The loudest and clearest message delivered to prospective parents is that “your whole life is going to change.” It comes from family, friends with kids, parenting books, and websites. Fair enough. But after a couple of months of actual parenting, you realize that, in some ways, your whole life didn’t change so much: You’re still the same person. You still have the same interests and goals in life, even if you have less time to squeeze accomplishing those things in every day. I’m still me. Wonderful, sometimes miserable old Laura. I certainly didn’t change my name.
Our culture has an extreme love-hate relationship with parents and their children. We deify the cult of motherhood, proclaiming that there’s nothing more inspiring than the sight of a mother with a baby in her arms. What a beautiful thing! And yet, as a society, we don’t do much to actually support it: Paid leaves are non-existent in many workplaces; childcare is expensive; and the world around us generally seems to be designed to cater to the childless, with its lack of quiet spaces to breastfeed or pump, changing tables in restrooms (especially if you’re a man looking to change a baby’s diaper), high chairs in restaurants, or ramps into subways. We talk a big game about parenting, but sometimes, talk is all there is.
The first time I remember being referred to as “mama” was months before my daughter could even attempt the word. My husband and I had brought Zelda to a cardiologist’s office to check for a suspected heart murmur. Though our pediatrician assured us such a thing was very common and nothing to worry about, we were stressed out. And Zelda, nude but for a diaper on an exam table, didn’t seem to like it either. The nurse who was there to help us attach the little sticky things with the wires to her body leaned over her. She seemed frustrated that Zelda didn’t want to comply with her request not to move while she attempted to take her blood pressure, as if this were the first time she had worked with infant. In the midst of the ordeal, I was annoyed by this: “Mama, if you can try to hold her body, I will get her arm.” Mama.
Here’s what my mind walked through in a matter of seconds, in the middle of a cluttered and cold examination room: “She doesn’t know my name, this is a matter of convenience. This is her job. She probably sees fifty parent-child combos a day; ‘mama’ is the path of least resistance. The appellation is accurate: I am this baby’s mother. It sounds gross, really gross, coming out of a stranger’s mouth, as if she had said, ‘Oh you need to use the potty? Down the hall to the left’ to me. No one would say that to me, would they? What is “Mama” shorthand for? She didn’t call Josh ‘dada.’ I feel oddly belittled.”
Being a mother isn’t belittling, it’s great. But I still felt the article was misplaced. If I thought about it (and I did, LOL), I realized that in that moment, it wasn’t “mama” that I wanted the nurse to appeal to. I didn’t need to recognize the emotional attachment to my baby there, on the gurney. I wanted an adult to professionally address me — by my name or no name — and help me understand what I should be doing to help get through this moment for Zelda. (Whose heart was fine.) The nurse meant nothing by calling me “mama.” We left, but I didn’t stop nursing my musings about the title.
Here’s what I came up with: I don’t want to be called “mama” by anyone whom I haven’t birthed. Ever. I’m not “mama,” I’m Laura. I’m a mother, a writer, a woman, a white person, a person. The fact that I’m a mother is more important than all or most of these things in plenty of situations, but never does this fact of being a mother subsume me. Zelda and I exist, distinctly and independently, without our association or relation to one another.
In the months since someone who wasn’t my child first called me “mama,” I’ve noticed it comes up most often in email threads on the parenting Yahoo! Group I am a part of. “Hey mamas, any advice on diapering?” “Any other mamas out and about today who want to meet up at the park?” Mama. This is a generalized call and I don’t take personal offense. We’ve claimed the word as a positive, because it is. But there aren’t just “mamas” on the list. I see plenty of dadas emailing inane questions to a group of three thousand on a regular basis. Amazon Mom doesn’t discriminate: It ships just as much garbage to dads at a discounted rate as it does to “Moms.” The baby shop in my old neighborhood, Caribou Baby, recently changed its name: Wild Was Mama. Hey Mama: that’s a bad name! Some babies don’t have a mama. And isn’t dada wild, too?
Yet, everywhere: mama mama mama. Poor dad, left only with articles about his bod, which, as we all know is very hot despite having put on a few pounds DESPITE not giving birth. I’m in a heterosexual marriage. Zelda has two parents: a mother and a father. Let’s try to recognize, if we all agree that, at least in theory, parenting should be a more equal responsibility between mother and father (or whatever), that what we call things does matter. It infects how we think of things and people and families. Calling me “Mama” more easily than you would call Zelda’s father “Daddy” implies something about the relationship that I have with my family. It implies that I’m more of a parent than my husband (not true) and that I’m more of a mother these days than I am anything else (also untrue, most of the time.) It also, I think, makes it easier for us continue to hold that insane dichotomous view of parenting: “Nothing better than mothers!” but “You had a kid AND also need to make money? Fuck you, your problem.” YOU’RE THE MOTHER. Sure, I’m the mother, but I’m a lot of other things too.
“Mama” is reserved for babies. Call me Laura. Or at least, “Zelda’s mother.” I can deal with that.
Photo by Eric Ward