Feminism

Enough! Stop Calling me Mommy

The first person to call me “mommy” was a NICU nurse to whom I was bringing vials of breast milk to refrigerate. The hospital’s guidelines tell staff to encourage each mother’s pumping effort, and this nurse said “Wow! Great job mommy!” then turned to my son’s isolette and gushed “Didn’t mommy do well today?”

I cringed because there was something incredibly creepy about someone my parents’ age calling me “mommy.”

Since that awkward moment, adults have called me “mommy” more times than is necessary or appropriate (though I think the number of times someone who is not my child should call me “mommy” is zero since I have not given consent for them to do so–and popping out a child does NOT count as consent despite what some seem to think).

In the NICU several staff members called me “mommy.” They also called me “mom,” which was less cringeworthy, but still unnecessary. Frankly, the NICU is the last place anyone should strip parents of their names. Our last names are emblazoned everywhere:  on our infants’ care binders, on isolettes, on computer screens, on charts, on nurse’s notes, on ID bracelets, and taped to clothing and blankets.

If it’s a matter of reinforcing our role as parents in the alternate reality of a hospital, this can be done by treating us like parents by including us in the procedures normal parents do: changing diapers, reading to our child, singing lullabies, and making choices about their clothes or bedding.

call me mommy again, and I will eat your head. . .

call me mommy again, and I may eat your head. . . (imageby MipsyRetro

While some parents do not have the same last name as their child, I promise you that I would prefer to politely correct staff than have them call me “mommy.” Fortunately for my sanity, many medical staff courteously called me by first or last name.

There are two elements to being called “mommy” that offend me.

First, is the misuse of a word that results in the casual removal of my identity as a whole and complex person without my consent.

That misuse grates on my ears. Mommy and Daddy are proper nouns when children use to name parents. For everyone else it is a perfectly acceptable common noun (as in “she is a mom”), but an awkward proper noun (“Way to go Mommy!”).

As for the way in which “mommy” results in the casual removal of my identity, I noticed that happening while I was pregnant. Admittedly, since my children were born, they have consumed most of my time and much of my energy. However, they haven’t absorbed my identity.

If anything, becoming a parent has made me more complex, and having that complexity reduced to a single diminutive word that strips me of my name is insulting and rude. It also makes it easier for the speaker to dismiss my ideas, expertise and opinions.

This occurred recently from one of the professionals who work with my children to overcome the complications of their prematurity. My son’s care coordinator dismissed my desire to choose my children’s developmental preschool by saying “all mommies worry” and launching into an explanation for how “mommies get over” that worry.

This would be insulting under any circumstances, but more so because I hold a graduate degree in education, and have years of experience teaching, including in co-taught classrooms that catered to children with disabilities. It was this area of expertise from which my concerns arose, but the care coordinator dismissed all of it. I was just a “mommy,” and all that I had accomplished prior to gestating my children may as well have never happened.

The second element, is the sexism. The same NICU staff frequently called my husband “Mr. X” (not actually X of course). It emphasized the giant gulf between he and I in their minds. These people never called him “daddy,” and they never called me “Ms.” Again, I appreciated those who simply called us both by our names.

It’s the sexism that kills me, especially when it’s paired with an absolute refusal to acknowledge alternative family arrangements. For example, I was discussing this post with a former neighbor who has a toddler son with his male partner and he mentioned how often they have to deal with the offensive question “so, who is the mommy then?” There are so many ways in which using the term “mommy” to label one parent dismisses the complexity and variety of parenting relationships.

image from WILPF.org

image from WILPF.org

Let me be clear. I love the sound of my toddlers small voices calling me “mommy.” My son has begun snuggling into my neck when I carry him saying, “mommy hold you,” while the other says “love mommy, snuggle mommy” when he is tired or in his sleep (but then he also says “tractor” and “purple” a lot while asleep). Perhaps because of the intimacy and sweetness of those moments, it is all the more grating to hear a stranger utter that same word.

“I’m not your parent,” I eventually started saying “please don’t call me mommy.”

Part of the offense at the term “mommy” is the way in which it is paired with hyperbole to denigrate parents. For example, in the phrase “mommy wars” the hyperbole of using the term “war” to describe conflicts that arise from differing styles of parenting combines with the cutesy term “mommy” to indicate that these conflicts are ridiculous and overblown.

This combination of hyperbole and denigration also occurs in every variation of the idea that “being a mom(my) is the hardest job in the world.” By giving the appearance of honoring mothers for their work through the hyperbolic phrase “hardest job in the world,” people find it ok to dismiss the legitimate parenting and basic rights of these “mommies.”

