The dentist peered in my child’s mouth, then turned to me. “Hey, Mom, you did a good job, no cavities!” I brought my kids for a check-up recently, and our wonderful pediatric dentist warmly complimented me. But why on earth did he call me that? And why did it irk me? I can’t recall anyone addressing my own mother that way, when I was a child. And yet, this manner of address is not unique to our dentist. I’ve noticed it in pediatricians’ offices repeatedly. In a childbirth preparation video I saw an obstetrician tell a woman, “OK, Mom, I need you to really push this time!”
When I heard it in the childbirth video, I assumed that the annoying obstetrician just couldn’t be bothered to learn his patients’ names. It’s more convenient to just call them all “Mom.” But I don’t think that explanation holds for our dentist. He asked how my book is coming, and whether I was still having knee pain, since we had a conversation about it six months previously. He’s a thoughtful guy who treats his clients as individuals. If he thought I’d prefer to hear my name, I’m sure he’d use it.
So why “Mom?” Maybe it’s too hard to know these days how married women with children want to be addressed. I’m pretty vague on that myself. Would our dentist get it right if he called me “Mrs. Wu?” My kids’ last name is “Wu.” But I filled out the office forms as “Freidenfelds.” And then, would I be “Ms. Freidenfelds?” Or “Dr. Freidenfelds?” Perhaps I am the type to find last names oddly formal, and would prefer “Lara.” Or maybe I would find it offensive if he presumed. There are a lot of ways he could get it wrong. Perhaps it’s just easier to call me “Mom.”
While shifting mores around terms of address may be part of the explanation, I don’t think it’s the heart of the matter. In fact, I suspect the dentist and I are witnessing, and participating in, a moment of genuine cultural tension and change around motherhood and mothers’ roles. When he calls me “Mom” and I feel irritated by it, we are playing out a cultural debate about maternal identity.
This cultural tension has not arisen de novo; it has clear historical roots. I think we can find clues as to what may be happening in historian Rebecca Jo Plant’s analysis of the battle between the Victorian Mother and the Modern Mom in the 1930s and 1940s. In Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America, Plant insightfully shows us how and why we became “Mom.”
Plant demonstrates that the Victorian Mother—the self-sacrificing “angel of the house” who lovingly nurtured her children and tied them to her apron strings, and who claimed moral authority in her adult children’s lives as well as the life of the nation—did not in fact go out of fashion with the close of the nineteenth century. But by the 1930s, she was competing with the Modern Mom, who knew when to cut the apron strings and get on with her own life. For the Victorian Mother, mothering was a calling for life and a noble profession, requiring as much courage and willingness to self-sacrifice as that of a soldier. The Victorian Mother was a social institution, and mothers wielded public moral authority. But in the 1930s and 1940s, women and social critics alike grew impatient with what they began to perceive as the overbearing, hyper-sentimental Victorian Mother.
So the Victorian Mother was demoted, by critics as varied as Philip Wylie, Betty Friedan, and Dr. Fernand Lamaze. In her place was elevated the Modern Mom. She was a sensible girl, aware that childbirth had become much safer, and didn’t even have to be painful, so she wouldn’t think to pester her children with stories of how dreadfully she had suffered bringing them into the world. She knew that she was crucially important to her young children’s well-being, but she was not so silly as to trust “maternal instinct;” she sensibly followed childrearing literature and pediatricians’ orders. She also knew when to cut the apron strings, not expecting to be a major moral influence in her adult children’s lives. And she realized that mothering was all about private, individual self-fulfillment, not a platform for moral authority in civic life. It was supposed to be personally fulfilling, but she was supposed to leave it behind and develop a non-“Mom” identity for her public life.
Does this Modern Mom sound familiar? It is certainly how I was raised to understand the job. And I think it is why it irks me to be addressed as “Mom” by people who are not my children. I have no desire to turn back the clock and become a Victorian Mother; I agree with Betty Friedan that I would not be happy to have “Mother” be my sole identity. But the “Mom” identity I learned is private, partial, and directed toward my family. It is not a respected public title.
Things may be changing, though. I have joined MomsRising. That organization believes the Modern Mom does have a place in civic life. Perhaps less inspiringly, I (and countless others) have been invited by Babycenter.com to join its “Moms Panel,” i.e., become a contributor to the website’s market research. I’m not sure this is entirely a sign of respect, but it is certainly an acknowledgment of the Modern Mom’s economic influence. My pediatric dentist perhaps sits at the crossroads: vis-à-vis the older model, he is a medical expert affirming my presumably-insecure mothering ability; but maybe he is also picking up the mojo of the Modern Mom of the twenty-first century.
Lately, the term “Mommy bloggers” has come into vogue, and it’s not usually a compliment. And yet, it refers to an enormous number of writers, many of whom produce socially and economically valuable content in a growing and highly-visible field. Is the label an attempt at another demotion, from “Mom” to “Mommy?” Are critics worried that these mothers-as-bloggers are claiming too much civic and economic authority? Are bloggers too often unselfconsciously willing to be referred to in the diminutive, because they think of their mothering roles as, at heart, private, partial and modest?
Time will tell. But in any case, definitely don’t call me “Mommy.”