Friday, October 24, 2008

Your Mama Wears Birkenstocks.

Whither Mommy? It's all Moms and Mamas these days, or so it seems. My own mother ("Mom," but "Mommy" back in the day) referred to me as "Mommy" to my son a bunch of times before I had to say something. I figured she'd catch on eventually that that's not the word I use for myself, but I found it grating enough that I couldn't wait.

I'm Mom. And for some reason that I can't pin down, being called "Mommy" really bugs. I mean, if Ben starts calling me "Mommy," I'm not about to correct him, and I imagine I'll think it's pretty cute, given the preponderance of evidence that I think nearly everything this child does is cute. But until then, I resist. And if I have to come up with a reason, the closest I can come is that it's infantilizing -- which I recognize is ridiculous, since my child is an actual infant. But it strikes me as icky, syrupy, like talking to your spouse in baby-talk.

But as "Mom," I think I'm in the minority, at least among mothers I know. Most of them are "Mama." It seems to be a phenomenon of the crunchy left, but maybe my sample is just skewed. The first person of my generation I noticed calling herself "Mama" was my friend Michele, who, tragically, isn't around to ask about it. I'd place her on the fringes of the range of crunchy, and probably leftish though not very political. I thought it was maybe a family tradition or a selected bit of quirkiness, like how she had her daughter call female family friends "Tante."

But then it started cropping up all over, this Mama thing. It didn't acquire a patina of ew for me until I started occasionally rubbernecking (via this thread at TPW) at the train wreck that is the Mothering Dot Com Forums. To be fair, most of what's there is perfectly sensible and well-in-the-range-of-normal discussion, but the outliers are a doozy. (Don't bother looking for the carnage if you're an outsider: the juicy threads are in folders to which only trusted users have access.) It's your basic crunchy parenting stuff (cloth diapering, breastfeeding, big love for Dr. Sears) with forays into the mildly icky (family cloth), the might-be-ok-if-not-practiced-by-idiots (unschooling), the science-averse (refusing to vaccinate), the disturbing (advice about how to keep CPS off your scent), and the truly terrifyingly stupid (UC VBAC). From the mildly crunchy to the wildly unhinged on this board, though, they nearly all call themselves "Mama." It's a kind of shibboleth of adherence to principles of crunchiness, and it's this connotation of the word that grates on me.

Otherwise, it's a perfectly cromulent word. It seems of a piece with "Mommy," though not nearly so treacly, in its embrace of the infantile: "ma-ma," after all, is among every baby's first words. Mommies grow up to be Moms, though, which I suspect Mamas do not. "Mama" suggests something vaguely European, which may be part of its appeal: both babyish and strangely sophisticated. Nobody would accuse Mommy of belonging to the cosmopolitan Old World.

Some part of the adoption of "Mama" is the rejection of "Mom," of course, which used to be -- and still is in lots of places -- the gold standard. So what's wrong with "Mom"? Too mainstream? Too attached to apple pie in that oft-cited American twosome? For what it's worth, Dad doesn't seem to have been replaced. Dad is still Dad.

I find amusing the Baby Boomer Grandmother's agonizing search for a term for herself other than "Grandma." She's no "Grandma"! She's too hip, too rockin', too full of vim and verve and zest and other things that mean life and contain unusual letters. She's Nana or Oma or the word for grandmother in other various languages. (I shamed my own mother with this argument into accepting "Grandma," and I think she's ok with it.) But I wonder whether it isn't the same forces at work on BBG's daughter: "Mom" is simply not awesome enough to contain her.


Carrie Frederick Frost said...

This from the woman who infamously said, "Mommy is the mommiest"!!

Seriously: I am similarly dismayed, in a parallel fashion, that newspaper articles now tend to refer to mothers as "moms" instead of "mothers." Where is our sense of propriety? "Mom" (as well as "mama" and "mommy," for that matter) is a familiar term, whereas "mother" is a formal term. I mourn this loss of formality.

My older children went through a stage, unprompted by me, of calling me "mama." It mystified me, but I found it endearing because it was generated by them. In moments of tenderness, my oldest son calls me "Mom-Mom," which melts my heart. Mostly it's "Mom." Which is just fine.

Holly said...

Who said that? Me? I have no memory of it. What were we talking about?

Phantom Scribbler said...

"Mom" is a very whine-friendly word. It's not impossible to say "mama" with an equal amount of whininess, but it requires more effort.

(But mostly: "mom" is my mom, whom I don't want to be. So I resist the word strenuously. Other mamas' mileage may vary, however.)

Suzanne said...

My position in the world has turned me into "Mummy" or "Mother" (read with toddler-style British accent). My sisters and I have maintained the Canadian version 'Mum' for our mother, and I never thought my commonwealth connections would come full circle. One has not really experienced whining, or should I say whinging, until one has heard "muummmy, mummy, mummy". It's a uniquely British art form, I think.

Love the blog, Holly. Congratulations on Ben. Glad to hear that you are all doing well and surviving babyhood.

Leah said...

Actually, this Mama wears mephistos, but she does have a pair of birkenstocks handy. And yet, I must say, the idea of family cloth grosses me out, unschooling sounds ineffective, I used to report to CPS in my old job and a UC VBAC sounds downright bizarre.

I am Mama, and probably will remain so, as I call my mom, "Mama" and she calls her mom "Mama." It used mostly in endearment, on phone calls or birthday cards, whereas "Mom" or "Ma" is the call across the house about where did I leave my keys. I figure Naomi will figure it out as she goes.

Congrats on the blog! It's a great read.