What is it about the word “mom”? It makes me want to choke. Not when I hear it in my own house, uttered by my own child, in reference to me. In that case I love it — heedlessly, actually, as if this universal and mundane moniker were a pet name bestowed upon me by my beloved. In this same context, I also love “mommy.” And — especially (I confess) — “mama,” which, when carelessly employed by an 11-year-old who can now say “shit,” holds within its two mirrored syllables a time, not so very long ago but seemingly in another epoch, when that selfsame child was learning to differentiate who in her tiny universe was who.
What bothers me is the rampant appropriation of “mom” by adults, who use it in reference to other adults. You know what I mean. The president says he wants to make life better for “moms.” As the 2016 presidential campaign gears up, pundits talk about courting “the mom vote,” and the prospective candidates themselves comply. In speeches, New Jersey governor Chris Christie refers to his own mother as “a strong, tough woman from a single mom,” and in her Twitter bio, Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. senator and secretary of state, calls herself “Wife, mom” before enumerating any other accomplishments. Celebrities gush about how they adore being moms — “I’m Mommy,” says Beyoncé, “I love it all” — and headline writers lasciviously promote bad-mom crimes. “Mom Injects Feces into Son’s IV” is just one recent example: It’s shocking when anyone does such a thing, but it’s exponentially more shocking when the perp is a “mom.”
My objections in these instances are the obvious ones, already expertly enumerated by Heather Havrilesky in the Times last fall: Why is the dominant culture consigning all females who happen to be parents into one giant fetishized category? “Mom” derives from baby talk: ma ma. It’s a deeply intimate word that the tiniest humans learn at the breast and as such is inherently demeaning when applied broadly to all women with children, not too far from having your boss use a lovers’ endearment like “darling” or “hon.” It’s a kid’s word at heart, containing a kid’s-eye view of things. “Mom” is an overpowering presence: omnipotent, mythic, nurturing, and bosomy, a perfumed provider of succor, discipline, and food; but also (as the child grows up) embarrassing, annoying, nagging, insufficient, disappointing — an object of fun. What woman wants to be all that out in the world with perfect strangers, however gratifying her private relations with her children might be? “Mom” has a vaguely creepy aspect, too, a replay of the Madonna-whore complex, for as any adolescent will tell you, you can’t look away from a naked mom, both utterly compelling and the grossest thing in the world. You’re a “mom” or a “MILF” — two sides of the same coin, neither one particularly flattering even when they’re meant, as they often are, as compliments.
My gag reflex is triggered by all of the above, but by something else as well — a shouldering of the mom identity by women themselves, so that females, with responsibilities and jobs and advanced degrees and a certain shrewd awareness of how being parents, or not, affects how they appear to others in the world, are beginning to use it to refer to each other and themselves. This is the thing that makes me squirm: the moment I find myself saying “my mom friends” to refer to the women I sometimes have coffee with after I drop my kid at school. I say it, but it feels wrong — constraining, immature, and disrespectful to the funny, smart, accomplished, cranky women in that set — the way I imagine it might feel to introduce a paunchy middle-aged career man in a suit as my “boyfriend.” At a time when gender roles in the privacy of homes are as fluid and up for grabs as they’ve ever been, is “mom” really the best we can do?
We live in a world of mom friends, and moms’ nights out, and moms’ groups, and mommy matinees, and book clubs for mommies only and recipes for Mommy Martinis. Our president’s wife is the Mom-in-Chief. We promise our children we’ll phone so-and-so’s mom; we sign our emails to the teacher or to the PTA “Max’s mom” or “Isabelle’s mom,” as if to use the more formal and now antique-seeming “mother” implicates us as insufficiently maternal, lacking in warmth and hovering concern. (This is neither here nor there, but I’m quite sure my own mother never referred to the female parents of my childhood friends as “moms”; she called them “Jane” or “Irm” or “Lotte,” if she gave them any thought at all.)
