- Isabella Lenarduzzi

Does equality start by choosing the name?

In Belgium, it took 15 years of debate and a call to order from Europe before a bill was finally passed ending the requirement that meant that a child could only take the father’s last name. In Europe, only Switzerland, Italy and Belgium continue to use this out-dated rule and powerful symbol of patriarchy. It is useful to remember that for thousands of years and until very recently, mothers had no authority over their children and in case of separation, the children had to stay with the father’s family. That’s still the case in a number of countries where men are considered superior to women and therefore have the “right to ownership” of his children. How many women have been forced to marry men just to give “a name” to their children born out of wedlock and in doing so guarantee a place in society and restore their honour? To illustrate just how engrained this patriarchal thinking is in our society, I had to accept that my son not only has the last name of his father but also the first name of his paternal grandfather. I tried to resist but didn’t manage (and yes, even me!).

Being able to choose the child’s last name within a couple or have the possibility to choose from both names shows how far society has moved forward. Finally, we live in a world in which neither the mother nor the father predominates compulsorily by law and in an age in which responsibility is shared between two autonomous beings who can decide together in an egalitarian way.

What strikes me most is the outrageous reaction of many men and even some women. They are quick to denounce the possible omnipotence of mothers and the importance for fathers to build their relationship with their child thanks to the transferal of their family name. Last summer the magazine Marie-Claire Belgium wrote a report on the subject which largely featured the two psychologists Patrick Traube and Diane Drory.

According to Mr Traube: “The father’s name indicates that the baby does not belong to the mother. The name therefore plays an important role, both in society as well as symbolically. Getting rid of it seems a foolish way to avenge a millennium of patriarchy. Mothers give birth, fathers give their name, that’s how it is,” he says even speaking about “erasing fathers from the family”. Even the feminist Diane Drory is no exception: “Fathers need to have their place. If his name is no longer put first, that gives him reason not to invest!” Now that’s really the limit… a mother must have a “natural” affinity with the child which compels her to love and care for her offspring, while the father must be able to give his name in order to build such a relationship. A father’s love is only based then on flattering his ego? If that is true, I really wouldn’t want such a father neither for me nor for my children!

I have too much respect for the role of fathers to reduce it to the mere transferal of the family name. More and more fathers are getting involved in the education of their children. They have found a new way of transferring their values and their masculinity, which includes being more present than absent and less authoritarian and more loving. This new co-parenting style provides the best guarantee for a child’s happiness and enables them to flourish.

Ever since men discovered they had a role in procreation, they have exerted their power and authority over women and their children by forcing them to carry their family name, which symbolises their right of ownership. This act would have been extremely effective if only the result would have been that all fathers provided the material and emotional needs of their children. But the reality is somewhat different… let’s not forget the thousands of years when women and children abandoned to their fate after rape, love outside of marriage or even in numerous legitimate couples. Still in Brussels today, nine out of ten children in single-parent families live only with their mother (in EU, there is seven times more single mothers than single fathers) and one woman in six that gives birth does so without the father. In Belgium, an astounding 95% of the requests for maintenance payments to SECAL (service des créances alimentaires) are by mothers who do not receive any child support from the father of their child. Result: women who are alone with their children have always been, and still are, the most vulnerable and prone to extreme poverty. In Europe, 36,9% of single-parent families live below the poverty threshold.

Passing on the father’s name is not necessary for the emotional and material well-being of their children. And in some ways I’m glad, as it is not appropriate to base such an important relationship on something that is merely symbolic. It is high time that we put an end to this out-dated, unjust and discriminatory practice.

While we’re at it, let’s also do away with the traditional codes of practice whereby my place at a chic dinner party is indicated by “Madame Roberto Rovai”, which is the first and last name of my husband. So a good education means that I have to completely erase who I am for the benefit of my husband? Not for me…

Think about the many women who take the names of their spouses. When their marriages end in divorce as seven out of ten marriages (in Brussels) do their “personal branding” which is so important for their careers and their personal recognition will be back at zero.

And finally, in honour of all our mothers, let’s put in motion the proposal by the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men  and celebrate mother’s day by adding their last names to our social network profiles. Mine is Lenarduzzi-Mathieux.