Becoming a first-time parent is fraught with decisions, even before the baby arrives: Will we deliver at a hospital or birthing center? Will we choose to circumcise if we have a boy? Should we stay in our one-bedroom apartment or move to a bigger space?
But there’s one decision that’s taken center-stage for us in a way it doesn’t for many parents-to-be:
To us, it was a question that warranted discussion and careful consideration, being far more crucial and long-term than what outfit our baby wore home or what kind of stroller to buy. My wife and I tend to think similarly about decisions: We analyze every possible scenario and list the pros and cons. We did the same with this choice, stripping away external factors — what we’re “supposed to do” — and trying to figure out what was actually best for us.
When we did that, we reached our decision quite quickly: The baby would receive my wife’s last name for reasons we both felt confident about. For starters, hers is more unusual. Mine (Stewart) is the 54th most popular surname in America; hers (Hogan) is closer to 500th. Hogan also holds a lot of family meaning: She was named after her great-grandmother on the Hogan side and grew up learning stories about her ancestors coming over from Ireland. There is also a good chance Hogan would not be passed on to the next generation if we weren’t the ones to do it. Plus, we both simply liked it better.
Even though we knew it was the right choice for us, we also couldn’t fend off the worries about what some (namely, my side of the family) might think. After all, the decision is a rare one. Even when women who choose an unconventional last name for themselves (such as keeping their surname or hyphenating), they usually give their children their father’s last name. Luckily, my immediate family has been supportive or agnostic; if anyone’s feelings have been hurt or they don’t agree with our choice, they haven’t made that known to us. And although we’re prepared for potential hostility from extended family later on, we’re hopeful that people will simply get over it in time.
The internal debates we’ve had in recent months have left me realizing just how ingrained our country’s patriarchal naming conventions remain. Why, in 2019, aren’t more fathers willing to have this conversation? Or better yet, start it?
When my wife was four months pregnant, the conversation reemerged as we drove from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon for a short vacation. The car trip was the perfect time to think about baby names, first and last.
“What if,” I asked my wife, “we gave the baby your last name?” I had long considered the idea, knowing that her last name was important to her (and mine, less so).
The question lingered for a minute. Despite being excited about the idea, she remained concerned and unsure whether my offer was real. Would I be okay having a different name than my child? How would my family feel? How would we explain it to schools, or airlines, or doctors? How would we explain the decision to our kids?
As it became more clear I was seriously considering it, I heard the cautious optimism in her voice and wanted to reassure her: I would be happy to explain to our kids why they received their mom’s last name, one that’s very important to her and now to me, too. (After our child-naming decision, I decided to add my wife’s last name before mine — both to share a name legally with my children and because it makes my name more special.)
And as I heard her questions, I realized how ridiculous it all sounded. We would never be asking such questions — at least to the same extent — if the roles were switched. When we got to it, there was only one compelling negative for passing on my wife’s last name: We’d have to explain the decision to friends, family and strangers — and they might not like it or understand it.
I’ve realized that decisions like this one embody exactly the kind of parent I hope to be: one who shows his children how to make tough choices that might not be popular, or celebrated, or even understood. One who trusts his gut. I hope my children will see me unafraid to explain our family’s naming decision — and know that I’ll love my wife and kids no matter what name they carry.
We are living in a time when men publicly assert their feminism and march for women’s rights, when families take many beautiful forms beyond the nuclear one. Yet certain societal norms are still responsible for wedding invitations addressed to Mr. and Mrs. John Smith (not to mention more pressing issues of equality, like the persistent wage gap).
Growing up, I assumed my children would have my last name. As I matured and fell in love with my wife, there was no question that she was just as entitled to bestowing her name as I was. And when we began the conversation, we tried our best to start from a blank slate, free of patriarchal constraints. (I still imagine a day when we can replace outdated and problematic gender-reveal parties with last-name-reveal parties — where the chances of which last name the kid will receive are 50/50.)
We’re long past the days when women and children would bear the man’s name because they were, quite literally, his property. It’s 2019, and there’s nothing more masculine than having tough conversations about how to break down tired societal constructs. Does that mean everyone will reach the same decision my wife and I did? No. It’s a deeply personal thing. But we must all be willing to have the talk.
Brian Hogan Stewart is a soon-to-be father in Berkeley, Calif.