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.”
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One scenario that the author missed in regard to professionals addressing mothers as “Mom” in conversation is counseling and psychotherapy, and I must admit I am guilty of it as well. I am a psychologist who works with children, adolescents, and families, and often it seems most appropriate to refer to adults in a young person’s life by the title the young person uses everyday, whether that is “Mom” or “Papaw” or “Uncle Joey.” For example, if I were working with a young person and their mother, I might say something like, “Can you look at Mom and say that to her?” or maybe “Mom, how does that make you feel?” This seems more natural to me than addressing the mom by her given name because the parent-child dyad is the focus of the relationship that is under scrutiny at the moment. Maybe that is why it seems so easy for professionals to directly address a mother as “mom” because in that moment, she IS mom, and only mom (not one of her other roles or identities), and letting someone like a dentist or psychotherapist into the realm of caretaking for one’s family is a form of intimacy that suggests “Mom’ is acceptable. From now on I will check with my clients about their preferred way to be addressed!
Thanks for your perspective as a therapist, Aimee! I can especially see how it would be natural to address a mother that way in a therapeutic setting where the therapist is acting as a facilitator. If your goal is to be assisting what you hope will become a direct conversation between the parties involved, it makes sense that you would be addressing them almost as if it were from the perspective of the child (or the mother).
If you are speaking to the child, you could speak of “your mom.” When you address the mother, however, I think you might consider addressing her by her own name. It’s healthy for our children to understand that we are not only “mom” but persons in our own right. Otherwise we risk enforcing the idea to the child and the adult that a woman’s parenting identity is the preeminent one and goodness knows we get that message enough everywhere else.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to speak to anyone without inadvertently tipping over some inane personal taboo. I refer to all as Mr. Mrs. Ms. or Miss and I always ask to be sure I have their sacred preference correct. My preferred option is to just walk away and avoid having to deal with fools.
Mr. Stans (if I may presume), don’t you have to ask anyway, if you choose from among those titles? And even if you tried to be completely traditional, wouldn’t you have to ask to figure out whether a woman was “Mrs. X” or “Miss X?” I’m not sure why it offends you to ask about someone’s preference, if it wouldn’t have offended you to inquire as to her marital status.
I don’t give a fig about her marital status. I just want to avoid a heavy whine and get on with business. It won’t make any difference since something else will offend her – office decorations, the Rhinoceros head on the wall – something. If it was left completely up tome I would just call her “Hey Lady”.
Might be even more efficient to just use, “Hey You,” or even easier, “Yo!” Then you don’t have to figure out gender, either. Or age, or anything. Hmmm, you might be on to something…
“Yo!” I like it. Gender is overrated. As long as they can reach the beer tap and the brakes – whatever is fine. A dear friend of almost 60 years had sex change operation when he was 66. She seems much happier now. Having known him as male for many years and now officially she is a female I have pronoun trouble so when seeking a pronoun I just use “they” or Doctor Jones.
I love this commentary! I too often feel weird being called “mom,” and annoyed at some of the results. For example, I have been in a music class since January with the same mothers and babies, but because the teachers use “mom” or “Catherine’s mommy” for all of us, I now find myself dancing in a circle once a week with women whose names I can’t remember (since we only heard them when we introduced ourselves on the very first day). At what point can the child learn that we are BOTH “mommy” to them and “Jane” or “Ms. Reynolds” to someone else, and that both of those titles are important and real? Of course “Mommy” will be most important to the child, but it’s not the only title we bear, and the children need to learn that early on.
If I had to guess, it is probably their way of being cutesy and kid-friendly. They think by calling you that, that your child will feel more comfortable and that you are being acknowledged as the parent and primary care provider. I can see how that would be weird though! I’ve had some people recently reference me as “sister,” which seems strange to me as I am not their sister haha.
Honestly, there are bigger things to worry about as a Mother. So much ado here about nothing. Or what my friends like to call “First world people problems.”
CM, of course, being called “Mom” by the dentist is not, in the scheme of things, a big deal. But small matters, such as terms of address, do add up. I don’t think it was inconsequential that women fought in the 1970s to be called “Ms.”, rather than “Mrs.” or “Miss.” How we are addressed matters for how we are treated as public actors.
