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Whose Name Should You Give Your Children – Father’s or Mother’s?

What surname you give to your child is your choice. Today, even though Australia lags behind in the gender equality stakes, some couples are reconsidering old traditions.

Becoming a parent is fraught with decisions as well as excitement.  

One that can provoke some spirited debate is what surname your child is going to carry through life.

Look back in time and you will see that what names we choose has differed from country to country and century to century around the world.

Many cultures once used terms that indicated personal attributes, location of origin, occupation, parentage, patronage, adoption, or clan affiliation to choose surnames.

In Ancient Greece, for example, formal identification commonly included the place of origin.

In England surnames, that were first adopted among the feudal nobility and gentry and slowly spread to other parts of society, started to be widely used by 1400.

By the 15th century, King Henry VIII considered it time to get on board with this whole surname trend and order that marital births be recorded under the father’s surname.

Much of European culture surrounding children’s names subsequently derived from there.

Notably, in ancient China, surnames had originally been derived not from the father, but the mother.

But, by the time of the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 BCE), this all changed and they had become patrilineal.

Around the world, it would be fair to say that the situation is definitely fluid, as more couples consider what surname, or combination of both, would be appropriate.

What the name game looks like now

Every country is different in its laws and traditions but, in general, it has been the custom or law for a woman to use her husband’s surname for any children born to a couple.

Certainly many Australasian and European countries still err in favour of the father’s surname for offspring.

An Australian study found that 90 per cent of children have their father’s last name and, of children born to unmarried parents, 75 per cent had a patrilineal surname.

While this figure is estimated to have improved slightly in women’s favour since the study was conducted, disagreement over what surname to give a child is becoming a common issue and likely to heat up,according to Fiona Reid, founder of Reid Family Lawyers, one of Australia’s leading experts on family law issues.

In China, the share of women who pass down their family name is increasing – 8.8% of babies born in Shanghai in 2018 were named after the mother – but is still in the minority.

In the United States, researchers found that heterosexual married couples give the baby the father’s name more than 95% of the time.

The situation in the United Kingdom is similar – a recent study found that only 4% of families give children the mother’s last name.

Even in Norway, one of the most gender equal places on the planet, the majority of parents still give their children the father's surname.

A study by Statistics Norway in 2003 found more than 70% of people think it is still better for children to take the father's last name, either alone or with the mother's last name as a middle name.

In fact, only one in 100 thought that the child should take just the mother's name.

Researcher Line Førre Grønstad says Norwegian women are also much more likely to take their partner’s surname when they marry.

“Gender researchers and social scientists point to several reasons for this,” says Grønstad.

“For example, women consider it more important for all members of the family to have the same name, and so they change their name as a romantic gesture of commitment to the man.”

By radical contrast, children in Spanish-speaking countries, including Spain, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, traditionally receive the last names of both parents.

Even when people have really long names, they don’t remove the mother’s name, they just keep adding.

And, in the Philippines, it is the same. 

Your choices

A blended surname made combining your surname with your partner’s is one of six options Lorelei Vashti suggests in How to Choose Your Baby's Last Name: A Handbook for New Parents.

She believes: “There’s more mainstream willingness to dismantle power structures, such as the patriarchy.”

The other choices include:

  • - the father’s last name

  • - the mother’s last name

  • - a double-barrelled last name

  • - alternating last names for siblings

  • - a new last name.

The truth is, It’s up to you to think about the best surname for your children and not necessarily follow outdated traditions.

Make your own traditions and your own rules and pave the way forward for children to have a sense of pride in their maternal and paternal lineage.

Surprise fact: Did you know that there is actually a naming law in many countries to prevent children being given an offensive or embarrassing name?

Lauren Bacall, Norah Jones and Eric Clapton are among the well-known people who have taken their mother’s surname. 

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