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.
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.
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.
A 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