Name Help: Choosing Names from One Side OnlyUpdate: After realizing that different forms of Michael appeared in both families, as first and last names, we gave our son the middle name Michael. We intend to use this as the middle name for our future children, too. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the kind of family name we imagined, but it’s a family name now! Thanks for all the insight.

J. writes:

I have an amazing partner in life, and we’re about to become parents.

For some very painful reasons, my partner, K., has very little contact with his family. They live on the other side of the country. We talk on birthdays, major holidays, etc., but that’s about it. There are some cousins in the family that he’s a little bit closer with, but no one we see.

It probably goes without saying that we’re not going to use family names from his side of the family for our children.

But does that mean we can’t use names from my family? My family is warm and loving and they are a big part of our life.

K. likes the idea of giving our child a name from my family. But I’m not so sure. Becoming parents could create a lot of drama with K.’s family, and this seems like one more thing. Except that I do agree with K. – it would mean a lot to honor the people who have loved and supported us over the years.

Please read on for my response – and leave your thoughtful suggestions in the comments!

Hi J. –

Families – sigh. We picture something straight out of Norman Rockwell, but often what we get is nowhere near that simple.

In a perfect world, the answer is this: if you’re using family names from one side for the first child, the other side should – ideally – be honored when and if a second child comes along.

But there are a million exceptions to this rule. Plenty of families only use an honor name for the firstborn, often the firstborn son. Other families don’t plan to use honor names at all, but then a loved one passes away during a pregnancy – and suddenly, it just feels right to name baby #3 after uncle Jack. And, of course, when families are estranged – or even kind of sort of mostly estranged – that’s yet another situation.

Ultimately, you should choose names that you love, and if that means passing down your beloved grandma Beulah’s name to a daughter, then that’s what you should do. But let’s consider a few scenarios.

In the Middle Spot

If you’re tucking the name in the middle spot, it’s much less painful. Assuming you’re not sending custom-printed birth announcements to K.’s family, they may never quite realize that Noah William got his middle name from your grandfather.

Family Names: Obvious Versus Subtle

Actually, if we’re talking names like William, James, Elizabeth, or Anne, you probably could send an engraved birth announcement and not fret that the family name choice was obvious. Evergreen classics are so familiar that no one pauses to ask if Joseph is a family name.

But if you’re choosing some a little more distinctive – especially as a given name – then it may be a little more of an issue.

Compromise Options

I’m not sure whether to suggest this, because it’s clear that the situation with K.’s family is far from ideal. But might there be a family name that isn’t the name of an immediate family member?

I’ve known couples who liked the idea of family names but had reasons to avoid the names of their parents or grandparents. A great-grandmother’s maiden name or the name of a long-ago ancestor might provide inspiration.

You won’t have a personal relationship with such a distant ancestor, of course, but if you’re looking for a sense of connectivity to the past while sidestepping the difficulties of your current relationships, it’s one approach.

What will you tell your child?

Right now, you’re worrying about how your families will react, and that makes sense.

But fast-forward a dozen years or so. How will you explain to your children that they’re named for grandma and grandpa J., but not the K. family?

If you can imagine having that talk, and thinking about how you’d explain it, it might help you make up your mind. It might be satisfying to say, “We were very close with grandma J. when you were born, so we named you after her dad.”

For what it’s worth, my children both have family names. And they seem to thoroughly enjoy repeating, “I’m named after …” It has not occurred to them that they could have been named after another relative, but maybe that’s coming.

My Suggestion

Ultimately, I think the solution is this: honor names should reflect the people who are important to you as a family. If those names happen to come from your side of the family only, that’s okay.

It’s fine if you feel like a blank slate is the best solution. But if you feel strongly – and it feels like your partner does – that family names are important, then you shouldn’t feel like family tensions take them all off the table.

Readers, what would you do? Start with a blank slate? Honor one side of the family now, and worry about the rest later? Or look for a compromise name from the other side, too?

