It may have been the ‘norm’ for our mother’s to get married, take dad’s name, have four kids and live happily after with the same family surname, but things are different now.
De facto relationships have gained greater social acceptance and as a consequence, less Aussies are getting married. Some women who do marry choose to keep their maiden name. And certainly more of us are having babies out of wedlock.
So whose surname will you give your baby? More often than not, the child will automatically take the father’s surname. According to Associate Professor Yvonne Corcoran-Nantes, Head of Women’s Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, around 75 per cent of women still take their husband’s name after marriage, and 96 per cent of children are given their father’s name.
“In 1975 there were 7.5 marriages registered per 1,000 population in Australia. In 2015 there were 4.8 marriages per 1,000 population.”
It’s not something dad’s usually think twice about. In fact, 96% of Men’s Health readers would not change their surname to the woman’s even if she asked him to, according to a 2013 survey. And when it comes to baby’s surname, be ready for some tough negotiations…
It’s an issue that plays on many an unmarried mum-to-be’s mind. So what the options?
Well, there’s double-barrelled surnames. But since many of the first ‘Watson-Johnson kids’ have grown up and let the world know what a pain in the ass their namesake was, they’ve kind of lost their shine.
If you’ve snagged a guy waving the flag for equality, baby could take mum’s maiden name, but the reality is for many women starting ‘happily ever after family-dom’ with a traditionalist, the mere mention of ths option could cause relationship tension.
“In Australia, a child born to unmarried parents will be registered using the mother’s surname, unless both parents agree to use the father’s surname.”
Same-sex couples have reinvented the rules, with some creating a completely new family name which is usually a combination of both parent’s surnames. While other couples use the mother’s maiden name as baby’s middle name.
The options all sound good on paper, but it’s what happens after the birth certificate’s ink has dried that really matters!
Here, parents who’ve tried some of the common options explain the pros and cons of each …
“We had a non-hyphenated double surname.”
Anna’s double surnames caused issues for her children, so she changed the rules for baby number three.
“When Aisha was born, we decided her surname would be Martin Mitchell (my maiden name, and my partner’s surname) without hyphenating, so she could drop either name if it became too much. Two years later I had Ariel, and we did the same so the sisters were alike. However, I had already begun to regret it. There were several issues. It was a mouthful for the kids to say, it was difficult for them to write, and I’m aware that when they have children they won’t be able to do the same – or we’ll have generations of double- and quadruple-barrelled names.
It’s not sustainable, which defeats the purpose of a surname as a continuing source of family identity. I also didn’t like the sound of it aesthetically and felt embarrassed about it. In a totally irrational way, I started to see it as a badge that identified me as an unmarried mother with a fractured family, even though it was me who never wanted to get married.
“Both Aisha and Ariel used to struggle at school writing and saying their names. Even now, I’ve seen them lose the ‘Martin’ and just write their name using ‘Mitchell’. The teacher’s also do this, which I find a little presumptuous, but I understand both names is long and convoluted.
“My nephews have similar double-barrelled names and the same thing happens to them. People will write out certificates using just one surname rather than two or sign in sheets will have half the name listed to fit inside the column.
“So when I had my third child, Kai, now 2, I changed it slightly. Instead of having the two surnames, Kai’s middle name is Martin and his surname is Mitchell. I also thought that as the only son, Kai should carry his father’s surname. This surprised me as I hadn’t thought of myself as conventional. I think when I was pregnant I was being slightly narcissistic wanting my children to carry my name rather than focusing on the practicalities of the issue – and that isn’t a great reason to give them a double surname.” Anna, mum to Aisha, 8, Ariel, 6 and Kai, 2
“My children have different fathers and surnames – and I regret it.”
Melissa didn’t foresee a relationship breakdown – or realise the problems she’d face having a different surname to her daughter.
“My daughter, Sienna, has her father’s surname but, as we never married, I have my maiden name. Initially I was OK with this, because I just thought we’d be one happy family forever. But 12 months after Sienna was born, our relationship ended. Suddenly I had massive regrets abut Sienna having a different surname to me.
“When I enrolled her into childcare facilities I felt a pang of judgement every time I mentioned my surname, then Sienna’s different surname, and I had to explain that I was the mother. I’m not sure whether anyone actually did pass judgement on me or if it was my paranoia and transition going from ‘coupled up and secure’ to ‘single mum status’ that was to blame.
“I remember being pulled aside at Heathrow airport after a gruelling flight 14 hour with Sienna, who was only 18 months at the time, and being questioned by security about my relationship to her – basically having to prove I was the mum, which wasn’t easy with passports showing different surnames! I had to give them the names and addresses of the people we were staying with in London to verify my story. It was awful.
“Similar incidents happened at international hotels. In Dubai, where unmarried mum’s clearly don’t travel with children that often, staff actually changed my name on the booking from ‘Ms Morley’ to ‘Mr Morley’ and repeatedly called me ‘Mr Morley’ when addressing me!
“Ten years later I am more comfortable with it – partly because I care less what other people think and partly because I have seen other single mum’s go through the same scenarios and feel less alone. Not once has my daughter ever noticed or commented on the fact that she has a different surname!
“In fact, our family is now filled with different surnames. I have a new partner and stepson so there’s three surnames between us.” Melissa, mum to Sienna, 10 and stepmum to Aiden, 14
“I have a different surname to my daughter.”
Luciana was indifferent about surnames, but now understands their significance.
“My partner and I had always intended on getting married, but it just never happened! We’ve been together for 16 years and were engaged about five years into our relationship, but every time we’d set aside money for a wedding we’d end up using it on different things, like our house deposit, starting our family business or holidays. I guess we felt there were better things to spend our savings on than a wedding ceremony. And after a while, I felt too old to walk down an aisle in a wedding dress!
“When I had my daughter, Isla, eight years ago, I didn’t really give too much thought to the surname we’d give her – we just automatically gave Isla her father’s surname. I’m of Italian background, and its tradition for Italian women to keep their maiden name after marrying and for the children to take their father’s surname, although this tradition is starting to change now.
“Overall, Isla and I having different surnames has never really been a concern or an issue for us. Although I did feel judged when I enrolled her to do her Holy Communion and I had to fill out the paperwork – with my blazingly different surname!
“When younger women ask me what they should do when they have children, I always say it’s a very personal choice. For me, it was never really an issue I thought about but for other unmarried women, I can understand the judgement and potential issues they may face.” Luciana, mum to Isla, 8
“We created a new family name.”
Louise and her partner Amanda decided to create a new surname!
“Being big advocates for equality, my partner, Amanda and I, decided to create a new family name for our two children. We joined our two surnames – Mitchell and Crawford to create ‘Mitchford.’ We felt that a new surname for the kids was symbolic of our new family and new beginning. We consciously decided that the kids would not take just one of our surnames because we didn’t want people to assume that that person was the ‘biological mother’ – both of us are their mums and we are a family.
“However, Amanda and I have both kept our original maiden names. We had always intended on getting our surnames changed to Mitchford too, but it keeps ending up in the ‘too hard basket!’ We have 40 years of documents in our original names!
“We have never had any issues having different surnames to our kids, luckily! Although I think the fact that Amanda and I travel with the kids as a family – and their surnames are obviously a combination of ours – has alleviated any potential problems.” Louise, mum to George, 6, and Lucy, 4
Unmarried? Whose surname did you give to your baby? Share your story and tips for other parents in the ‘Leave a Reply’ box below …