Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Child By Any Other Surname

I know I probably have no place adding my two cents' worth on this issue since I am not Korean nor am I a mother.  But I wondered about the pros and cons and consequences and implications of the legal changing of surnames for children.

Faint not.  I have not suddenly discovered an erstwhile maternal instinct nor developed a biological time bomb in my self-centred body.

I just saw an article in Dramabeans about Korean actress Choi Jin Shil seeking and receiving the right to legally change her children's surnames from that of her ex-husband's to hers.

To be honest, I have no clue who she is but I wondered about the necessity of the action.  Was the ex-husband a raving axe-murderer from whom she wanted to protect her children, thus the change of name to protect their identities?  Or was his surname a really bad one, like Deepshit or Dickwatis, which will bring them eternal grief?

I read further and it appears that Choi felt that she has "no intentions to remarry, her ex-husband had remarried, and she would like to lead her own life and wanted her children to proudly bear her name."  

Hold on.  I am still confused.  OK, what would a remarriage have to do with her children's surnames?  I am not familiar with Korean laws so this is a genuinely inquisitive question.  And so, okay, the ex-mistake had remarried.  Does that mean their two children are any less his children now?  

Choi has been divorced since 2004.  Surely she has been leading her own life since then?  After all, the courts granted permission for the surname change based of the fact that she was the "child-rearing parent" for the past four years.

I understand that Korean women retain their own surname after marriage.  Apparently, the Korean system previously advocated that women were never accepted as a "true" member of their spouses' family and thus carried the stigma of being an outsider by not sharing their husbands' surnames. 

It's rather unfair, isn't it?  After all, you can shag them and have children with them but they are always outsiders?  I sure hope Korean wives enjoy great fringe benefits.

Anyway, the article hastened to assure that the decision is a sound one.  Apparently, when Korean women remarry, the children will take on their new stepfathers' surnames.  I refer back to my first question.  If Choi has decided she will not be considering remarriage, why is that an issue?  Why do it now?  The kids are only 5 and 7 years of age.  Plenty of time to make a decision of such monumental significance.

Choi's rationalising is that the name change is not intended to sever her children's ties with their father but "an affirmation of the care she has given them and an assurance of the relationship" she has with them.  Look, if you have been the sole parent taking care of them, surely they will not forget that so soon?  And what? 18 months of pregnancy was not assurance enough that they are her children?  And to whom is this affirmation for?  Her?  Her children?  Society?

Is imposing her will of surnames on her children a matter of pride for her or her children?

I actually did not even think that deeply about this article till I saw the line that stated Choi's children did not particularly comprehend what the big deal was as they had assumed that the name change was a natural conclusion.  What?  They are 5 and 7 ... most children at that age are still learning to write their names in flowing cursive.

I have nothing against the woman but it seems more like a matter of personal ego massaging than any real logical or sensible long term consideration.

Dramabeans stated that it is forward-thinking to grant Korean women the right to change their children's surnames.  My Korean knowledge is ludicrously limited but I would have thought it would be much more sensible and fair to let the children decide, when they are old enough, whose surname they would like to carry for the rest of their lives.

A surname is not a change of knickers.  You cannot discard or disregard it cavalierly just because you decide you would like to claim your children solely.  They have a right to their father's name.  They should have a right to decide.  When they are ready.

It is enough that parents have such authoritarian rights over their children to decide what they wear, how they cut their hair, what they eat, or which school they should go to.  

By saying that the change of name will not sever the relationship with their father ... I think it smacks a bit of double-talk.  Conversely, if a surname has no relevance to the relation between a child and its parent, why then the pursuit to change it to hers?

Surely the bringing up of a child is to nurture him or her till they discover their own identity?  By changing a fundamental element such as a surname, does it not defeat the purpose?  Would this not subject the children to identity crisis and promote a power-struggle between parents?

I think mothers naturally have a much stronger bond with their children since they tend to be the main care-givers.  The act of breast-feeding and carrying the seed of union in the womb for 9 months is something a father can never share.  Surely letting him experience the joy of seeing his namesake born into this world is a small, acceptable boon?  

Of course, I could be totally wrong and Choi's decision could have immense merit but I wonder.