Elissa Strauss | Longreads | May 2015 | 15 minutes (4,006 words)

I first noticed “mama” while pregnant with my son in 2012. I was browsing on the internet—familiarizing myself the different types of mothers out there, trying to figure out what kind of mother I might become—when I noticed a number of alternative moms who referred to themselves as “mama.” This was the radical homemaking, attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding bunch, and “mama” was right at home with their folksy, back-to-the-earth approach to motherhood.

This use of mama can be traced back to women like Ariel Gore, who began publishing her alternative parenting magazine “Hip Mama” in 1993. Inspired by her experience as an urban single mom, the magazine became the source of parenting advice for riot grrrl types, tattooed and pierced women who wanted to find a way to embrace parenthood while simultaneously rejecting much of the bourgeois accouterment that comes along with it.

This fringe quality of “mama” stuck, leading to websites like the “Wellness Mama,” the home of a popular alternative lifestyle guru named Katie who is into stuff like, “cloth diapering, natural birthing, GAPS dieting, homeschooling, not eating grains, making my own toothpaste, drinking the fat and more.” For her, being a mama isn’t just about parenting one’s kids, but seeing parenting as a medium through which one can change the world.

“Here’s the thing, I can’t change the health of the world alone, but I’m absolutely convinced that as a group, women and moms can. … Not only are we raising the next generation, feeding them, teaching them, etc but we control the majority of food dollars spent around the world.”

She continues by explaining that being a “Wellness Mama” is a way for women to counter any criticism they might receive for being a stay-at-home mom. “I hope to make being #justamom just a little easier for you.” Mama isn’t just a pet name, it’s a manifesto.

Like most cultural shifts in language, the rise of white, upper-middle class women who call themselves “mama” seemed to happen slowly, and then all at once. And like most cultural shifts in language, the rise of “mama” is about power and discontent. “In the interstices of language lie powerful secrets of the culture,” writes Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born, Rich’s influential book examining the institution of motherhood.

Actress Alicia Silverstone is another mama for whom the term messages an almost politicized maternal identity. There’s a “Mama” vertical on her blog the “The Kind Life” where like-minded mothers can share their stories about eating vegan and the magic of unmedicated childbirth, and her book The Kind Mama is anti-diaper, anti-formula, vaccine-skeptical, pro-family bed treatise on how to have “healthier, more beautiful beginnings.”

While the new “mama” may have gotten her start among these more alternative-minded mother communities, she did not stay there. (As with the migration of any word, it is hard to say exactly when and where “mama” went more mainstream.) Eventually the newness of “mama,” its absence of baggage for women looking for a new way to identify as mothers, gave it a broad appeal.

Alicia Jo Rabins, a singer-songwriter and mother of two in Portland, Oregon is drawn to the possibility in the term.

“I feel like mommy infantilizes me and mom makes me feel like the mother of a teenager, but mama makes me feel like a pioneer who bakes her own bread wearing an apron and is otherwise capable and timeless,” she said. “Not that I bake my own bread. I used to, long before I had kids.”

The strength projected by “mama” also appeals to Michelle Barton, a bakery-owner and mother of one in Brooklyn.

“I’ve always felt like a protector to my family and friends before I had [my daughter],” she said. “The term, ‘mama bear’ comes to mind. When I think of mommy, I think of perfection and mommy dearest.”

“I find it to be sort of old-fashioned, and to have strength and authority,” said Cara Paiuk, a writer and mother of three in West Hartford, Connecticut. “Like, ‘don’t mess with the mama bear’. It’s not mom or mother bear, it is mama bear.”

Others, like Maia Poling, a teacher and mother of two in Minneapolis, Minnesota like “mama” for its tenderness.

“When my son calls me mama I feel very close to him,” she said “He does call me mom or mommy here and there; lately ‘mom’ comes when he is trying to be strategic about asking for something, almost as if calling me mom makes him sound more grown up, therefore deserving of the treat or the toy, etc. Mommy comes about more often as a whine or a needy calling. Mama seems to be when he wants me, a cuddle, a hug—affection. Mama is what he calls me when he is being inquisitive and curious, tender and vulnerable.”

For writer Michelle Goldberg, a mother of two in Brooklyn, “mama” is both more endearing and a way to avoid clichés surrounding mothers.

“I am crazy about my kids, but I really dislike the words ‘mom’ and ‘mommy’—particularly when other adults use them to refer to me,” she said, noting that before she had kids, she didn’t realize how often that occurred. “I guess I’ve internalized the way they’re both used as a synonym for ‘lame’—i.e., mom jeans, mommy porn. They conjure something insipid and suburban.”

