Since medieval times, the majority of couples in the West—including the United States, United Kingdom and Australia—have passed on the father’s last name to the baby. While there have always been exceptions to this rule, it remains a dominant social convention.
But for the last few decades, last name choices have been changing because families are changing.
Many of us grew up with mothers who kept their last name after they married, or in blended families where family members had different last names. We may have changed our last name to a stepfather’s name, or gone back to a mother’s maiden name when we were teenagers. Whichever way you look at it, the idea of the traditional nuclear family is changing. Nevertheless, the practice of passing on the father’s last name has remained.
Many couples are happy to continue the tradition and pass on the father’s last name. But for others, that tradition has become increasingly jarring and uncomfortable. Over the past few decades, many families have been searching for—and finding—alternatives.
The six last name options
Although there are legal restrictions in some states, throughout most of the US you can choose one of these six last name options for your child:
*father’s last name
*mother’s last name
*hyphenated last names
*blended last names
*alternating surnames for siblings
*a completely new last name
My partner Jeremy and I started discussing our daughter’s last name during my first pregnancy.
His last name is Wortsman, mine is Waite (although I use my middle name, Vashti, as a pen name). We’re not married, and even if we were, we’d both have kept our own last names. We didn’t want to hyphenate our last names because we felt it would be too clunky, so we needed to choose one or the other: Waite or Wortsman. But neither felt entirely right to us; neither felt entirely fair.
During this time I reflected on how, for many people, last names aren’t really that significant; lots of my friends didn’t understand what the big fuss was about. Why agonize over something so trivial? Why not just go with the easiest solution—Jeremy’s last name—and forget about it? But for us, the decision wasn’t straightforward, because we felt the last name mattered as an expression of our daughter’s identity.
Jeremy and I tried to figure out what the best solution for us might look like. We sat up late in bed on our phones, googling, trying to find out how other families had solved this problem, but we couldn’t find much information to help us.
It wasn’t exactly an argument, because there didn’t seem to be any right or wrong, but still we jumped back and forth testing out all the sides. Who was the most attached to their last name? Which last name held the most meaning?
It reminded me of that river-crossing puzzle where the farmer has a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans, and he has to get them all to the other side of the river in a boat but can only take one thing at a time. If we gave her my last name, would Jeremy feel less of a connection to our daughter? If we gave her Jeremy’s last name, weren’t we just going along with an outdated tradition that didn’t reflect our values as a family? No matter how many different ways we tried to make it work, we could not get all our possessions safely to the other side.
Then, Jeremy brought up a last name option we had briefly joked about months earlier. We’d melded both our last names and started referring to our baby as Waitsman.
At first I thought this sounded ridiculous: a tabloid-ready blend, a bit like the fusing of celebrity couple names Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie into Brangelina (RIP). But as we flailed deeper and deeper in the mire of last name options, it started sounding less absurd.
When Jeremy told me he liked Waitsman, I felt a massive weight lifting off my shoulders. I actually had tears well up! This solution finally felt right. So we decided to give our daughter the last name Waitsman.
Why had it been so difficult to get to this point?
Why I wrote a book about how to choose your baby’s last name
We couldn’t find any resources on this topic when we were deliberating on our baby’s last name. Despite living in a very socially progressive city, most of the parents we knew had passed the father’s last name on to their children (even when the mother had a different last name). I wanted to reach out to those who had found alternative solutions, to talk to them and ask them about their decision-making process: how did they come to an agreement? What obstacles did they face? What advice did they have for others? And did they have any regrets?
I now understood that this was a very personal issue, with many contributing factors.
So I decided to write a book that clearly outlines all the options, so you can talk about them with your partner and search for the one that feels most right for your family.
While I believe every couple needs to make the decision for themselves, I hope to demonstrate that it’s currently more acceptable than it’s ever been to make a non-traditional last name choice—and every year it becomes more and more “normal”.
I still get a shiver, two years later, when mail with my daughter’s name on it arrives to the house. I love seeing her name. It makes me smile and it makes me happy; our solution feels right for us.
Whatever last name you choose for your child, I hope it gives you this same feeling of rightness!
Lorelei Vashti is a writer and mother of two whose previous book was Dress, Memory: A Memoir of My Twenties in Dresses. Her book How to Choose Your Baby’s Last Name is available now as an e-book on Amazon Kindle for $3.99.