Then, there is the use of “mommy” or “mom” to modify a noun where a reference to someone’s parenting status is unnecessary. Adding “mommy” makes the modified word overly cutesy and not one to be taken seriously. An example of this is “mommy bloggers” or “mom with a camera,” both of which imply that the writer/photographer is less than professional/ competent, or only has expertise in children. I did not suddenly develop an ability to string together sentences the moment my babies were cut from me. It just doesn’t work that way.

mommyconA sort of reversal of this is the overuse of “mommy” or “mom” as short hand for “parent,” essentially dismissing any other partners in the parenting relationship. Examples of this include “Mommycon,” “mommy and me” classes, and “mommy mixers.”

Then there are more subtly dismissive phrases like “mommy makeover.” I went in for a haircut last month, and the woman said excitedly “I love mommy makeovers!” I’d gotten my hair cut several times before having children without being told that doing so was a “makeover.” But, apparently being a “mommy” means I take such poor care of my own appearance that previously routine changes become makeovers. While I don’t dispute that my hygiene took a turn for the worse while my kids were babies, so did that of everyone in our house.

Sometimes I rant about being called “mommy” (I am prone to ranting), and often people protest with comments like “I wear the name ‘mommy’ with pride!” “not everyone can be a mommy!” and “mommy is never an insult. It’s a compliment!”

To them I say “that’s cool.”

When you declare that you are proud to be called “mommy” in conversation, or when you argue about how great an honor it is to be called “mommy,” you are providing your consent to being called “mommy” instead of something else (like, say, your actual name).

However, I have not given this consent. And, consent and respect for the entire person is really what it boils down to in the end. The default should be a parent’s name or title, and the exception (given only when consent is clear) should be the diminutive term “mommy.”

featured image from Pixabay

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Deek

Deek

Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

20 Comments

  1. April 7, 2015 at 12:01 pm —

    I agree 100%. I despise being reduced to nothing more than my identity as a mother. Nobody calls me mommy except for my kids. Sometimes my husband will address me directly as mommy, like “Hey mommy, look at what [child] did!” I’ll just stay silent until he corrects himself…

    • April 7, 2015 at 2:19 pm —

      My wife and I have been calling each other mommy and daddy a lot lately. It doesn’t bother me, but I kind of expected it to before it started happening. I definitely agree that it can be weird when it’s someone you don’t know well, or at all.

      • April 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm —

        Hanoumatoi, I think this is a great example of consent given for nicknames that work well for you both. That consent is really the most important thing to me.

        • April 7, 2015 at 5:54 pm —

          I’m also coming from a place of incredible privilege, as a white cis man, so I am not at all in the same position as you or Kavin, who already have things harder just by being women. The condescending aspect of it is something I hadn’t even really considered. The identity wipe I had, but not the condescending part.
          Can I make a quick aside to talk about how ludicrous it is: a mother doing things for her kid is just expected, but I do anything to help and “Wow, what a great father/husband you are!” It feels really unearned. I try my best to help my wife, but that doesn’t make me a GREAT father or husband, it just makes me a good one! The kind all fathers and husbands should be!

          • April 8, 2015 at 10:53 am

            I have a friend and fellow parent of multiples who regularly takes his young girls out on errands, exploring, etc because he and his wife balance their kid load very evenly. Almost every time someone either comments that he’s a “great dad,” says something along the lines of “dad’s day out, huh?” or implies that he has custody that weekend/day. He has taken it as his mission to systematically correct them, and it seems sad to me that the first three things people’s minds go to are not that a father spending time alone with his kids doing mundane things is the norm.

          • April 8, 2015 at 1:14 pm

            As my husband said this weekend, “I just spent two hours at the park doing something that would be called ‘mothering’ if Em did it. ‘Fathering’ has a much different connotation.” The idea that “mothering” and “mommy” as all consuming roles is so engrained in our culture that it can feel like any criticism is diminishing the importance of that role.

    • April 7, 2015 at 4:44 pm —

      Kavin, I have been fortunate that my husband hasn’t called me that yet. He is not a big fan of nicknames to begin with, and knows I find that one grating. I think it may confuse our kids a little as they begin to work out different words naming different things because it means their parents essentially have two names. But, they seem to be navigating it pretty well in the same way that they understand I call their grandma mom.

  2. April 7, 2015 at 12:34 pm —

    I LOVE this. I couldn’t agree more. Mommy is a sweet name my kids call me, and I love hearing it from them. When an adult says it, I find it creepy, sexist and belittling. I’m going to steal, “I’m not your parent,” if you don’t mind 🙂

    • April 7, 2015 at 4:46 pm —

      Please do! I think it’s a civil reminder that the name is just not appropriate.

