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Why Some Parents Give Their Children a Last Name Other Than the Father’s

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When Judy Pellarin had her daughters three decades ago, she and her husband gave them her last name instead of his. A generation later, her daughters also broke tradition — one gave her daughter her surname, and the other created a new name, a blending of her and her husband’s middle names.

Though some families have deviated from the patrilineal tradition for decades, they remain part of a small minority. Even as many gender norms have changed over the generation since Ms. Pellarin named her children, the tradition of giving babies their fathers’ surnames remains so strong as to be almost unquestioned.

Yet in other ways, the American family looks very different. Fifty years ago, most adults under 50 were married and raising children as a couple; that is no longer the norm for U.S. adults. Parents are increasingly likely to be never married or divorced, or same-sex or interethnic couples.

These changes complicate the patrilineal tradition, say parents who have taken a different approach. Many hyphenate their last names. Some make less common choices, like giving children the mother’s surname or coming up with new names altogether. For some, it is a rejection of patriarchal norms. Others say it’s about maintaining ties to their heritage or ethnicity, or because fathers weren’t involved in raising the children.

There is no nationwide data on how many parents give children a surname other than the father’s. But data on the names couples take at marriage suggests it’s uncommon. Of men in opposite-sex marriages, a Pew survey found this year, 5 percent took their wife’s last name, and less than 1 percent hyphenated their names.

Four in five women take their husband’s last name at marriage. Those who keep their names are likelier to be liberal, highly educated or Hispanic — and this minority is more likely to make unconventional choices with their children’s names, research shows.

The patrilineal tradition arose, said Charlotte J. Patterson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, as an acknowledgment that “fathers were the head of the household, and when they named their child this way, it was expressing that it was a legitimate birth and the child could inherit from them.”

Even as those reasons have become less relevant, she said, “because we have this longstanding custom, I think many people do this without really considering any alternatives.”

Historically, children did not automatically get their fathers’ surnames, and customs vary in other parts of the world. In England, until the 18th century, surnames were fluid, and it was common for children to have their mother’s or grandmother’s last name, said Deborah Anthony, a professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois, Springfield, who studies gender in family law. (Her child’s last name is hyphenated.)

For Ms. Pellarin, the decision was about maintaining a connection to her heritage, and the “small town in Northern Italy filled with Pellarins” that her grandfather came from. Her husband was estranged from his father, so passing on his family name meant less.

For her daughter Kelsey, 34, a therapist in Durham, N.C., coming up with a new name that combined names from her side and her husband’s “felt more equal,” she said. Their 4-year-old daughter is named Sage Mariyah — a combination of their middle names, Marie and Mayer. The parents plan to legally change their names too, and are already known socially as the Mariyahs.

In Ms. Pellarin’s other daughter Erin’s family, the three children each have different last names, as in many blended families. Both parents have a child from a previous relationship with the father’s last name, and Erin’s daughter has hers.

“It’s a modern dilemma,” said Lorelei Vashti, author of “How to Choose Your Baby’s Last Name: A Handbook for New Parents.” (Her children have a new name, a combination of their parents’ surnames.) “When you’re talking about what last name should the baby have, you’re talking about tradition, you’re talking about feminism, you’re talking about your values and politics.”

Same-sex parents, without a patrilineal tradition to fall back on, are the vanguard. They most often hyphenate, Professor Patterson found. When Sheena Lister and Amelia Mostovoy had Florence, now 3, they gave her the last name Mostovoy because Ms. Lister carried the baby, and Ms. Mostovoy was the last in her family to pass on her name.

But by the time their second child was born — Kaplan is now 1 — they’d settled on a combination of their names, Listevoy. They changed Florence’s name too.

“Doing a combo last name felt right, as we don’t have a traditional marriage or family and wanted both our names honored,” said Ms. Mostovoy, a podiatrist in San Francisco.

Kaitlin Bushinski in Philadelphia combined her surname with her husband’s, Conkwright. They vetoed a few because of how they sounded — like Conkshinski, which became the name of their Wi-Fi network instead — and landed on Bright.

“To me it feels like erasure, it feels like that vestige of when women were once property,” she said. “When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I just felt really adamantly that I didn’t want her to have a man’s last name, not my father’s, not my husband’s.”

Juniper Bright is 3. Ms. Bushinski and her husband are separated; if they divorce, she plans to change her last name to Bright to match her daughter’s.

In many Spanish-speaking countries, a child is given two last names, one from each parent. Eugenia Moliner Ferrer, a musician in River Forest, Ill., was born in Spain, and wanted to continue the tradition when she had her son. She and her husband, Denis Azabagic, each gave a last name to their son, Alexander Moliner Azabagic, 18.

“I cherish the fact that our son proudly carries my last name before his father’s,” Ms. Moliner Ferrer said.

More common in the United States is hyphenating. Maxim Kostylev and his wife, Anne Otwell, both scientists in Washington, D.C., did that for Dimitriy, 4, and Amira, an 8-month-old, because they wanted to reflect both their lineages. He was born in Moldova when it was part of the Soviet Union. Her family is of Jewish heritage.

Ms. Otwell’s name came first, Mr. Kostylev said, because it was easier to pronounce, and “the mother devotes a lot more of herself to the creation and early nurturing of the child,” he said.

Many parents said the logistics of having different names — like at school or when traveling — hadn’t been a big obstacle. For some, questions had been welcome. Susannah Rooney and Kyle Loescher in South Bend, Ind., gave their first child his last name (with hers as a middle name), and did the opposite for their second child. Beckett Rooney Loescher is 5, and Goldie Loescher Rooney is 1.

“It does seem to confuse some people, but I kind of love that about it,” said Ms. Rooney, a lawyer. “It actually solidifies the decision even more, because I like that we are helping to normalize different naming conventions.”

One longstanding way for parents to include the mother’s lineage is to give children her surname as a middle name. Jen Burkey and Mike Abrahamson, who live in Chicago, went further. Charles Burkey, 2, has a first name from his father’s side, and his mother’s last name.

Ms. Burkey was raised by her grandparents since she was 5, “and while he won’t know them, I’m grateful the name serves as a link,” she said.

Jessica Miller in Portland, Ore., also wanted to honor a grandparent when she named her son, now 8. He has his father’s last name, and her last name as a first name: Miller Jobe.

She got the name from her paternal grandmother, who became a single mother of four in the 1950s. At the time, she changed her name back to her maiden name, Miller, went to college and became a library scientist. Ms. Miller’s father, then 20, changed his last name to his mother’s, in solidarity.

When her son was born, Ms. Miller was not married to his father, and “it felt right to give him a part of my family too, equally weighted,” she said. (Though people sometimes ask, “Is his name Miller Miller?”)

Even as untraditional naming practices remain rare, parents feel they have more options now. When JoAnne Van Tuyl, a professor from Carrboro, N.C., married in 1982 and kept her name, she and her husband made an agreement: Offspring would have his last name, and pets would have hers. Their daughter’s last name is Gottschalk. Their two dogs, six cats, one cockatiel, two guinea pigs, three hermit crabs and a few goldfish have all been Van Tuyls.

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