There are those who would say that “mom” is an honorific, somehow, a blessing and a tribute to those who do the hardest job of all. But if that were true, then “dad” would be, too, and it’s not. (Look at the text of Obama’s 2008 Father’s Day speech, a 4,000-word exhortation to responsible fatherhood. There, Obama said “father” 44 times; “dad” and “daddy” were each used once.) When we speak of male parents with reverence and respect, we use the word “father”: When we want to signal they’re fuckable we say they’re “cute dads.”
I am not the only one who finds the “mommy” title — when uttered by a woman in reference to her peers — squeamish-making. “When someone invites me to a ‘moms’ night out,’ I run the other way,” posted one person on Urban Baby. “The absolute worst is when women refer to themselves as ‘mamas.’ I want to kick them in the shin,” agreed another. “Mom doesn’t bother me,” equivocated a third, “but mommy drives me insane. Even worse are the morons who spell it ‘mommie.’” Last year, Rebecca Jo Plant, a women’s history professor at the University of California at San Diego, agreed to moderate a panel, the subject of which was women as mothers in academic life. “They wanted to title the panel ‘I Am Mommy Hear Me Roar,’” Plant told me. “I totally cringed. I wrote them an email and said something like, ‘I’m not too crazy about the word “mommy” here, can’t we just put “mother”?’” Plant, who is in her mid-40s, believes the adaptation of “mommy” as a self-identifier is a generational thing, easier for younger women to swallow than older ones. The scholars were as baffled by her objection as she was by their choice of the word. Ultimately, they changed it to “Mom.”
For the past few days, I have been trying to pinpoint the exact historical moment when “mom” became the default replacement for “mother” in nearly every case. American children were overwhelmingly calling their female parent “mom” by the middle of the 20th century, and people went to “moms’ groups” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, extensions of the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s. In 1988, the New York Times used for the first time the term “mommy track.” But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, that “mom” began to hold the widespread sacred valence that it has today. This was during the Clinton years, when Hillary was smeared for not being quite mom enough, and as part of their anti-abortion, family-values rhetoric, social conservatives were pitting “stay at home moms” against “welfare queens.” (Ronald Reagan, remember, called his beloved wife Nancy “mommy.”) Popular commercials for Robitussin, with the tagline “Dr. Mom,” showed mothers as the only ones competent enough to care for the family and keep order at home; the 1996 election was said to hinge on the votes of “soccer moms.”
The default use of “mom” to describe every female in the world with children started in the early 2000s as a joke, an ironic reaction to all that bland and sanctimonious mom-ish-ness. In 2002, this magazine launched what came to be called the mommy wars with a feature titled “Mom vs. Mom.” The next year, the cast of Saturday Night Live did its famous skit promoting “mom jeans.” (“Give her something that says, ‘I’m not a woman anymore … I’m a mom!’”) That same year, the band Fountains of Wayne came out with “Stacy’s Mom,” an Über-ironic, puerile song with the catchiest refrain in the world (“Stacy’s mom has got it going on”), an ode to the MILF of the new millennium.
Then, in 2004, Susan Douglas published The Mommy Myth, her best-selling critique of the oppressive expectations society foisted on mothers. Douglas doesn’t think much of the word “mommy.” “It’s infantilizing and condescending,” she told me; she wanted to call her book Bringing Up Baby. But her editors prevailed. “You know how it is working with headline writers. They were meaning ‘mommy’ in a self-reflexive, ironic kind of way. It’s this myth about this mother who’s a ‘mom,’ she’s a perfect mom. The book is really about how intensive mothering becomes this ideology that we’re all supposed to live up to.” Her book and all these other cultural signposts were meant as jabs at retrograde social values. But the irony backfired. The nomenclature — “mom,” “mommy,” and, God help us, “hot mama” — stuck. The critical subtext — “ain’t all this women’s sacred chore stuff a little much?” — didn’t.
“Mom” is such a deficient tag for the edgy, hilarious, imperfect, impatient, big-hearted, and brainy women I know through my child that I’m sitting here wondering what might work better. I’ve toyed with and discarded the idea of calling all female parents “Marmee,” in honor of Little Women. Instead, I’ll try this: In everyday speech, I’m going to try to call people by their names. And if I need a parental descriptor, I’ll default to “mother.”