Also, I was trying to use the episode to illuminate how many of us do or do not consider our status as mothers to be relevant and respected in the civic sphere. This, too, matters far beyond one visit to the dentist. And it matters as much or more for American mothers living in difficult circumstances as for those of us who are better off.
Interesting. So far, I’ve never experienced anybody call me “Mom” the way you describe. The characteristics of the “Modern Mom” that you outline are pretty much the same for Northern Europe though. I live in Germany and over here, there are not so many possiblities to adress others: Your’re called by your last name, Mrs. or Mr. plus the last name, and that’s it. However, most people with whom I’m in touch because of my daughters adress me with their last name – which is not mine. This I consider really disrespecfulI … I fill in papers with my last name, they see two different names, and they simply ignore. I’ve been wondering ever since why in the 21st century it should be so hard to accept that a mother’s name is different from her daughters’. Having read your post I think probably it’s the same cultural debate about maternal identity, as you called it, that hides behind calling mothers “Mom”.
Interesting reflection, indeed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I find myself making connections between the various interpretations of mom and a recent video campaign I’ve seen trying to reclaim what it means to do something “like a girl.” I’m all in favor of reclaiming girl-ness and mom-ness and wonderful identities.
Victorian mom, I’m not, although there are elements of her in my parenting choices. Yet I also can’t embrace either definition of Modern Mother or mommy blogger. Perhaps I’m a different kind of mom altogether.
Interestingly, I was a “mom” before I was a biological parent. My college roommates (and few others) often deemed me the mom, it there was nothing pejorative about it. I was the staple-in-my-thumb remover, cough syrup buyer, deadline reminder, hugger, and remember-where-we-all-came-from advocate.
As a teacher of kids with intensive special needs, I worked with kids whose intense disabilities sometimes interfered with the parent-child bond. Some of my students were wards of the state, with no biological family. While I was certainly not “mom,” as “teacher” I was often the one who appeared in court, made doctor appointments, nagged at social workers, kissed boo-boos, gave hugs, and taught basic social and communication skills.
Now with kids of my own, my public career is on hold. And I’m still mom. By choice. And I have found so much more to “mom” than I could have imagined. I am Engineering Mom, Lego Robotics Mom, Cupcake Mom, PTA mom, defender and nurturer of quirky kids. The vast majority of the 600 kids in our elementary have had me in their classrooms, bringing 21st century learning skills projects to help out the teachers’ efforts and to be the change I want to see in the classroom. Some call me “Mrs. C,” but if you say “Engineering mom,” they ALL know me. And my own kids walk around like peacocks knowing that I belong in their place almost as much as they do. And there aren’t apron strings involved: I’m careful not to interfere with their formation of identity within the school, and my job in life is to give them the love and skills to be good people and lifelong learners.
For my own part, I reserve the name “mom” or even “mama” for some of my dearest friends, whose parenting identities I respect. I’ve never meant it disparagingly, and I’ve never heard it that way from others, be it friend or kid-related professional.
Call me mom anytime, but thanks for the food for thought.
I don’t recall being put off when my children were young and someone addressed me as mom. It sounded a little weird, but I think it was well-meaning and for my children’s benefit. Somehow I believe it is a comforting term for them to hear and I assume that was the intent. If anyone called me mom out of this context, it wouldn’t be pretty.
Hello. Greetings from Malaysia. I’m a mom of a 17 months old. Honestly, I won’t be bothered by anyone other than my kid calling me mom. Its an acknowledgement and I take it as a compliment. I don’t think about it too much. When i’m with friends, they call me my name. I called other moms by their name. When i’m with my child and the adults address me as mom, i’m okay with that as well. If other kids playing with my child called me mom, I’m happy as well and throw in some extra hug. So here’s a big hug to all moms. Cheers y’all.
I am coming late to this discussion, but I discovered it as I was writing my own blog post on the topic. I like the therapist above who uses it to connect and facilitate conversations with her patients and their parents, but when my child isn’t even there, it’s dismissive and, yes, weird. I agree with you! (My post is here: http://swallowmysunshine.com/my-name-is-not-mom/)