Hi Captain Awkward,
I (she/her) am seriously dating wonderful man, and he has made it clear he will propose soon. I will keeping my maiden name, which my partner happily supports, and we are eager to have children. The issue that has come up for me is what last name these future children should have.
My partner could not be more different than the rest of family. His is thoughtful, warm and kind. Though not outright abusive, his family is selfish and cruel. My partner has only acknowledged the extent of this over the past few years; he is in therapy, and I am proud that we have worked together to create healthy boundaries with his family that work for us both. I am also happy that he has become close with my family, who love him dearly.
Given all this, though, it strikes me as icky that our future children should carry on the last name of my partner’s family. I am trying to separate this from the anger I feel towards partner’s family on his behalf. However much damage my partner’s family has done, he still loves them. That said, I wish for our children to have my last name, which much better reflects the family my partner and I want to build together.
Is this a fight worth fighting? If so, can you help me find a sensitive way to broach this issue? It’s not my amazing partner’s fault that his family is horrible, and I admire him all the more for becoming the man he is in spite of them.
– Matrilineal Dissent
Dear Matrilineal Dissent,
A+ handle. And of course it’s a fight worth having. It’s your name.
The older I get, the more strongly I feel that the best way to handle a question like yours, one that mixes reasonable preferences, strong feelings, and a morass of assumptions and inherited sexism and gender norms, involves less careful managing and more directness: Get clear about what you want, ask for that without assuming or conceding anything to assumptions, see what the other person actually says about what they want, and collaborate to design best case scenarios from there.
Running through your options, let’s look at which ones are possible and which ones you’d be happy with:
1 Woman changes her last name to man’s, any kids have that last name. Nope! That won’t work for you, so it’s a non-starter. 2 Woman keeps her name, man keeps his name, any kids take their dad’s last name. You would not prefer this. You suspect that this is what your partner and his family would accept. This is a common option that often frames the compromise as “letting” the woman keep her last name, and don’t think I haven’t clocked that about it.
If your husband cannot imagine having children who don’t share his name (relatable, yes?) and it really were a deal-breaker for him, is this a compromise you could live with? If the answer is “no,” that’s all right! Know that. Own that. When you discuss it, don’t pretend to negotiate about something you’ve already decided.
3 ****Woman keeps her name, man keeps his name, any kids take their mom’s last name.***** The preference in your question. Possibly best expressed by, “If we get married, I’m planning to keep my last name, and I’d prefer any kids we have to share my last name. What do you think about that?”
Whatever you’ve guessed or assumed about how he feels, you might be correct, but I suggest you ask the question without apology or qualifying it to see how he responds. If he tells you, out loud, “Oh, I always assumed you’d keep your name but kids would have mine,” that’s information that at least confirms what kind of discussion or argument you’re having next.
4 He takes your last name, which also becomes the family name for kids.
I suggest treating this possibility as absolutely identical to the notion that his last name would become the family name. In your heart of hearts do you wish he would take your name and settle the question that way? What happens if you invite him to do that? “If you want us and our kids to all have the same name, can we use mine instead?” You would never expect him to or try to force him, but would he consider changing his last name to yours? Perhaps not, but if that’s absurd and impossible, the opposite where you change your name to his is equally absurd and impossible. Why not find out?
5 Everybody hyphenates both last names together. “Hello, we’re the Matrilineal-Patrilineals.”
Since you like your last name/family and you don’t like his, this isn’t a neutral solution. It only works if you would actually be okay with it, and it’s okay to reject this as a fix if you know you won’t be.
Another version of this to consider: You and your partner each keep your name as-is, but you hyphenate the children to include both.
6 You both choose a new last name that becomes the family name. How do your middle names hang together, or how does his middle name or another family name from an ancestor he actually *likes* hang with your last name? I’ve seen several versions of this where a couple combined their mom’s maiden names to make a new last name, to preserve some family connection, and to explicitly make it a matrilineal one. If you go this route, I suggest testing out name combinations together to see how they sound in your mouths a little bit.
Again, this only works if you would truly be happy with it. Mr. Awkward floated this option at one point, and I thought about it, and realized that, nope, I was born a ______ and shall die a _______, and yes, I know it’s my dad’s name and am aware that my dad is a man, still not planning to make A Feminist Point by doing expensive paperwork to change something I don’t want to change. You get to just want what you want and use that as your starting point for negotiations.
I predict that this will bring up a lot of feelings for your partner about his family and his place in it, and that it won’t be settled in one go. Fortunately he’s got a therapist to take the raw and messy concerns to, and you’ve got plenty of time to think it over and make decisions together.
It will also bring a fair share of commentary from everyone else you know, so remember, opinions are like assholes (everybody’s got one) and some information is better delivered as “We have decided to _______” than as “I’m thinking of doing ________?” depending on how many of those opinions you want to entertain. People change their names all the time for all kinds of reasons, it’s honestly not that weird, and when you keep in mind that nobody would bat an eye if you were changing yours to his, it should help you defang any concern-trolling. As I’ve said before about transgender and non-binary people adopting new names, if Grandma can tell that “Dwayne Johnson” and “The Rock” are the same person, she can certainly learn to roll with whatever you’ve got going on.
I’m not hosting comments on this, for the usual reasons, but also specifically because every single wedding and marriage tradition in the world carries a lot of assumptions and arguments and opinions along with it, but in your marriage those things carry the precise weight and importance that you and the person you are considering marrying assign. Your name is important to you, so start whatever negotiations you have about it from a position of knowing what would make you happiest. Tradition, culture, and feelings will have their say, and you and your partner may end up in the middle on this question on your way to the altar, but you certainly don’t have to aim there.