She said she is aware that there are limits to her ability to dodge stereotypes surrounding moms just by avoiding the term “mom,” but nevertheless, “I still just can’t think of myself as one of them. Mama just sounds both cooler and sweeter to me.”

I am crazy about my kids, but I really dislike the words ‘mom’ and ‘mommy’—particularly when other adults use them to refer to me.

The cool factor of mama is why women are also using it to address one another as well.

“When I hang out with others moms we usually refer to one another as ‘mama.’” said Raquel Miller, a writer and graphic designer and mom of one in Los Angeles. She said it’s the go-to term among her hipper friends, the “Hollywood moms.”

This edgy sweetness has made “mama” a hit in the mothering blogosphere as well. Mama’s become the go-to term for talking about the sentimentality of the experience without sounding too old-fashioned, and one that mothers can be expected to rally around.

Two years ago, the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, which often uses “mama” in headlines, had a viral hit with a post entitled “Tell a Friend: You are a Good Mama,” by Tamara Reese. In it she encourages women to remember to praise one another’s parenting, in real life or on Facebook, simply by telling them “You are a good mama.” Here, mama is bigger than any individual mother, a way to call truce on the mommy wars and remind women about the universality of the experience.

“I know that more than I want to be rich, or thin, or successful, or trendy, I want to be a good Mama. … Every Mama I know, working, stay-at-home, work-from-home, one kid, four kids–we all seem to want the same thing,” Reese writes.

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Fathering is not often used as a verb. You’ll never hear the term “working dad.” There is no widely documented repulsion to the term “dad,” or “daddy.” Sure, there are those who find “father” a bit stiff, and there is such a thing as “dad jeans,” but for the most part, being a male with offspring comes with few linguistic, and therefore identity, traps. This is because they are often referred to, and therefore considered, as people separate from their relational roles. “Dad,” “daddy,” and “father,” are not particularly loaded terms because there’s just never been that much riding on it.

Women with children, on the other hand, have a legacy of loaded terms to contend with. The root of this lies with the fact that they’ve long been identified by who they are in relation to men or children. Sometimes this has been their exclusive identity, other times their more formal or public one.

Today in the Arab world, there is a custom still in place to not speak a woman’s name in public after she becomes a mother. In her 2011 book Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning: Linguistic Practice and Politics, linguistics professor Sally McConnell-Ginet wrote about how in some historical periods in China, women were only referred to by “relational forms,” names like “oldest sister” or “Lee’s wife,” while men were more often referred to by their individual names. These might sound odd to our modern ear, but chances are most of us have witnessed something similar in our lifetime.

“Labeling practices that de-emphasize women’s status as very particular individuals can be found closer to home. For example, in American and British history, tombstones have often named male children (James, Richard, Kenneth, and Thomas) but not female (and three daughters),” McConnell-Ginet writes. “And Mrs. John Doe names a station, whoever the occupant may be, whereas Mr. John Doe picks out an individual. This point was brought home to me early in my married life when I came across a box of stationery made for my husband’s first wife, bearing what I had until then thought of as ‘my’ new name.”

Mommy is used similarly today, a blanket term used for women that replaces their individual name, and it is a source of frustration for many. Writing for the New York Times, Heather Havrilesky expressed her deep frustration over the frequency with which she is referred to as “mom” by people who are not her kids.

“Why does this word irritate me when the wrong person says it? When my kids call me “Mommy,” I feel a surge of pride and happiness. … But the “Mommy” I say to my mother or hear from my children is a private word, a word that defines the relationship between me and my mother, or me and my kids,” Harvilesky writes.

This is a problem because women now resist these relational terms being used by people they are not related to. And then there is the fact that for many “mom” or “mommy” feels dated, even tainted.

Mom is the sad lady suffering from the feminine mystique. She is a soccer mom. She is a helicopter mom. She wears mom jeans, reads mommy blogs and has a mom haircut. She goes to “mommy and me” during the day, and to “mom’s night out” with her girlfriends, where they imbibe “mommy juice.” Mom is a woman who doesn’t have much in the way of power or choices, and instead just plays the role written for her by a patriarchal society. Mom is just not that fun, to be, or be with.

Mama, then, is a way to, if we are being hopeful, reimagine, if we are being cynical, rebrand motherhood for a new generation, one which perceives itself as having more power and choices—even when, and sometimes especially when, that isn’t entirely accurate.

“Note that in the kind of material you pointed me towards, mama is generally sitting side by side with mother and mom (sometimes mommy, but that’s more specialized),” McConnell-Ginet pointed out to me.

