Choosing Your Kid’s Surname Is Easier – & Harder – Than Ever

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
On Monday this week, Formula One racer Lewis Hamilton announced that he was in the process of changing his name. Specifically, that he was adding his mother’s maiden name, Larbalestier, into his name. As he put it in a statement: "I don’t really fully understand the whole idea that when people get married the woman loses her name and I really want my mum’s name to continue on with the Hamilton name."
Traditions around naming are very embedded in many Western cultures. The question of who, if anyone, takes another’s name has been complicated in recent years by changing norms around relationships, gender and sexuality, all of which challenge the idea that a woman in a straight relationship should take the man’s name. The legacy of that naming convention persists. In 2016 YouGov research found that 90% of British women married to men take the man’s surname, while a recent study by Opinium stated that 11% of UK citizens between the ages of 18 and 34 created a double-barrelled surname upon getting married.
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Things get even more complicated when it comes to children. You can put off questions about your name if you get married but with a child you are forced to make a decision: what is the name that will become your new family anchor?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. As someone in a same-sex relationship where we each have a long surname linked to our heritage, choosing to keep our respective names in marriage was easy. The question of what to do when we hopefully have children is another matter altogether.
There are options available to us in the UK. Here, a child may take the surname of one or both of their parents; they may even have a different surname altogether. In exceptional cases, officials can refuse to register a name which is deemed vulgar or offensive, and there is a lot of paperwork involved, but it’s not illegal.
For me and my wife, however, creating a double-barrelled name that is 18 characters and six syllables long feels cumbersome. Neither one of us wants to choose one of our names as a primary surname (though there is wiggle room with potentially having one as a middle name). And my foray into the world of generating a ‘new name’ by combining our surnames through anagrams threw up a range of great choices like 'laboursaving', 'abrasive', the charming 'lamebrains' and – my favourite – 'subvagina'.
Great!
Surnames are where heritage and tradition collide with norms and we’re forced to reckon with how we understand ourselves and our families. To get a picture of how people are negotiating this now I spoke to women in our Money Diaries Facebook group.
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For some, it was simply a matter of following tradition for the sake of ease. Jess, 36, kept her own surname at marriage but went with the husband’s for their 2-year-old. "We both wanted to give our daughter our own surname. In the end I relented and let her have my husband’s surname because I couldn’t be bothered to argue anymore."
Rhi, 33, in Northamptonshire, was a single parent to her 12-year-old but later married. Because of this, her eldest has her maiden name. "When I married eight years later my son didn’t want to change his name (my dad passed before he was born and he likes having that connection to his grandpa) so I double-barrelled. My youngest is also double-barrelled for that reason." Rhi’s husband was resistant as he didn’t want to upset his very traditional family but she stuck to her guns.
There are those who want to go against tradition as a stance, such as Louise in West Yorkshire’s husband, who "always wanted to be the guy who took the female's name in marriage". However his name won out in the end as it was the favourite for both of them. Others, like Jazmin in Manchester, want to forge a relationship between tradition and heritage. "I grew up with a Hispanic double-barrelled surname and didn’t want to lose my whole heritage, so I dropped one surname (my mum’s, which I was less commonly known by) and double-barrelled with my husband’s. He just kept his rather than double-barrelling. It was important to me that any future children would have my (new) surname in order to have a link with their heritage and my husband was happy for that to happen."
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For others, their family set-up puts them already outside of tradition, making them more innovative. Rebecca in the East Midlands has a blended family of children and stepchildren, meaning they already had three different surnames in the family. "Naming as a sibling group. I specifically wanted to make sure my stepdaughters felt connected to the new children and had a name linked with them. I also didn't want anything too long for when they were learning to write their names or for sewing on name tapes!"
Amanda in Dundee is a queer woman who has a child with her trans male partner. For their child they double-barrelled. She says: "Due to our appearance we are often assumed to be a cis straight couple. This is one of the reasons why we have never married. We have no particular desire to fit in with cis het norms so I'd say there was zero chance that we would follow tradition and pass on the father's name only."
Additionally, she says: "Our child is mixed race and his name also reflects his dual ethnic background."
Despite this, tradition still dominates, both statistically and in the answers from members of the Facebook group. The reasons for this may be bureaucratic – like travel or paperwork – or they may be more sinister. F in Hampshire is a bi woman who was in a coercive controlling relationship with her ex-husband. "There was no choice," says F, "we had to use his [name]."
Patrilineal names feel like an inescapable tradition in many ways but they are not universal. In Spanish-speaking countries, for example, children traditionally receive the last name of both parents, creating a double-barrelled surname. When two people with double-barrelled last names have children, they each pass down the first of their two last names. Even in the UK, the format is relatively new: according to a 2018 paper by Deborah Anthony, a professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, surnames in England prior to the 17th century weren’t standardised. They followed places of residence or profession and were prone to changing over time. It was only when it came to matters of inheritance that a name as 'legacy' became a prominent idea.
The solution now is not one size fits all. That is how we ended up with the patriarchal structure in the first place. The answer you come to will be a solution that combines the practical, the way it sounds, and the personal. Hopefully as more people push into new ways that match heritage with their family formation it will become easier for women who want to double-barrel or be the sole name to get their way. And maybe we’ll get to a stage where the anagram name generator doesn’t suggest I call myself Sadhbh Subvagina.

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