.”
And names do matter. Names color the world we see and they can confer value. What does it say about how much we value women that we allow their names to be systematically erased from our family histories? And while other naming solutions, like hyphenated last names, can serve as a handy compromise, they can also be a double-barreled disaster: They’re long and clumsy, they lead to administrative headaches, and when two people with such names have children, the result is more of a word salad than a family.
Finally, let’s face it, mothers do most of the heavy parental lifting, both during pregnancy and after. Statistically speaking, mothers are more likely to do the majority of the parenting, and children tend to have a longer, more enduring relationship with their mothers than their fathers, and to live with the mother should their parents split up.
To be sure, giving children their mother’s name is not without its hassles: I have to carry birth certificates to prove I’m not a child abductor when I travel alone with my daughters. But it’s a minor inconvenience on a road to a more inclusive society and family tree. Fathers, if you want to model a less patriarchal world for your children, it starts at home, beginning with the birth certificate. Embrace it. Don’t be a bloody Prince Philip.