“I haven’t looked at all the websites by any means, but my superficial survey suggests that mama is used relatively sparingly in these sources—the heavy referential lifting is done by mom and even more so mother, but mama swoops as an overall label, used in titles of books and films, website names, and the like. This fits with your talk of ‘rebranding’.”

Mama is used consciously as an identity marker, a phrase of distinction, and a way to label the self and designate a group.

“Mamas are cool. Mamas are hip,” Eve Vawter, an editor at Sheknows.com and former editor of Mommyish.com, told me. “When it comes down to it, it’s just another way of women with kids trying to differentiate themselves from their own mothers, women who may have voted Republican, who may have breastfed but ended up formula feeding and had no idea what the difference between free-range and helicopter parenting was. We all want to be special snowflakes, even moms.”

Much of this hipness is likely due to its roots in ethnic slang, making this not the first and probably not the last time people borrow from black and Latino cultures in order to make their lives feel edgier and therefore more relevant.

Kimberly Seals Allers, a writer and advocate for mothers of color, said mama goes way, way, back for black families.

“Mama has African roots,” she said told me. “It was a term of respect that didn’t have to do with you being a mother. I’ll call someone mama and I don’t even know if she has children. In the black community we have a big mama—she is the matriarch and quote unquote leader of the family. Sometimes she is the matriarch because she has children, and sometimes it is because she is the oldest living relative.”

Allers said she wasn’t aware of the rise of “mama” among white women, though does recall a recent moment when a white woman came and said, “hey mama,” and she was taken aback.

“Mothers are constantly redefining ourselves, and part of that comes from words we call ourselves, what people call us,” she said. ” It can be done, but we have to be careful about the way we coop words. There should be some acknowledgment of the culture and context of where it comes from.”

Mothers are constantly redefining ourselves, and part of that comes from words we call ourselves, what people call us. It can be done, but we have to be careful about the way we coop words.

Roxana A. Soto, co-founder of the website SpanglishBaby, said that mama is a common term of endearment among Spanish speakers from the Caribbean and elsewhere.

“They use it for children, not only moms,” she said. “And even between girlfriends you are like: ‘hey mama, cómo estás?’ I think the connotation of mother is always there.”

She said there is also a sexual use of mama, as in “hola mamita!” or “hola mamacita,” which are both common catcalls in certain parts of the Spanish-speaking world.

Indeed, the sexiness of “mama” also made an appearance during the counterculture of the ’60s. The Hells Angels referred to groupies as “mama,” and “sexy mama” was a common phrase in pop music at the time as continues being one today.

Overall, it’s the way in which “mama” has widened the horizons of “mother,” without giving up on a mother identity altogether, that is the key to its appeal. Women still want to be moms, still want to talk about being moms, but they need a new context.

Hillary Frank, host of the WNYC podcast “The Longest Shortest Time” and mother of one, says she decided to call her 10,000-plus member Facebook group “The Longest Shortest Mamas,” as a way to help women feel safe.

“Calling it ‘The Longest Shortest Time Moms” felt too sterile and didn’t have the right vibe. I wanted a place where women can talk shop in an intimate way, because sometimes it is going to be poignant, and sometimes it is going to be ridiculous and sometimes it is all about their boobs.”

Frank says mama felt “wide-open” and “liberating,” which is important for a topic like motherhood, which is often fertile ground for dissent.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to define what being a mother is for herself,” she said. “I try to encourage women not to judge, but help them figure out how they identify [as a mom]. I do think it is being a feminist mama to figure out what choices work for you.”

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“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”

This is the opening paragraph of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a book, well, really, the book, that helped women feel that it’s okay to want more than what the domestic realm has to offer. Published in 1963, it’s largely credited with setting off second wave feminism, a movement that set out to reimagine a life for women distinct from their roles as caretakers.

Some, like radical feminist Shulamith Firestone, took this objective to its extreme, claiming that we could not have gender equality until we figured out a way to get rid of biological differences. She envisioned a future in which pregnancy and childbirth would be replaced by artificial wombs and offspring would be raised communally. “The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself,” she wrote in her 1970 feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex.

Firestone’s ideas were hardly mainstream, but they were emblematic of a generation of women whose priority it was to untangle themselves from the oppressive institution of motherhood. It was important work, and, thankfully, they largely succeeded. Still, it left for an uneasy relationship between feminism and motherhood, a maze of tensions and contradictions that women are still trying to get through today. And they knew this.

In her 1981 book The Second Stage, Friedan acknowledges that the women’s movement’s “failure was our blind spot about the family. It was our own extreme reaction against that wife-mother role.” While some in the women’s movement had fought for things like childcare and universal paid leave to help moms, Friedan argues that it hadn’t been enough. This wasn’t just about helping families, but also about fairly assessing the value of what has traditionally been “women’s work.”

