Don't call me Mom

Why do people get all creeped out that my children call me by my first name?

Published June 18, 1998 4:25PM (EDT)

Naturally I worry about mobs with torches and pitchforks showing up at my door some stormy night to let me know they're uncomfortable
with my little ways. Who doesn't? Yet I think for most of us it's
a vague, undefined worry -- a nagging sense that high school was
not just a passing aberration, but a glimpse into the furthest
fastnesses of the human soul. In my case, I know exactly what's
going to be bothering them, and it's not going to be my experiments
in creating new life down in the dungeon, or my scheme to overthrow
the world with the aid of alien invaders disguised as
telemarketers, or even injudicious things I may have said about the
War on Drugs. No, what they're going to be all creeped out about
is the fact that my children don't call me Mom.

There's worse. I like to feel that my life has not been wholly
routine, that I have a few unusual experiences and original
thoughts to recount. But it turns out that I could have paraglided
from the top of Everest clutching an anthrax bomb to my bosom to
save the world from an Eskimo conspiracy to trigger a new Ice Age
and that would not strike most people as being anywhere near as
riveting as my habit of not calling my parents Mom and Dad.

Yes, it's true. I call my parents by their names and I always have and I have no idea why. They claim not to be able to remember why they decided to raise us that way. Maybe it was an academic-circles left-wing Beat-era thing, how would I know? It seemed
perfectly natural to me.

But no matter how brilliant one's child-rearing ideas are, the fly in the ointment is always the children's Ghastly Little Peers.
Kids, with their shining-eyed honesty, are always the first to ask,
"What kind of name is that?" "What's wrong with your skin?" "Is
it true you're different and should be ostracized, hunted down and
stoned?" and in my case, "How come you don't call your mom and dad
Mom and Dad?"

My own Ghastly Little Peers also had searching philosophical
questions like, "How come you don't go to church?" "How come your
father has a beard?" and "How can she be your mother and your
sister?" (OK, I made that one up.) But nothing shocked people like my
calling my parents by their names. Apparently it seemed wrong,
icky, disrespectful, show-offy, sick.

After a few years I started replying, "I just do. How come you call your parents by their titles? They don't call you 'child,' do they?" This attempt at frank and open discussion was generally met with hostile silence.

There were years of this. Once out of high school, it became less of an issue. It didn't seem so shocking to my Peers to hear an
older person addressed by name, or maybe people had learned to keep more of the searching philosophical questions to themselves. Or else they were hoping to stop calling their own parents Mom and Dad.

When I got pregnant, the Mom issue came rushing back in an all-new form. Almost every maternity nurse I've met and almost every ob-gyn tries to put expectant parents at ease by referring to them as moms and dads, often addressing them directly: "Mom, put your feet in these stirrups." "Dad, you wait here with these back issues of TV Guide."

The more ghastly the thing they want you to do, the more babyish
their mode of address. "Now, Mommy, we want you to take off all
your clothes, get on this treadmill and drink ipecac while these
medical students take notes, OK, Mommykins?" The comeback, I suppose, is, "Drink it yourself, Sonny," or "Think
again, little Missy." But it always takes me a few years to
compose my comebacks.

- - - - - - - - - -

Far from being a rebel against tradition, I am tradition's little
wannabe and that is why my own children call me by my name. It is
still what seems natural to me. It causes some people to guess
that I am a stepmother rather than a mother -- why else would they
not call me Mom? -- but that's easy enough to clear up. My kids say they find the queries of their peers annoying but not traumatic. Perhaps they are simply shielding me, since I am so sensitive.

Yet strangers persist in referring to me as a mom, or even -- at
the pediatrician's office, for example -- addressing me as Mom.
Being called Mom by someone who is not my child is an unwarranted
familiarity. And in my case, since even my children don't call me
Mom, it's like someone who calls you by the wrong nickname --
Willy, when your friends call you Bill; Brucie-Boy, when your
friends call you the Boss; Bimbo, when your friends call you Posh
Spice: It is an erroneous familiarity.*

But even more than the phony familiarity, I object to the assumption of uniformity, the assumption that there's only one way to be, only one thing a child could call its mother. I suspect that the step after that is the assumption that uniformity is natural and good: We're all alike in this -- and we should be all alike -- what kind of cold, unloving monster doesn't let her children call her Mom?

Moms are easily stereotyped, something that's no more welcome to
people whose children call them Mom than it is to me. I've met
some who accept the stereotyping in the hopes of fighting it, or
even of gaining the clout of numbers. Women who proclaim, "I'm a
soccer mom and I'm not ashamed of it" are trying to reclaim an
epithet that has been used with an insulting tone. Yeah, I'm
black, is there a problem with that? Grrrl Power! Dead white
males, unite! We're here, we're queer, get used to it! Soccer
moms are people too!

I resent the stereotype. I resent enforced Momdom the way I
resent those ghastly mass-produced flags for the home that have
swept the country in recent years, with their colorful bunnies and
autumn leaves and pineapples (ancient symbol of hospitality).

I hate those flags because they are insipid, because they look like mall decorations, but mostly because they are so riddled with
cheesy assumptions about how we all think alike at any given time.
It's December! Our thoughts turn to snowmen! Even if it doesn't
snow here and we've never made a snowman in our lives! It's
spring! Our thoughts turn to tulips! Even if we dislike tulips!
It's mid-March! Our thoughts turn to leprechauns! Even if we're
not Irish! Or even if we're Irish and despise leprechauns! Even
if our religion teaches that leprechauns are satanic! It's no
particular time of year! Our thoughts turn to pineapples! Even if
pineapples cause our loved ones to turn red, swell up and grope
their way to the phone to dial 911! Smile!

No doubt there are flags for Mother's Day, and no doubt they say

By Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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