Going Matrilineal

I just read an article in The Atlantic about how 96 percent of U.S. heterosexual couples, even when both partners have their own separate surnames, give their children the husband’s last name and not the wife’s.

Even the suggestion that there might be another way sends so many people, especially men, into a tizzy. Some of their reasons are mind-blowing. One of the men who responded said that if the children don’t share their father’s name, the father will feel no responsibility for them and will abandon them and his wife, who will then sleep with other men and have children by all of them.

Huh? He had no evidence for this outcome, and no explanation for why this has not happened family’s like mine — where our son has my last name, not my husband’s. And he had no explanation for why generations of American women whose kids had their father’s names rather than their own did not abandon their children. If it were true that a man will leave his family if his child does not share his name, then isn’t the problem with the man, not with the name?

Others said that giving a child the father’s name is somehow a necessary building block of society, and that changing it will cause civilization to collapse. They completely ignored the fact that many cultures throughout the world do not automatically give all children the father’s surname and only the father’s surname, and that those societies have not disintegrated into anarchy as a result.

Others just said this has never bothered people before, so our idiotic newly “woke” culture should just leave it alone. News flash: It has bothered many, many people before, most of them women. Many of them just didn’t feel they could do anything about it. And until relatively recently, the law in many U.S. states defaulted to children having their father’s name, so they really couldn’t do anything about it. The law does not say that anymore. It is legal in all fifty U.S. states to give your child the mother’s name, the father’s name, or some other name entirely.

The decision, of course, may depend first on whether the parents share the same name. When I got married, way back in 1990, I never considered changing my name. And it never occurred to my husband that I would. Keeping my own name was completely legal and required no paperwork on my part (as changing my name would have). And, by the way, I do not call it my “maiden name.” It is not my maiden name; it is just my name — past, present, and future.

Despite the fact that my choice was legal, it was actually difficult at first to have it accepted. It began on our wedding day, when the restaurant owner where we held our reception, despite having been told I was keeping my own name, publicly introduced us as, “Mr. Robert Morgan and Catherine Morgan.” My wonderful wedding guests yelled out, “Catherine Petrini!”

Soon afterward, various organizations took it upon themselves to change my name for me (though not legally). The company that managed our apartment building sent the next rent statement to “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Morgan.” I ran down to the rental office, pissed off, and told the staff that my legal name was the same as it ever was — and the same as it was on the lease — and ordered them to change it back immediately.

That kind of thing happened a lot for the first few years. When we bought our house, the mortgage broker claimed it was illegal to list my name first, and to use my own legal name, instead of giving me my husband’s name. I knew it was perfectly legal, and told him to look it up, making it clear that it was a deal breaker for me. He looked it up, saw that I was right, and did as he was told. A couple years later, we refinanced the mortgage, and though both our legal names were on the original mortgage and on every document we had signed, the new mortgage company took the liberty of changing mine to Catherine Morgan on the new mortgage. I called the company, explained what had happened, and instructed the customer service guy to change it back. He said I’d have to pay a fee to change a name on the mortgage! What gall. I spoke with the manager and pointed out that I hadn’t made the change; his staff had. And that I could not legally sign as Catherine Morgan, because it was not my legal name. Eventually, he agreed to change it back, without charging me.

After the first few years, keeping my name from being changed by sexist company policies stopped being a problem. I guess it had become common enough so that most people just learned to deal with it.

Then we had a baby and freaked certain people out all over again by deciding to give him my last name instead of Bob’s. We used Bob’s surname as his middle name. To us, this was the most logical decision. Some people, mostly older men, disagreed. I didn’t let their sexist opinions bother me. My conservative father, on the other hand, ended up being surprised but pleased. All three of my sisters had changed their names when they got married; now, he would have a grandson with his own last name.

And really, it’s been fine. Occasionally, Bob has been addressed as Mr. Petrini by someone who knows us through our son. But that has probably happened a lot less often than I would have been called Mrs. Morgan, had we given our son his name instead of mine.

Every now and then, some man realizes our son doesn’t have his father’s last name and rants at me about it. They certainly don’t like feeling that their comfortable, sexist traditions are being threatened, do they?

One indisputable reason why matrilineal naming traditions actually make more sense: When a woman has a baby, everyone knows without a doubt that she’s the mother. That’s not the case with the father. Until very recently, there was no way to prove paternity. Given that inherent uncertainty, it seems odd that on a societal level, the father’s name has been the default in so many cultures.

Several of the respondents to the Atlantic article claim that the fact that it was the norm in this country in the past means there must be good reasons for that. Huh? Slavery was the norm in the past. Women being prohibited from owning property was the norm in the past. Child labor was too. Yes, there are reasons for something being traditional. But not all of those reasons are good ones.

I’m not saying every couple should give their children the mother’s name rather than the father’s. I’m saying that every couple should think carefully about the decision; weigh the options objectively, without sexist assumptions; and choose what works for their family — not blindly accept patriarchal tradition simply because it’s tradition.

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