Choosing your baby’s last name: From hyphenated names to maiden middle names

A version of this story originally appeared on Ask Zeta. 

While parenting involves so many firsts, one of your very first big decisions as parents-to-be is what to name your baby. While there have been many (many!) articles written about your baby’s first name, few have really tackled how couples decide on their child’s last name. And today, as more women keep their maiden names post-marriage or give birth without being married to the birth father, the question of your baby’s last name has become a key question for our generation.

So how do parents-to-be tackle this question? Zeta, a financial institution focused on families, spoke with several couples to understand the various approaches people can take when trying to name their child. Their interviewees offered incredibly helpful and heartfelt perspectives and advice on how best to navigate each option.

Let’s dive into four different approaches you can take.

Go with just one of your last names

Several couples said it was infinitely easier to just pick one of their last names and go with that as the family name. That said, they admitted that it’s typically the dad’s last name that gets picked while the mom is the odd-one out.

Kevin, a lawyer from Bethesda, Maryland, told us that this conversation was a lot more complicated than just choosing a name.

“We debated which of our names would go at the end and even invoked our extended family’s death wishes to make our cases.”

Kevin was hesitant to use only his wife’s last name out of fear he may be seen as a step-parent or not a part of the family. His partner Sarah was hesitant to give up her last name because it was her family’s last opportunity to pass on their Jewish heritage to our child.

“In the end, we chose to split the baby (pun intended) and went with my last name and her pick of first and middle names,” he said. “I think she’s at peace with how it all turned out and being very collaborative about the baby’s other names. We’re finding other ways to integrate my wife’s cultural identity into our family’s.”

Go with a hyphenated last name

When contending with two last names, couples sometimes choose to hyphenate their child’s name (e.g. Smith-Hawkins). Jessica, a tech worker from San Francisco whose parents weren’t married when she was born, has lived with a hyphenated last name. When she was growing up in Canada, she was often asked about why she had two last names.

“I traveled internationally with each of them independently,” she said, “My parents were worried that not having matching last names would raise questions when crossing borders.”

And while lately she’s been seeing a lot more dual names are much more common amongst her peers, in recent years, she’s found herself often dropping one of her own last names just to make it faster to fill out forms or introduce herself to others.

There are other frustrations that come with a hyphenated last name.

“When they run my name in any government database, they often have trouble finding me. It’s usually a human error in how my last name is actually spelled versus what the person inputted into the system,” she said. “I typically have to answer a barrage of additional questions to get to the right name in the end. Once I even had to prove I was the right Jessica with two forms of ID at the airport and the gate agent was not happy with me.”

When asked how’d she’d navigate the situation when it came time to name her own children, she said that she’d rather not give them a hyphenated name.

“I’d give them one name and probably use my partner’s last name. I don’t want to choose between my two names because it would feel like choosing between my parents!” she said. “And that’s a battle I’d rather not get into.”

Use one of your last names for a middle name

Maggie, a marketer from Minnesota, shares her dad’s last name and her mom’s maiden name as her middle name—and she couldn’t be happier.

“This setup worked great for us,” she said. “Plus my mom’s last name is French and very unique, so my middle name is cool as hell.”

But she also admits that her mom did catch flack from others for pasong on her decidedly unusual name to her daughter.

“People will find out that it’s her maiden name and say things like, “Why didn’t you get rid of that when you had the chance?,” said Maggie. “Like at the doctor’s office, she always has a hard time because it’s inconvenient for them to have to log a different name for her in databases and records.”

Even though she loves having her mom’s wonderfully complicated maiden name as part of her own, when it comes to if she’d do the same for her child with her own maiden name, she’s undecided.

“Honestly, I think it will come down to whether or not I like/want my husband’s last name and whether or not it’s important to him,” she said. “I’m not super attached to my name so I could go either way.”

Lindsey, a journalist from New York City chose to honor her own family by giving her son the same first name as her dad.

She told us that she’s loving all the creative routes that couples are taking to make sure that their names and legacies are represented in their kids.

“I know a few people who gave their child the mother’s last name as a first name and I really love that trend,” she said.

Trade off last names

While certainly not the most popular approach, one last option is to trade off your two last names assuming you have multiple kids with whom you can do this with.

Thierry, another friend of mine, told me that this egalitarian approach has worked well for his family. He adds that the pass-down from your kids to their kids also gets easier “typically when those kids have kids of their own, they’ll drop the second last name for theirs. By reversing the order, both of the names get passed down through generations.”

Combine our names into a new name.

Blending the names feels like another very equitable way to approach the last name because it solves for the issue of mismatched last names.

“We even looked at other last names in our family tree that we could co-opt for a merged new name,” said Kevin. “My mom couldn’t help but throw in her maiden name for consideration. In the end, we decided not to go that route because my partner didn’t feel like it solved for our concerns.”

In our interviews, couples were also candid about other factors that might impact this decision, such as any pressure (perceived or real) from your parents or extended family.

In the end, I think Maggie stated it best when she said that the only two people whose opinions matter are the two people getting married.

“There are a hundred different ways to approach last names in a marriage, and the couple gets to choose what’s right for them as a pair and as individuals. If you don’t like how another couple handles their married names, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not about you.”

Well said, Maggie, well said.

A version of this story originally appeared on Ask Zeta. 

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