Father and Son: What’s in a Name?


John Siddham was born in India in the late 1950s and now lives in Australia. His son, Luke, was born in Australia in the mid-90s. We asked them both to reflect on their relationship to gender and culture.

Click here to read Luke’s piece, ‘Dad Never Taught Me to Man Up’.

John’s family in India, 1967

I grew up in India, a land that has given birth to many religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism, and many others that came to India and still thrive and survive today. As such, India is a land of spirituality and religiosity, a land of thinkers, reformers and philosophers. It is also a land of contrasts and contradictions with extremely rich and poor people, highly educated professionals and illiterate youth, people with compassion to all living beings and yet violence committed against most vulnerable people including women and girls.

I had a religious upbringing and had friends in the neighbourhood and school from different faiths. We celebrated all the festivals, went to each other’s places of worship. The annual feast at my local parish, our Lady of Health, drew huge crowds of not just Christians but Hindus, Muslims and many others who come to worship to seek good health.

Amongst the hustle and bustle, and with all the colours of rituals and ceremonies, one could not fail to notice the undertone of patriarchy. In most cases at these celebrations, women were relegated to the rear bench, reflecting the patriarchal hierarchies visible in everyday life. As a system, growing up, it was so entrenched that most people were blindly complicit, even women. Though I could not articulate what I saw growing up as “the patriarchy” at the time, I was aware of the imbalance in the treatment of women, girls and those from lower castes.

My upbringing at home laid a strong foundation. Dad was an activist, heavily engaged in the rights and dignity of the workers, which was more than his full-time role as a public servant. Mum welcomed me to the kitchen and included me in all the chores traditionally held by women and laid the foundations for well-rounded development. My siblings, including my three younger sisters, together with mum, shaped the feminine side of my life. Gradually though, my concern for the underprivileged and activism for the rights of the youth grew and took me to new places and opened up my world through a different lens.

John and Lyn, 1987.

In the course of this activism, I met Lyn at a conference in Belgium. When we were dating, so to speak, as we lived in different cities and continents, between Paris and Geneva, India and Australia. It was the original long-distance romance. This was a period where the Internet was non-existent and long-distance phone calls were a luxury.

Those days, I had to wait for a telephone operator to connect us, sometimes losing almost a day waiting at a post office phone booth. We wrote letters, on thin papers, with tiny handwriting to squeeze as much to say within the five grams of the Airmail post.

We knew where we stood in terms of our views and activism. That was rock solid, and that’s what attracted us to each other. We broke with traditions that conflicted with our views, rejecting the idea that either of us was a property of the other, believing instead we should both be free to flourish and that our relationship was an enabler rather than enslaver.

When we married, we broke with numerous traditions.

Lyn kept her name. She rejected the idea of her dad walking in the aisle and handing her over to me. We walked into the church together and welcomed our guests. We rewrote the proceedings in ways that reflected two people in equality rather than a marriage of between then traditional “man and wife”.

Our day to day life reflected this in our relationship to each other and to the community around us. Eventually, the time came to christen our first child, a son.

I grew up in a patrilineal tradition where the father is considered the head of the family, children are given their father’s surname, and the women take their husbands’ name. It’s given, and no one questions it. Though it’s only a name, but it carries a profound and symbolic meaning in reinforcing male domination, something that conflicted with my core value and made me uncomfortable.

Our son came into the world two weeks early, upsetting our plans, one of which was to decide on a name. We were ready with a name for a girl but not yet for a boy.

Our son remained nameless for the first few days. We were too busy with our hands full, running on high gear, feeding, changing, bathing, and squeezing in naps. While we had worked on a first name with friends who came for afternoon tea one day, we hadn’t sorted out the surname yet.

We talked a lot during the in-betweens of changing nappies, feeding, and trying to get a nap, but we hadn’t made a decision yet, and the christening was rapidly approaching. We looked at all permutations of combining our names, and there were plenty of them, but we were not happy with what was on offer. Or maybe it was that I wasn’t sure, and I wondered why?

Suddenly, the day was upon us. The ceremony seemed to be going very fast, or that’s what my brain messaged me.  I thought I knew the answer, even though we hadn’t made a decision yet but it somehow seemed to be obvious. The ceremony ended and it was an opportune moment for me to announce to the family and friends, and I did.