It’s not an understatement to say that feminists completely struck out when it comes to getting communal protections for mothers; we are one of three countries in the world without a universal maternity leave policy, and we also fall very short when it comes to making sure that all working families have access to safe and affordable childcare. Yet, this doesn’t mean we as a culture don’t place much emphasis parenting, because we do—it’s just all on the parents, and it’s driving them many of them nuts.

At least some of our age intensive parenting can be attributed to women’s bumpy transition into the workforce. Peter N, Stearns, history professor and author of Anxious Parents: A Modern History of Childrearing in America, said that the first generation of working moms didn’t pay too much attention to life side of work/life balance.

“They were the latchkey kid generation,” he told me.

Now mothers today are attempting to juggle both, and, often, overcompensating when it comes to their children.

“What’s going on now is a rethinking about and recommitment to mothering after a couple of decades during which work received more emphasis. ‘Mama’ reflects that desire to regain and retain deep attachment to the children.”

Stearn says highly exaggerated fears about the danger of children combined with our loss of confidence in our kids to take care of themselves has contributed to our current culture of overwhelmed parents. The rise of experts who can now easily dole out their advice online has only made matters worse.

“Many experts claim that they want to reassure parents, but really they scare them because this is how they sell books,” he said.

This culture of experts is largely responsible for the ways in which the bar for parents has slowly risen over the past two decades. Parents today spend more time with their kids than their parents spent with them. In 1965 fathers spent an average of 2.6 hours with their kids and mothers spent an average 10.5 hours. Today, fathers spend an average 7.2 hours and mothers are spend an average 13.7 hours. During this period, the percentage of working mothers rose from 41% to 71%.

As Judith Warner wrote about in her book 2006 Perfect Madness, this new parenting culture has made American moms “a choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret.” For some, the rise of things like intervention-free—including pain medicine!—childbirth, extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping has only added to the pressures.

There’s also a link between the stalled gender revolution—we’ve seen a rise of stay-at-home mothers in recent years, going from 23% of mothers in 1999 to 29% in 2012—and the idealization of motherhood. The bigger, and more important, a job we make motherhood, the harder it is going to be for those women who have the financial choice to go the office to do so. Especially as long as our work culture remains so inhospitable to parents with young children. If it is the “most important job in the world” (mothering) vs. some office job where one constantly feels both undervalued and a nuisance because she made the decision to have children, who, if money is not a factor, would choose the office job?

So is “mama” a sign of progress? It’s a tough call. We’re finding new ways to think and talk about motherhood with pride, unwilling to minimize the importance of raising children. But all the while we are still without real choices. So at what point does this mama pride become, consciously or not, a way to accommodate the fact that mothers still don’t have equal access to economic, political and cultural life?

Amber E. Kinser, a professor of communications and author of the book Motherhood and Feminism said that part of feminism’s job is to wrestle through the complexity of what exactly is a choice and what isn’t.

“So much of is presented to women as ‘here are choices,’ but it can be very difficult to weed out what I am choosing and what I am being forced to choose,” she told me. “Judith Butler tells us that there is no choice, that all our choices are shaped by what came before.”

She said that the focus on individual women and their choices often distracts us from the need to fight for a social structure that supports all mothers. This way, all children have a good education, not just the ones whose moms can take an active role, all children can eat toxic-free food, and not just the ones who can afford expensive ingredients or grow their own, and all children can have high-quality childcare, not just those who have access to nannies, private daycare centers, or are able to have one parent stay home with the children.

Still, there’s something hopeful about mama, if not the term itself but the fact women are trying to see motherhood as something new. As Meredith Michaels, a philosophy professor and co-author of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Undermines Women noted, there is something pure about mama. “A little kid comes out saying mama, and it stays that way.” “Mama” is one of the first combinations of consonants and vowels that babies can make, which explains why the word for mom sounds so similar in such a wide variety of languages.

She sees mama as “an effort to escape the tyranny of being a mom with all that that entails. I wonder whether the embrace of the term is an attempt to see the relationship between mother and child as unencumbered by the weight of popular culture’s constructions of motherhood.”

Mama, as it is used today, may not endure. Considering the increasing speed of our cultural metabolism, there’s a good chance it won’t last long at all. Still, the prevalence of the word serves as proof that women are not yet done trying to figure out what motherhood, one for us and by us, outside of the context of patriarchy, might look like. We seek sentimentality without triviality, a bond without the tether, the children without the “strange stirring.” We want to be self-identified as both mothers and not mothers, and the ability to navigate freely between the two.

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Elissa Strauss writes about gender and culture for Elle.com, TheWeek.com and elsewhere.