How to Choose Your Baby’s Last Name
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.
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on November 21st, 2016 at 5:31 pm
This is great! My husband and I are embroiled in this right now. We’ve decided that we are going to combine our names (a la Waitsman) but we are still deciding whether we should change our last names too. Lots of people have warned us about the pitfalls of having a different last name from our (eventual) child. I’m curious as to whether that argument holds water (IS it more difficult to travel internationally with a baby who doesn’t share you last name?), or if those concerns are over-inflated.
on November 21st, 2016 at 8:45 pm
We’re giving our kids 4 names each; First, Middle, Last Name A, Last Name B (no hyphen). This feels right for us, since we kept our own last names and don’t hyphenate ourselves. When our kids grow up, they can choose which or how many names to use in various situations. Maybe we’ll alternate whose last name goes last for different kids! Just to alarm the family even more.
on November 21st, 2016 at 10:03 pm
First world problems much?
on November 22nd, 2016 at 11:35 am
My mother kept her last name when she got married (assume it’s Jones, it’s not). So my parents are Loretta Jones and Robert Smith (his name isn’t really Smith either). My name is Rachel Holly Jones Smith, where Jones is a second middle name. I have been Rachel Smith all my life, but now as an adult, I am strongly considering hyphenating my name to Rachel Jones-Smith. I am much more attached to the name Jones than I am to Smith, but I know it would hurt my dad if I just became Rachel Jones. I’m still a few years away from marriage, but I’m already starting to think what I will do with my name then or what my children would have for last names. I have ALWAYS hated not having the same last name as my mom, even though her name was in the middle of my name and so I always assumed I would take my husband’s name and give that to our children too, just because it’s easiest. It’s interesting to think of other options like combining names (a la Waitsman) though.
on November 22nd, 2016 at 3:15 pm
I think the blended name Waitsman sounds great. I do think that this option doesn’t work for all names, or it can sound forced and made-up. I think it makes more sense when the parents change their name to the blended name as well, as a unifying “we are one family” statement.
I’m a fan of daughters taking the mother’s name and sons taking the father’s. I believe this is essentially what’s done in Iceland and I think it’s an egalitarian way to go.
Choosing a last name is simpler here in Germany because there are currently only two options: the kid gets either the mother’s or the father’s last name. And once that name has been chosen, all subsequent children must bear that name as well. I kept my maiden name when I got married, and it is a very common Asian name that has been passed down to all of my cousins’ children. So although traditional, we had no problem choosing my husband’s last name for our son. He has a very unusual German surname and our child was the first and probably only chance to pass that name down.
on November 22nd, 2016 at 6:45 pm
I doubt I’ll be getting married/having a child anytime soon,but I think about this a lot. I debate between doing both last names or including my last name as my children’s 2nd middle name. I think it will depend on the father’s last name (if I like it or not). But I do think it’s very cool that a combo of both last name’s fit naturally together. I don’t think my last name would would mix well with most. Cool story!
on November 30th, 2016 at 7:39 am
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on December 1st, 2016 at 3:59 pm
My parents names are both odd sounding word names, and would sound even stranger hyphenated, but as my mum has kept her name, I’ve often thought about surnames, and how they could have done it differently. I love the idea of smooshing, and only using part of each. With names that are going to get teasing built in, I think it is often a good idea to seriously think about, though I haven’t actually met anyone who has done this (I’m in the UK)
on December 13th, 2016 at 4:06 am
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