“Luke will carry his mother’s name.”

There, in front of our family and friends, I confirmed:

“He will be known as Luke Dundon.”

Oh yes, the irony, I made the announcement as a man to the community. And I was happy to insert my name as his middle name. But still, Lyn would have been pleased with a combination of names as several of our friends had done, double barrel names. I wasn’t comfortable with that, a long-hyphenated name, sounded like a compromise. I believed, more than a name, it was important they carry a part of me, my influence, my values, and what I stand for. I was happy to let go of my name, though there is no other Siddham living in Australia at this time, still, it wasn’t important to me.

In time, Lyn suggested that maybe our second child could carry my last name. I said, “Let’s see.”

Then, when our second child arrived a few years later, I thought to myself, “Why? Why do I want her to have my name? What are we trying to achieve, a compromise?”

In the end, I didn’t want our arrangement to confuse our children with different names growing up. We didn’t want to appear as a concocted family, though ultimately there is nothing wrong with that. We agreed, we were trying to break a tradition by not giving our children their father’s name. This was our way of showing about our position on gender relations. That Man is not the centre of the universe and the Woman a subservient, that both are equal and deserve respect. That a man can let go of power and still achieve harmony in a relationship. Now both our children carry their mother’s name.

This doesn’t mean we are supporting a matriarchal system either but for now we are breaking with one patriarchal tradition, and we will leave it to our children to create a family that is neither matriarchal nor patriarchal but respectful of everyone.

Click here to read Luke’s piece, ‘Dad Never Taught Me to Man Up’.

John Siddham

Author: John Siddham

John Siddham is a reluctant writer based in Melbourne. He is an avid reader who attends all kinds of free forums to stimulate his complacent brain cells. His deep concern for the poor, oppressed and vulnerable in society continue to take centre stage in his analysis and form the basis for his activism and mentoring. He also enjoys playing badminton and cooking diverse foods from around the world. He tweets at @JohnSiddham

4 thoughts on “Father and Son: What’s in a Name?”

  1. John, this is a wonderful sharing and I admire both you and Lynn for being courageous to break away from the tradition. I thought I should share a few experiences I have here. For the benefit of readers, my name is Sanjeewa Liyanage and I am from Sri Lanka and my wife is Carmen Li, from Hong Kong. When our daughter was born (in Hong Kong) we wend to a birth registry office in Hong Kong. We have figured out her first name, Aakashi. So, first the lade at the counter asked for my ID card and entered my name as the a father. Then she entered my wife’s name. Then came the surprise: I asked whether we can choose the child’s mother’s name as the surname. The lady at the counter said that that is not possible–when they enter the surname of the father, it is automatically allocated as the surname of the child. So, she was officially Aakashi Liyanage. But, in Hong Kong you can also include a Chinese name. My wife has already picked her a Chinese name but when you enter a Chinese name, you also need to enter a surname. So her surname in Chines because Li, my wife’s surname–her full Chinese name being Li Hei Ching. So, my daughter, officially has surnames of both parents. When it came to picking my own Chinese name, my wife asked a friend of her to pick a good one. And it became Li Yan Kei (sounding similar to Li-yana-ge, my surname). This means my Chinese surname is my wife’s surname. Similarly, my son, Sean also has my wife’s surname in his Chinese name (Li Sze Ching). Second story I want to share is about something running in my family in Sri Lanka. My maternal grandmother, who got married in early 40’s retained her own surname–she was always Beatrice Siriwardana. My maternal grandfather was Siebert Fonseka but my grandmother never took his surname and as far as I know if was never an issue between them. So, my mother Maureen Fonseka also retained her surname after marriage–she never changed the name to Maureen Liyanage. And, again, it was never an issue for my father. And this tradition continues as my sister retained her surname after marriage. I find it a very common practice especially in the US, even among progressive women to change their surname right after getting married. I cannot think of a single woman-friend I know in the US who did not change their surname after their marriage. But in Sri Lanka, I do not see this tradition much. I see nowadays most women keeping their surname after getting married.

  2. Hey John, your values and consideration for others has always been compassionate and exemplary. Thank you!

Your thoughts?