In a recent essay in the New York Times, Heather Havrilesky has some points to make and one of them is that moms don’t like being called moms by anyone else but their kids. She spends a lot of time complaining about this. Because becoming a mom, she says, doesn’t so much change you as “refurbish” you, but only on the outside where other people can see and call you mommy against your will: on the inside…well, see above. She then goes on to cite Mommy and Me classes as part of the name issue and then talks about helicopter parenting and the way that some moms devote their entire lives to their kids as it she had suddenly discovered something new.
I have news for her. Twenty-seven years ago when I became a mom the same thing happened. And 27 years before that when other moms became moms they experienced many of the same things, too. There might not have been mommy “bloggers” back in the dark old days before the internet, but the pull between devotion to child and devotion to something else: job, self, outside interests, has been with us for a while now. Many of the writers and marchers and protesters of Second Wave Feminism are still around to prove it, as are those who came after and had their own struggles with what kind of mothers we wanted to be, had to be, should be. This is not new. This is not news. This is not a trend. (Note to readers: if something appears in the New York Times as a trend it is like a stock tip appearing on CNBC.) And being called ‘’mommy” by relative strangers is the least of the struggle.
What is behind each generation of mothers failing to recognize any sense of anyone having done anything like it before them? Isn’t part of the point of becoming a mother that we discover sympathy for our own moms? We finally get it? And why is it not possible to talk about motherhood without resorting to the resilient and wearying clichés of too much dirty laundry and the desire not to teach one’s child a foreign language in the womb as harbingers of our losing our identity? Is it impossible to discuss how complex motherhood is in the modern age (an age which did not begin in the 21st century) without pitting tiger moms against mothers who completely neglect their children–illustrating polar opposites just to make a point? Apparently not.
I get it. I do. Motherhood can be eye opening and I may have been a bit flummoxed myself when one mother confided in me that she never made her son eat vegetables because she was afraid if she did he wouldn’t like her. I was slightly unprepared when another mother fed my son and her daughter white bread with grape jelly and Kool-Aid because that was all her kid would eat. I may have even felt a tiny bit superior when, while I was preparing for a sabbatical year abroad in the UK with my husband, six-month-old baby and six-year-old son, a woman whose children played with my son told me, with a visible shudder, that she wouldn’t take her children to the supermarket never mind England. It is just the way of things that the frisson of competitiveness is always with us: we need it to assure ourselves that we and only we are doing things the right way. Even if we often have no idea what it is we are doing. And that is the part Havrilesky gets right when she slides those tales of rivalry into her essay. She might do well, however, to have read some older writers whose struggles were exactly the same. But when she insists that what is most important is the idea that motherhood is so all-encompassing that everyone calls you “mom” she loses the thread. Her essay isn’t really about being called “mom” at all; it is about feeling the need to give into and fighting against, at the same time, the expectations of modern motherhood that we perceive society is forcing us into. But that isn’t new either. And it isn’t going to be solved by getting our names back and asking people to stop calling us “mom.”
In fact, were one really to write an essay about motherhood in the 21st century one might do better to reflect on the underlying violence Havrilesky’s essay alludes to: When describing the need to be “all in, all the time,” the author talks about her sister-in-law, who, incensed by a mother who turned a school T-shirt into a craft project, wished to “teach a few people the artisanal craft of rearranging someone’s face using only your bare hands.” Bump that sentence up against the recent Huffington Post essay “To The Furious Mom in the Target Parking Lot,” in which the writer commiserates with another mother who is having a seriously terrible, really awful, horrible bad day; and the big story in the news about the mother who punched out a woman who dared to ask her to quiet her baby in a department store, and what you see is a far larger and scarier story than juggling soccer and ballet with one’s own personal and professional needs. Even though Havrilesky insists that every woman she knows loves motherhood, clearly there are many who do not or do not on any given day, for sure. And the reason for that may well be our own internally competitive natures which can be far more crippling than the competition we see from others. You get that pissed off over a craft project or a shopping trip and something larger is going on.
Obviously it is more than “the reigning cultural narrative (which) tells us that we are no longer lively, inspired women with our own ideas and emotions so much as facilitators mean to employ the calm, helpful tones of diplomats,” that causes such fury. The fact is that when women are mothers they are mothers first, and that is simply not news. It’s that that we need to know before we make the decision to have a child. And every woman needs to make the choice herself and not have that choice taken away from her. My mom had children as much because she was supposed to as she wanted to, and she told me so. Societal norms pressured her to marry and have a family when she wasn’t entirely sure that was what she wanted. I get that. My decision to have a child, then another, was made consciously, with the knowledge that my life would change completely and I would become a different person. I was okay with that then and I am okay with it now. Twenty-five years ago I was also okay with a little boy tugging at his mother’s hand and yelling out in the supermarket: “That’s Philip’s mom!” as though “Philip’s mom” were my only name. In fact, some of the dearest friends I have made in my life came simply because I was my children’s mother and bumped up against women I might not have met. Being called “mom” by people other than my own kids is certainly the least of the things that ever bothered me about motherhood.
Mommy isn’t a bad word. It isn’t an epithet. It isn’t name-calling. It isn’t demeaning. It may not be all of who we are but it is a huge part and I, for one, embrace it. It isn’t the word that is the issue, it isn’t even the expectations behind the word that is the issue. It is accepting ourselves as the flawed, sometimes pissed off but hopefully not pathologically violent women we are. It’s cutting ourselves a break and it’s sweating the big stuff. The huge stuff. Not what other people call us but what we call ourselves.