Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Let's give "mommy" a rest

There's probably a German word for this: the experience of reading something that precisely expresses some inchoate feelings that have been floating around the edge of your consciousness for a while without your having fully explored them, even though you do intend to do so at some point and maybe write an essay about them, which you now realize is impossible because this other writer has managed to describe said feelings so articulately that even though you're kind of disappointed at the loss of your own essay you go, "Yes! Yes! This!!" and click immediately to your blog to link and post about it. I suggest, Readingfeelingtheregoesyouressaybloggenfreude.

That's the experience I had upon reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner's "Time for a War on Mommy" in the Wall Street Journal's online blogs.

Brodesser-Akner complains about the ubiquitousness of the word “mommy” to describe women with children—especially as a modifier to “track,” “wars,” “blogger,” etc. The label, she argues, does a disservice to everyone involved: to the particular women in question, to mothers in general, and even to their children—who do not, contrary to conventional wisdom, necessarily benefit from growing up under the impression that their maternal parental units’ lives revolve entirely around their existence.

Photo from

Let me just pull a quote or two to give you the gist:

Why are we grown women calling each other Mommy? Is being a mother such a silly avocation that we have to baby it up, stringing it with the hormones and gushy feelings of what our children call us? Does it strike anyone that calling a woman who has had a child Mommy is demeaning and infantilizing? Does it strike anyone that calling philosophical disagreements Mommy Wars is no different than screaming “GIRL FIGHT!” as two strippers go at it in a mud pit?


Maybe you think I’m taking this too seriously. But consider this: When we allow our children to name us, a name they use before they can speak, and then we go by that name in the world, are we doing them any favors? When our children see that we are first and foremost a mother, and a mother in their terms, I believe they suffer.

I have long hated the use of the word "mommy" by anyone but my kids (who, sadly, haven't uttered it for at least a decade, and in fact now often upgrade to the crisply mature “Mother”).

As someone who longs to dignify the role of motherhood—to spread the idea that although, yes, we often spend an inordinate portion of our days watching cartoons and managing poop, caring for children is ultimately an important project, one among many important projects in which we are engaged—I find the word “mommy” demeaning and condescending. To me, it sends the message that a being involved with children is silly and trivial and babyish. And so, it implies by extension, am I.

By the way, like Brodesser-Akner, I wrote a Salon essay that ran under a headline with the word “mommy” in it. But in that case, the subject’s mommyishness was the whole point—I was talking about a phenomenon (schmaltzy mass-emails about motherhood) that in itself was demeaning, condescending, trivializing, etc. etc. I was fine with that.

So I disagree with Rachel Larimore who, writing for Slate's XX factor, half agrees with that "mommy" is overused but pooh-poohs Brodesser-Akner's annoyance as overwrought. Larimore skirts the edge of arguing that what words we use to describe things don’t much matter. Which seems a strange position for a writer to take.

“And really, aren’t the terms mommy wars and mommy track largely creations of the media?” Larimore asks. Well, yeah. Is someone who writes a blog for an online politics and culture magazine seriously arguing that if some term’s widespread use is confined mainly to the media then we can safely ignore it, confident that it has zero effect on anybody's actual lives or their perceptions of things?

Larimore also notes that fathers "don’t sit around wringing their hands about it all or devout thousands of column inches to the issue." Right. Maybe that has something to do with stay-at-home mothers outnumbering stay-at-home fathers about 34:1, with even mothers with full-time jobs still doing the lioness’s share of work at home. Maybe it is related to the fact that, although fathers are unquestionably changing more diapers than they did a generation or two ago, in that same time many many many more mothers are working outside the home (sorry, too rushed to look up statistics; might actually be more than three "manys") while still struggling to get their domestic lives to catch up from 1963. In any case, are a few thousand column inches here or there really too much to ask, considering they're analyzing one of the most dramatic social changes of all time?

By the way, I noticed, among the comments, one by a poster named Taffy forlornly asking, “Was my comment removed for a reason?”

I don’t know if that’s THE Taffy, as in Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the author of the WSJ piece. I don't know if Slate actually removed Taffy's comment, or why. But I'd like to let The Taffy know—as well as, really, any Taffy, along with people not named Taffy —that your comments (including, needless to say, comments defending any and all uses of "mommy") are welcome below!


  1. Katy, I'm so sorry that I'm only reading this now, and that I only found it searching for a clip. You are perhaps the only blogger to understand my point. Really, I believe the others didn't understand it very well, especially since most of them fixated on the idea, or at least lead with the idea, of having your children call you mommy and how sometimes that's annoying. That's not my experience, but obviously, it is of Larrimore's and others. The people commenting were led to believe that my complaint was against my children.

    I have never read a blogpost based on something I wrote that is so clear and articulate, and I don't say that (just) because you agreed with me. You're the maybe only person who seems to have read the piece to the end.

    And yes, Slate removed a comment in which I asked if perhaps leading with the stuff about the kids was misleading, and resulting in a comments-section fight that wasn't necessary.

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