What two-mother families are doing about surnames

Discussions about family surnames in the media tend to ignore the fact that many queer families have been tackling the issue for far longer than most of their heterosexual counterparts. Lisa Melville talked to some two-mum couples about their approach to family names.

With so much choice around surnames, how do two-mother families decide what to do when it comes to naming their child?

Their decision may depend on whether the family was formed before or after 2006, the first year in which both mothers could be named on the birth certificate in Aotearoa. Equal access to marriage in 2013 also changed naming practices of two-mother families, because now mothers may choose to share the same surname.

If a couple chooses to get married, or joined in civil union, they can choose to have the same surname, which eases decision-making if children come along later. These choices mimic those of straight couples: one person takes the other person’s name or hyphenate both names. But, as I found when talking to two-mum couples, often their reasoning is different to those in heterosexual relationships.

Rebecca took her wife’s surname “to keep it as traditional and less ‘out there’ as possible for any children. They’re already going to have a pretty tough life at school having two mums as it is.” Having the same surname in order to help their children fit in was a common theme among the women I talked to. Anna changed her name “so that my child and I could have the same name, because I am aware that she potentially is in a slightly unusual situation in the fact that she has two mums. So I just wanted to try and give her as much solid ground as possible.”

When Taka and her wife got married, on the other hand, they decided to hyphenate their surnames. “My wife was going to take my name but went back and forth because she was concerned people might assume we were sisters rather than married. Hence the hyphenation.” Their reasoning is not an anomaly: several women talked about how people often assumed their partner was their sister.

But when both women in a marriage or partnership keep their surnames, what do they do when they have children?

They might use one of the mothers’ surnames or hyphenate, as straight couples do, but again the decisions behind this are often specific to being two women. For instance, in two-mother families, one of the mothers is not genetically related to the child, so sometimes the child gets that mother’s surname. As Kelly told me, “I have the biological link so it seemed fair to give the children my partner’s surname.” Extended family can sometimes get hung up with genetics, so the non-biological mother’s surname can be used to bridge relationships across the generations, as Amy mentioned: “I think that’s really nice for my partner’s parents as well, because there isn’t that genetic connection, but they can share that name.”

Having two mothers presents another scenario not often found in straight couples: Two mothers with the same first name. This was the situation for Emma, whose partner is also named Emma: “If we did have the same surname we’d have the same exact name, so no, we didn’t do that! We gave [our child] the double barrel.”

Sometimes surname choices had nothing to do with the practicalities of both partners being women, but for more unusual reasons. Amanda and her partner chose a new family name for their children, but each kept their own names. “Our children’s surname is Bond: it’s a special name for us, because it’s back in the family tree for both Michelle and me.”

Some two-mother families in Aotearoa have been revisiting the surname discussion with subsequent children.  In western countries, once the decision is made, subsequent children usually get the same surname as the first.  In Aotearoa, though, siblings are more likely to be given different surnames. Sometimes this is due to another aspect specific to having two mothers – both women gave birth. “My partner had the first child and their surname became Summers,” says Melissa. “I had the next who became Mallory.” Siblings also often had different surnames if both mothers each felt their surname could end with them. Amanda explains: “[My partner] Rachel is from a family of all girls; all have got married and taken their male partner’s name, so she is the last Rune. I’ve got brothers and none of them have children, so I felt it would be the last of the Acker name. I really wanted that to be carried on.”

People tend to think in terms of “birth mothers” and “non-birth mothers”, not because this is the way two-mother families see themselves, but because laws and social practices separate mothers in this way. Although children may end with up with either mother’s surname, often this has nothing to do with who gave birth to them. Couple Nathalia and Melanie felt they both had complicated last names, so they chose the surname that was the least difficult. Another example is Jessica and her family: “We’ve decided on my partner’s surname because it looks nice and balanced and it sounded right. And my surname is Jarvis, which kind of goes as a middle name really well.”

For all the decision-making that went on about surnames, the two-mother families I spoke to also felt that sharing a surname wasn’t what made a family. For Nicola, giving their child her surname was about replicating a traditional convention for the sake of society. “Because I didn’t have any biological connection to her, we thought it would be quite good for her to have my name.” But she says the choice wasn’t about make them feel more like a family: “I have never felt like she is not my child.”

Family is not a name. Family is made through emotion and through presence. As Melanie said: “Being attached to his name is not important to me. He will know who I am.”

* All names are pseudonyms.

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