One thing that my family was always really strict about when I was growing up was language. My parents and grandparents were fairly accepting of my picky eating, my inability to adhere to a bedtime, and my obsessive need to continually have a new pet. But when it came to language and the use of words, I knew from the time that I was really little that my house was more strict than that of other kids.
I didn’t have a “grandma” like other kids. I had a Grandmother (note the capital “G”). She was stately with big broaches and a cane and perfectly coiffed hair. She didn’t own a rocking chair or recoil into designing sofa cushions; she gave that up after my father came of age. She did crossword puzzles, criticized the “unsightly” appearance of woman on TV, and read The New York Times with her English muffin.
Grandmother was the first in her family to go to college and she majored in English. Her nickname in college was “the comma queen,” and even when I was growing up — many, many years later — I could see why. She had a very low tolerance for grammatical errors or improper word usage. I remember being in the second grade and doing my homework in the dining room. I told her that I was done and shut all my books, tucking my math pages into my Lisa Frank folder. Perhaps it’s because I was only 8 years old, but the way she looked at me said, “A cake is ‘done,’ Koa. You are ‘finished'” will stay with me forever.
Along with this disdain for the relaxed use of words was her equal distaste for common slang. She carried contempt for a lot words like “panties” or “pee pee.” But the word that she resented the most that had, in her estimation, infected the English language ad nauseum was “mom.” Every time someone would utter the phrase, she seemed to cringe just a little bit.
I remember Grandmother telling me when I was junior high that “mom” didn’t even come close to conveying the weight and the responsibility that “mother” did. “Mother” evoked respect, order, selflessness, and called forth a woman of substance who had assumed a very important role. “Mom,” in her assessment, fell short.
“I wasn’t your father’s ‘mom,'” she often told me. “I was his mother.”
This argument knocked around my house for some time and I attributed the obsession to my family’s investment in language. So then imagine my surprise to be sitting in my apartment a few nights ago and stumbling across this in The Mommy Myth:
“Mom” — a term previously used only by children — doesn’t have the authority of “mother,” because it addresses us from a child’s-eye view. It assumes a familiarity, an approachability to mothers that is, frankly, patronizing; reminiscent, in fact, of the difference between woman and girl.
The Mommy Myth goes on to describe how “mom” has been usurped into the media to convey nurturing goodness while “mother” conveys coldness. The authors, Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels, cite “celebrity mom” versus “welfare mother” and “stay-at-home mom” versus “working mother” to convey this point. The authors go on to observe:
“Mom” sounds very user-friendly, but the rise of it, too, keeps us in our place, reminding us that we are defined by our relationships to kids, not to adults.
Considering the hyper-perfection imposed on modern mothers and the exceedingly anti-woman mythologies that prop up commercial motherhood, The Mommy Myth appears to be on to something. Perhaps something worth keeping in mind the next time you hear a woman on TV brag about how much she just loves “being a mom.”