  3. April 7, 2015 at 4:54 pm —

    I totally agree. This makes me think of strangers who use pet names, such as wait staff at a restaurant asking, “What would you like, sweetie?” You don’t know me, and I am not your sweetie. Please stick with ma’am, sir, or another word that doesn’t demean the use of that pet name when used by people who know me. Overall, I don’t think this is a life or death issue, and I’m not strict about correcting others, but I definitely see where you’re headed regarding the implications of using these terms to demean or make others feel less than, and it’s totally not ok.

    • April 8, 2015 at 10:48 am —

      Oh my. . .I absolutely agree with your point–using pet names when you aren’t in a position to do so somehow muddles the word and can make it less sweet. I haven’t always articulated it to myself or others the way you do here, but it definitely bugs me and I tend to shut it down politely but quickly.

  4. April 7, 2015 at 6:07 pm —

    It didn’t bother me at all when the NICU nurses and doctors called us “Mom” and “Dad.” While “Mommy” may have been annoying, I assumed they used the parent nicknames for simplicity. They would also refer to us with things like, “Mommy’s here!” or “Daddy’s arms are a good place to be.” The nurses and doctors rotated, and having to remember the parents’ names in addition to the baby’s is something I didn’t need them to focus on. Just focus on my baby, please.

    What did greatly annoy me was the check-in nurse at the perinatologist calling me “mama” when I came in for a postpartum appointment after my son died. But that has more to do with tact for the grieving than sexism, I suppose.

    • April 8, 2015 at 11:11 am —

      Elizabeth, I am very sorry about your son. It doesn’t compare, but I remember being so lost during the early weeks when they weren’t supposed to survive and hearing things said without thought (like “oh, did they live?”), which just made the hurt worse.

      I think you’ve hit on where it can be a little complicated. I didn’t mind the “mommy’s here!” type comments, because it reinforced that my babies were tiny people. . .and not, just patients whose tubes took up more space than they did. Our doctors/interns all rotated every 3 weeks, but they rotated as a group and there were only 2 groups in the rotation that dealt with our nursery. So, they still saw us a lot. I didn’t jump down people’s throats or anything (there was so much more to worry about and it didn’t happen all the time), but, being spoken directly to as “mommy” was sometimes frustrating given the seriousness of the discussions.

  5. April 7, 2015 at 6:13 pm —

    I hated this *SO MUCH* in the hospital. It isn’t like your name goes away when you have a baby. I felt like I was supposed to forfeit my entire identity bc of the unit I was on. ugh.

    • April 8, 2015 at 11:13 am —

      There was a great comment on the GP facebook page about that, and I hope it’s ok to quote it here: “I am more than just my reproductive system and whether or not it functioned according to code. I don’t care how well-meaning people think they’re being, it’s infantilizing and diminishing.” –C

  6. April 8, 2015 at 10:03 am —

    I hate this! It hasn’t happened too much to me, but when it does, it drives me crazy, for exactly the reasons you mentioned (except the part about having education and professional qualifications, because I don’t have those). Usually the term of choice is “mama” which is especially annoying since my son and I speak Portuguese, and mama means “boob”. But yeah, just in general, it’s highly nauseating. Thanks for writing this.

  7. April 17, 2015 at 12:58 pm —

    It’s interesting that your husband was called Mr… and you go the title of Mommy. That disparate treatment would have pissed me off as well. I remember with both of my kids regurally being called dad or daddy at the hospital. I took it as acknowledging the new and important role life.

    • April 21, 2015 at 12:53 am —

      I can see how it would be exciting to hear “mommy/daddy” when your child is first born, and how using the words “daddy/mommy’ or “dad/mom” can initially be exactly what you experinced–an acknowledgment of “the new and important role” a person is playing.

      I think there comes a point when using those terms to directly address a parent stops being a way to acknowledge that role and starts being less positive–where that occurs in the parenting experience is different based on the context in which it’s spoken, role of the speaker, etc. My babies are two years old now, and for me it is long past the time an adult should be calling me “mommy,” but it persists for some reason. This article was part of my reflection on why that continues to occur in both my personal life and in the wider scope of parents in general.

      Tangential note on the disparate treatment. My husband was in the military until recently, and we were at a somewhat formal social event, and someone greeted us by calling him by his rank and last name, then turned to me and said “and you brought the mommy!” It was incredibly awkward and only happened once, but made me think about perception and cultural norms that would cause someone to think that using such different terms for two members of a couple would be ok.

      • April 21, 2015 at 2:56 pm —

        I agree with Deek. I love to hear my son call me ‘Mummy’. I waited years for that. But it’s not appropriate for another adult to call me that. It diminishes me and strips me of all my other identities.

        I have no problem with children at E.’s nursery school calling me “E.’s Mummy”, as that’s an expression of how they understand their relationship to me.

        Deek- I once wrote a (very polite) letter of complaint to the university Husband and I both attended after they kept insisting on sending us mail labelled “Dr. and Mrs. Husband”.

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