Why do the majority of babies still get their dad's last name?

Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford with newborn daughter Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford.
Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford with newborn daughter Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford. Photo: David Rowland

The reasons why babies are predominantly given their father's surnames are many and varied. But the fact remains that for a large number of people, it's simply a default that was never carefully considered.

Progressive New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford raised a few eyebrows by adhering to patronymic naming convention with their daughter Neve Gayford. Writer Angela Barnett examined the issue and her own discomfort in an article titled, "Why did baby Neve get Clarke's surname?"

Barnett astutely observes, "Hours, days are spent finding first names for our children - something original, with meaning, something rockstar enough - but for surnames, many still head straight for the norm. His name."

Why? "Because it's still, weirdly, after four waves of feminism, what we do. Because men expect it, or women think they do. Because we feel guilty we bucked tradition and didn't change our surnames so throw the chap a bone, in the name of romance."

While we are hopefully long past the origins of patronymic naming - namely, to identify women and children as the property of a man - it's a practice that lingers, leaving even the most progressive parents conflicted.

The complexity occurs because there is quite simply, no one option that adequately covers all bases.

My children all have my last name as a second middle name, and as I saw that as sufficiently feminist at the time, I haven't had great cause to question it. The truth is that for anything but the most official of documents, my name isn't used. 

Like Ardern's daughter will be, my kids are known exclusively by their father's surname and deep down I know that at a vulnerable time in new motherhood, I didn't want to be seen as "rocking the boat", which now gives me pause.

My group of friends have found all kinds of ways of dealing with the issue of whose surname gets the go ahead.


Kate from Perth says, "it didn't really come up in conversation and I guess I probably went with convention or what I thought was expected", while Anna in Far North Queensland says her kids all have her surname, "because it's easy to spell and she liked her surname better."

Anna adds, "I don't comprehend doing the male's by default and my partner didn't care because he's cool like that."

And what about same-sex parents? Sydney-based Georgie says that, "every queer family I know use 'mother that carried them' or 'a smushed name.'"

Hyphenation can be a burden, even though it's a logical solution. Melbourne parent Tina says that initially they hyphenated, then it grew too onerous so they reverted to her partner's surname.

Sydney mum Melanie explains her new son has her surname and that her partner will take on her surname "if they get around to the paperwork." It's a rare occurrence that was discussed in an ABC Podcast about Cameron Peverett, who took on his wife's surname.

There's no easy fix to this, but I do think it starts with men adjusting their world view and from my brief polling, it seems there is a shift happening in some families. Sadly though, it seems a lot of women are still railroaded, bullied and shamed into submission on the naming front, even if it's conveyed as a more benign "expectation".

I believe there's nothing benign about it, and if we're to move ahead to show our daughters that they have an equal place in the world, then changing naming conventions is part of that. That starts with men's sense of entitlement to naming rights, broadly-speaking.

I'm all for the idea of creating a completely new convention, like those who make up a surname "smush" (a shortened combination of both surnames) or take on a completely new family surname, but there's no chance everyone would be willing to do this. 

Fathers need to be raising the topic of surnames with an open mind and a willingness to change just as women always done, instead of leaving women to do the legwork of changing a part of our culture that is intimately connected to inequality.

In matters of law in Australia, it's the first name that is seen as a right. The United Nation's Declaration of the Rights of the Child declares, "The child shall be entitled from his birth to a name and nationality," while having a surname is a matter of common law.

"The use of a surname Is a convention rather than a legal necessity," states the NSW Law Reform Commission, "and the surname is never formally bestowed on a person but acquired by reputation." With the word reputation no doubt referring to the individual choices of families, I'll put it out there that we have a duty to move away from patronymic naming.

The only way forward as I see it, is to erase the very notion of a default surname convention.

It'll take time - maybe a lot of time - but in the future and with effort, I'm certain we'd see more balance, with babies being named after both their mothers and their fathers.