‘My girlfriend and I want a baby but we can’t decide what to do about surnames’ – Millennial Agony Aunt 37

My girlfriend and I want a baby, but can’t decide about a surname. I think we should use both, she thinks we use mine. How do we settle this?

baby surname

Emily Watkins is a professional Millennial (read: precariously employed twenty-something). Each week, she will answer a generation-specific query from the depths of her on-brand existential crisis. This week, our Aunt-in-Residence breaks down one of the festering progressive debates of our time.

Please send any quandaries, issues, troubles or thoughts to aunt@whynow.co.uk for a good dose of aunt-ing.

My girlfriend and I want a baby but we can’t decide what to do about surnames. I think we should use both, she thinks double-barrelled names are pretentious and wants to give our baby my name which makes me feel like an evil patriarch. How do we settle this?

Truly, a conundrum for our age. Ever since we let women start doing things, the tradition of a wife and children taking her husband’s name after marriage has seemed increasingly archaic – like labelling a PE kit, but with humans. Keeping her original surname, of course, isn’t much better – more often than not, that comes down the paternal line anyway, stretching back to time immemorial and Eve being made out of Adam’s rib: Eve McRib, blessed be. 

Do I want to be named for the man who raised me, or the one I live with now? Decisions, decisions! For heterosexual women, the phrase ‘rock and a hard place’ comes to mind: once you start looking, men (at least, their names) are everywhere — so what’s a girl to do? I have no good answer for you. Making up a name is one option, and I can imagine it feeling liberating – on the other hand, family gatherings might get awkward. More to the point, where would you start – making noises and seeing what sticks? Flicking through the phone book? 

adam n eve baby surname

Adam & Eve, Edvard Munch, 1918

As long as we agree that people ought to have names at all, we’ve got to come up with some kind of consensus about where they come from and what they mean. And as long as people keeping smashing their genetic material together to make yet more people, they’ll feel entitled to telegraph that connection by imposing their names on the tiny versions of themselves. So we’ve got to call your imaginary baby something, but beware: old habits die hard. 

Even in 2022, most families stick with the father’s name even if they don’t like to think too hard about why. A subgenre of couples who’ve done just that – “welcome to the world, Baby Dad!” – try to have their cake (convenience) and eat it (progressiveness) too, protesting that they considered both surnames before choosing the ‘best’. Funny how the man in those pairings always has the ‘best’ name, isn’t it? 

Have you asked your girlfriend why she’d prefer her baby to have your name, rather than hers? Although I share her concerns about the double-barrel approach – after all, it has normally been reserved for children of not one but two sizable dynasties – it is gaining currency as the most equitable solution to the surname conundrum you’ve found yourself mired in; half the baby each, straight down the middle, can’t say fairer than that. Sounding posh is awful, sure, but at least you’ll feel right-on.

One other option remains, and I’d be doing my foremothers no favours if I neglected to mention it – after 10,000 years of patrilineal naming, couldn’t we start defaulting the other way? Sure, the first generation of matrilineal babies would be getting their grandfathers’ names – but eventually, those old patriarchs would fade from view just like our mothers and their mothers and their mothers and theirs have always done. And if you’re really stuck, you can reach all the way back through time to the first woman of all – welcome to the world, little Baby McRib.

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