what’s in a name?

Last month we had a lively discussion about twenty-first-century family names over at my other blog, Daddy Dialectic. A number of writers and researchers have found many non-traditional families adopting some quasi-traditional naming practices–primarily, the wife taking her husband’s name and/or children receiving their father’s last name.

I’d say about half the reverse-traditional families I interviewed for my book adopted the father’s name, with the rest either hyphenating or just keeping separate names, but still naming children after the father.

And in my daily life as a resident of the neighborhood that has the highest concentration of gay and lesbian families in the world (The Castro/Noe Valley in San Francisco), I have noted that lesbian couples will often assign the non-biological mother’s last name to children, as a way of reinforcing the parental relationship, though the biological mother never seems to take her female partner’s name. Gay men (who adopt, obviously) seem to usually hyphenate the child’s last name.

Thus to the traditional and non-traditional combine in curious ways.

In the Daddy Dialectic discussion, commentators described a dizzying array of naming practices, often driven by simple aesthetic concerns: for example, what combination of last names sounds nicest? Some couples, gay and straight, will even come up with a third last name or combine their two names into one new name made up of sounds from both.

There are two things I find interesting about all this.

First, the diversity of naming practices reflects, more or less perfectly, the growing diversity of today’s families. It wasn’t very long ago that all wives simply took their husbands’ names and all children received their fathers’ names. At the same time, the heterosexual, monoracial, male-breadwinner, female-homemaker family was considered the norm against which all families were measured; families that didn’t fit that norm were judged as substandard. Naming was just one mechanism for reinforcing those fundamentally hierarchal relationships.

This suggests that that the practice of naming children after their father is just one more manifestation of a patriarchal social order that deserves to be swept into the dustbin of history.

But consider the emerging practices of lesbian couples, where last names are used to reinforce to the world and in the minds of both non-biological mother and child that there is a parental link between them. One Daddy Dialectic commentator, Jessica, gets to that nicely when she writes, “we chose to give [their son] my last name because he got everything else from [her partner] Jackie.”

This is interesting, because it suggests that last-name traditions with regard to fathers and children could survive the death of patriarchy, should that ever come to pass. This explains why reverse-traditional families, in which the wife has most of the economic power, will still name kids after their father. I can easily imagine an egalitarian future where the norm is for family names to be improvised based on a number of criteria, with children being commonly named after the parent to whom they have the weakest biological link.