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. Part of why you may be asking is that your partner isn’t comfortable using names from your side only. In the end, you both need to come to some sort of an agreement. I knew I could not agree to use my MIL’s name, so I backed away from using my mother’s name as a middle name for one of our twin daughters. We also discussed names that showed up on both sides of the family (Ruth, Susan, Ellen, etc.) to see if any of those would work. In the end, we went with non-family first names and my family’s name as the middle, and his last name.

  2. My husband’s childhood was highly dysfunctional, and he is not in contact with any of his family. My children’s names reflect my stepfather, both of my grandmothers, and my grandfather, all with my husband’s blessing. They do carry his last name, as do I (my family has its own complications, and for me, unity with the family I created trumped all.)
    My question is, what are your expectations for his family? Are you expecting the baby to change the dynamic for better or worse? Stranger things have happened, but pinning hopes on that seems… problematic. And my sense is that, if an honor name is going to make the difference one way or another, the chances of a reconciliation are slim at best. There is always going to be something to disagree about.
    Make you and your partner happy. You are creating this family – celebrate love, protect yourselves from bitterness.

  3. My kids all love having an honor middle. I think naming after your partner is a good idea, or the “they have his last name” idea. I also wouldn’t worry about it too much. The important thing is that you are tying your children to their family in a real way and that when you explain their names you can tell them all the beautiful qualities of the person whom they are named after.

  4. We have the exact same relationships with our families…DH has a strained relationship with his parents and they’ve never treated either of us very well. We aren’t close to anyone in his extended family, just his siblings. It’s the opposite with my side of the family. As a consequence, both of our children are named after my grandparents who loved my husband dearly…and their names are obvious ones – Rand0lph B00ne and Fr@nces Cypre$$. DH came up with a simple reason for if his family ever brought up the subject – they already have his last name, so it’s only fair that they get a special name from my side of the family. Besides, everyone in his family has names that are really quite generic and don’t fit our naming styles. That excuse has worked for us with only a few grumbles…no major blowups like we feared. I feel your pain and hope that you can find a way to honor your loved ones without any backlash.

    1. And even if your children will not have your partner’s last name, don’t worry too much about his family’s reaction. It’s their choice on how they will react and that shouldn’t get in the way of giving YOUR children the names that YOU love.

  5. Actually, I am not close with my family either, while we are close with my husband’s family. Our honor name is from his side, and any more will be from his side. But I have three siblings who can use honor names from our family if they wish, so I really don’t feel bad.

  6. I agree with Kerry (previous comment). I fell into a heteronormative, patriarchal naming system with my male partner (I’m female) and so my last stand was middle names-each child has a middle name from my side, full stop. There was even a moment when my husband tried to tell his family that our daughter’s middle name was also in honor of his great-grandmother (who shares my grandmother’s name) and I was like: NO.
    You can see from my tangential add-on that even in families that more or less get along and more or less conform to traditional naming systems, there’s drama.
    Do exactly what you want-you don’t owe anyone an explanation unless you enjoy raging like I do 🙂

  7. What if they have the K family surname and you choose honor names from the J side? Then they have a link to your partner (and kind-of-indirectly the K family) and your family too. That’s what my family did (although no one is technically estranged, there can be tension). I have dad’s surname and my middle name honors my mother’s favorite relative.

  8. My brother and I have family names from my mom’s side, and not my dad’s side, with one significant caveat…our last name is our dad’s. If you’re planning on using your partners last name for your children, I honestly think you can stop worrying about this right now and just use the names you want to use.

    And even if you aren’t, I still say don’t worry about it. I think uneven honoring causes the most drama when the families might otherwise seem equally close, or the unhonored side is actually closer and might feel taken for granted (my sister-in-laws’ kids are named after her husband’s family even though they live with my in-laws). For a side of family that you barely see, its probably not going to be the straw that breaks the camels back…and definitely not worth giving up names that will be very meaningful to you.