This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.
In yesterday’s SMH Catherine Deveny asked
Why do (don’t go there) most children(don’t go there) still end up with (don’t go there, don’t go there, don’t go there!) their father’s surname?
She’s fairly clearly talking about a certain, already small and reportedly shrinking, milieu, that of heterosexual couples forming a nuclear family where the male and female partners have different surnames. She’s particularly talking about legally married couples, because in that case there is a socially visible ‘choice’ available to the female partner to use her birth surname or adopt her husband’s surname, or, I think even more rarely, some combination thereof. (Deveny has discussed women’s own decision here and it made it to Hoyden in 2007.)
Of course, we’re already in problematic territory here, in our last surname discussion WildlyParenthetical had a great comment in which she wrote:
[A structural analysis of surname choice as a feminist decision] assumes to know, in advance, the entire significance of a choice. In fact, it says that the entire (feminist) significance is given by its capitulation or resistance to a particular dimension of patriarchy…
… it can erase the heteronormativity of the issue to begin with… it can erase a colonialist, imperialist and racist history… it can erase the moments in which one has been disowned, or a survivor of violence, the moments where the very nuclear family structure enforced by surnames has been the cause of great damage…
Here I am under the microscope though. I had a son last month, my own first child and the first child of my long term heterosexual relationship. Moreover, his father and I are legally married. I’m white and of largely British Isles descent: this surname tradition is my cultural heritage. And I use my birth surname both socially and professionally, as does he: of course, my choice to do so is marked, and his isn’t.
My son? His surname is the same as mine, rather than his father’s.
While I was pregnant, we worked over this problem a lot, because I was very struck by the comment of zuzu’s that tigtog brought to our attention:
You may feel you have great reasons for choosing the option which just happens to be what the patriarchy has greased the rails for you to do rather than taking the harder path of going against tradition. But having good reasons doesn’t mean that you’re not adding your own grease to those rails… Deveny observes much the same, that there are many many many reasons, but very much one likely outcome.
I come with a great big helping of privilege, and I’ve greased plenty of rails already and figured that the punishment I’d take for thinking about adding a teeny smidge of friction here was small, but it still took a great deal of energy to reach this decision. It took a great deal more for me than for my husband of course. I considered a lot of options: the children using the surname of the same-sex parent, inventing a new family name entirely, and so on.
I’ve ended up liking using my surname because it’s a distorted mirror of the usual decision. There’s very few objections to it that don’t also apply to the most common decision. Input from others vastly tended to focus more on what he and his family would lose than what mine would gain. Neither of us has brothers: sisters are so unreliable when it comes transmitting surnames! Several people took it out to cousins: I have more male cousins with my surname than he has with his. Trouble he might have dealing with travel or school documentation were raised more often than trouble I might have.
I am not kidding myself that this was Big Activism for me, it was low risk to my safety, my relationships, my right to parent my son. And I’m much more pleased to share a surname with him than my husband is sorry not to. (Of course, if he becomes very sorry, he can always change his name…) In some ways though, that makes me extra glad with the decision to do the, or at least an, unusual thing.