Saul J. Onething.
Choosing a baby's name is always fun. Mrs. J1Thing and I tossed around about dozen possibilities over several months before settling on Saul. (For more on baby names, check out the Social Security's baby name popularity page
as well as Virginia Postrel's excellent NY Times column
on shifting fashions in baby names.)
While first names make for fun parlor games, what gets far less attention are babies' last
names. That's a shame – because here in the District of Columbia, something bizarre is occurring on the surname front.
The day after Saul was born, a nurse handed us a "birth certificate worksheet," the form we needed to complete to receive a parchment certifying Saul Lerner Pink is indeed Saul Lerner Pink. With the form came a pamphlet explaining which last names parents were permitted to choose under D.C law for their newborns. This is gonna get lengthy, so bear with me while I explain these weird and troubling laws.
-- District of Columbia law requires that mothers who are single give their baby their own last name. A single mom can give her baby the father's last name only "if both parents sign an Acknowledgment of Parentage" form. OK. I can actually see a thin public policy rationale girding this provision. A woman probably shouldn't be able to name her baby after someone who really isn't the father. Alas, things get worse. (How did I not notice this when our first two kids were born?)
-- According to the law, "If the mother was not married at the time of either conception or birth, or between conception and birth, the surname of the child shall be the legal surname of the mother at the time of the birth." Time of conception? This means that if Mom and Dad weren't hitched at the time they made the baby -- but got married, say, a month later – they'd have to give the baby the Mom's last name. What could possibly be the state's interest in that? Parents can skirt this provision by signing an Acknowledgment of Parentage. But married couples who happen to have different last names would have to sign one of these official forms if junior arrived less than nine months after their wedding day. The idea that the state needs to know and record when a baby was conceived should frighten even the most authoritarian souls.
-- The next part of the laws say: "If the mother was married at the time of birth, the surname of the child shall be the legal surname of the father at the time of birth." Huh? Combine this with the above provisions, and the state is essentially telling the mother what to name her child. If she's single, the kid gets her last name. If she's married, the kid gets dad's last name. And if a married woman wants to give her kid her own last name instead of that of her beloved husband, she's breaking the law. Again, what's the state interest in the last name of child born to a happily married couple? My wife's last name is Lerner. Does the D.C. government have any legitimate interest in whether our son is Saul Pink or Saul Lerner -- or for that matter, Saul J. Onething?
-- Here's another doozer: "If the mother was married at the time of birth or if the unmarried mother and father duly complete an Acknowledgment of Parentage Form, hyphenated surnames can be entered for the child beginning with the legal surname of the father, followed by a hyphen and the legal surname of the mother. (e.g. father's surname-mother's surname)." If I'm reading this right, it says that the only
legally permissible hyphenated surname is Dad's Name-Mom's Name. (Ex: In our case, Pink-Lerner.) A last name of Mom's Name-Dad's Name apparently is verboten. So if we'd named our son Saul Lerner-Pink instead of Saul Lerner Pink, we'd have been breaking the law. (Dad to the name police: "We're clean officer. Look! No hyphen!") Equally troubling, nothing in the D.C. law seems to leave room for invented last names – say, Lernink or Lernerpink or Pinkner or even my family's original name, Pinkovich.
This is insane. How about a law that says this: Single moms can give their baby any last name they choose. However, they can give the child the last name of the father only if he signs an Acknowledgment of Parentage form or his parentage is proved by a blood test. Married parents can give their children any last name they choose, punctuated any way they desire.
I might be a registered Democrat and a sometime liberal. But, jeez, when it comes to naming kids, the government should just butt out and leave the hyphens to us.