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Double-barrelled surnames pose dilemma for new parents naming their kids

Last Updated Oct 9, 2017 at 2:13 pm EDT

A couple getting married in a church in Montreal on Dec. 14, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sheila Boardman

Alexandra Sipos-Kocsis doesn’t mean to be difficult.

And yet throughout her life, her unique surname has confounded teachers, telemarketers, airlines and more than a few administrative forms that didn’t have room for her 12-character, double-barrelled name.

But Sipos-Kocsis loves it, and when she married, she was determined to keep it.

“My mother never took my father’s last name. I always thought that was cool and independent and feminist,” says Sipos-Kocsis.

“And I liked that I was named after both my parents. That always felt important to me.”

When she had kids, however, she faced a dilemma: A triple-barrelled name with her husband’s surname Goldstein seemed clunky, and bestowing only one of her names wasn’t an option.

In the end, the 34-year-old dropped both when she named her son and daughter Goldstein — resorting to a paternal tradition her parents deliberately eschewed.

“There are other things I can pass down for (my kids) that are not just names,” reasons the Toronto fertility coach. “And I felt that Goldstein is a family name. Even though it’s not from my side, it is our family name.”

The quick death of her parents’ progressive gesture seems to be the inevitable fate of a lot of double-barrelled surnames that gained momentum in the ’80s and ’90s.

Now that those hyphenated children are having offspring of their own, the question of how to preserve both the political spirit that inspired their surnames and the practical concerns of day-to-day life seem at odds.

York University linguistics professor Sheila Embleton says the trend for professional women to keep their maiden name started around the mid-’70s. That was still the case in Canada when she wed in 1981 at age 27, and so she and her husband decided that any daughters would get her name, and any sons would get his.

“Until (our daughter) showed up and then he was kind of upset that his name wouldn’t be there,” chuckles Embleton, who welcomed a girl in 1989. “So we kind of agreed on Ahrens-Embleton.”

Of course, various forms of the double-barrelled surname have long been standard in many cultures, including Quebec and most Spanish-speaking countries. Generally speaking, the tradition is for the maternal surname to drop when a husband’s surname is added, notes Embleton.

In the end it’s patriarchal, but the mother’s surname does survive one generation longer than most Anglo traditions. Today, more families seem willing to chart their own course.

“Your name was prescribed before,” says Embleton. “Now, I think there’s a little more fluidity in it.”

That sentiment is what drove Laura Pieterson and Damien Boisvert Neufeld to bestow their two children with the invented surname Pine — an homage to the fact they met while tree-planting and continue to work in silviculture.

Neufeld recently changed his surname to Pine but is still in the process of converting all of his identification, while Pieterson plans to follow suit once a real estate transaction bearing her current name is complete.

“We wanted to be a family unit, we wanted all to have the same name,” says the 32-year-old Pieterson, who lives in Cowichan Bay, B.C., about 45 minutes north of Victoria.

“But I didn’t see why I should take his name.”

And neither did Neufeld, who says he had little trouble defying paternal traditions, despite his mother’s disappointment.

“I kind of like the idea of your identity changing, I like to think that I’m not stuck in a rut my whole life and I’m just one person,” says Neufeld, whose surname has its own complicated backstory.

The 41-year-old added Neufeld as a kid when he was adopted by his step-dad. Boisvert is his late birth father’s name, and the one he’d prefer if forced to pick.

Pine, meanwhile, honours all three surnames between them: it references Boisvert, which means “green wood” in French, and is comprised of the first two letters of the other names.

“It’s not supposed to be a snub or turning our backs on our heritage,” says Pieterson. “We just all wanted the same name and something not too long, something simple.”

Plus, Pieterson and Sipos-Kocsis each say they dug deep into their family lines to find middle names inspired by great-grandparents.

And anyway, Sipos-Kocsis says her surname isn’t even original.

Her parents were originally Schwartz and Kepecs — Jewish names that were changed to appear more Hungarian during the Second World War.

“Family preservation is so much bigger than a name for me,” says Sipos-Kocsis. “It’s who I am, it’s traditions I carry, it’s the rituals I have, it’s how I celebrate life and how I live my life.”

It’s the reason neither say they’d be insulted if their kids choose another name when they get married.

“People should be able to be called what they want to be called and to heck with tradition,” says Pieterson.