Family / Parenting


Pergamino It was always the same series of questions: how did you get pregnant? Who is your donor? What is the baby going to call you?

We developed easy, quick answers to the first two, but that last one was a doozie for quite a while. We just flat-out

didn’t know WHAT the baby was going to call us.

Kristin got quite touchy about the whole thing: why do we have to pick names? Why can’t she pick her own names for us? Why can’t she call us BOTH Mom; we ARE both mom.

You’d be surprised at how insistent people can get when you refuse to label yourself. How will she know whom she’s calling? How will you know whom she wants? My mother, god love her, was one of the worst, getting increasingly anxious about it after Julia was born. I think she even brought it up in the hospital when Kristin was recovering from her c-section. One day she tried a new tactic. “Look,” she said, “I know that you will know who she means, and I know that she will know who she means, if she’s using the same word for both of you; but don’t you want to give her terminology and a language that she can use to help explain her family when people ask her questions? Don’t you want to give her a way to label her mothers for other people so THEY know who she’s talking about? She’ll be in kindergarten drawing pictures of her family and when people ask her who the tall, adult figures are, what will she say? She’s going to be an ambassador, aren’t you going to give her the tools for the job?”


She didn’t come out and say it, but I think she was worried for me and people’s perception of me as a “real” mother. If we’re both mommy, or mother, then any time we’re being talked about together one of us is the mommy, and the other of us is… well, the Other. But if we’ve already chosen names, well, then we’re mommy and mama with nary a sign of the dreaded O word. Of course, in a world that has a very limited understanding of what a “real” mother is, the dreaded O word is always present, spoken or not. No getting around it unless you’re both on the birth certificate. And maybe not even then.

So, we decided to choose. Kristin had an indelible (or so she thought) impression of the word “mama” as only referring to a fat, older woman; whereas I have a similarly irrational prejudice (involving a different stereotype) against the word “mommy”. So it was easy: I’ll be mama and Kristin would be mommy. Not that it mattered, Julia couldn’t speak yet, and she couldn’t really follow instructions such as: take that diaper to mommy and ask her to change you! So what was the point in having different titles? The only point was that it made other people more comfortable. Yay us.

I guess because the names were never all that important to us, we got a bit confused as to who was to be called what. Eventually it seemed that Kristin completely forgot that she was supposed to be mommy and she started referring to herself as mama and ME as mommy. I, of course, still prefer the name mama and so I refer to myself as that and to Kristin as the name she was supposed to be — Mommy. There went the whole point of having different names, other people’s comfort be damned.

Regardless of the confusion, our early suspicions proved correct: Julia never gets confused about who is who. She always knows who she wants. One day when I was home with her and Kristin was working, Julia was sitting in her highchair while I cleaned. Suddenly she started screetching “Mama!” “What sweetheart?” I called out to her. “No! MAMA!” Julia replied. How silly of me. She meant the other mama, of course.

As Julia has gotten older, Kristin and I have given up squabbling over the name mama. Our names have become conditional. The person who is speaking, the person who is present, is always mama. The other one, the absent one, the one not speaking, is always mommy. And Julia gets it. If she’s talking to me then I’m mama, and if she’s talking about me to Kristin then I’m mommy while Kristin is mama.

Of course, what we’re not sure that she gets is the exclusivity of the two terms to us, that this is a private grammar that marks our family. Mama is a mobile word and thus Julia’s been known to walk up to ANY woman and address her as mama when asking for something. At this point I think Julia thinks the word “mama” means: any woman who will do something for me. Alas.

Inappropriate mama-ing of non-mama people notwithstanding, the system, irregular as it is, works for us.

So. What works for you? How do you label yourself? How do you resist labeling? How do you feel about labeling in general?

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  1. We tried to do the whole Mama/Mommy thing, but kept forgetting which one we’d assigned to each mother. We also weren’t that invested in it, fervently believing that Scooter would pick his own terminology. And he did. He took the word Mommy, divided it in half and doubled each syllable. So one of us is “Mama” and the other “Mimi.” Funny thing is that he uses “Mimi” for the biological mother. And sometimes he’ll use “mommy” as a generic term to refer to either mother.

  2. We’ve just started trying to conceive, so there’s no telling what our eventual child might actually end up calling us, but after years of discussing what to be called, it suddenly came to me.

    I realized that, being a native Texan, I’ve always assumed I would someday be “Mama.”

    My partner, being not-so-Southern, considers “Mom” to be the default name.

    So, there it is. I will be Mama and she will be Mom.

    (We already are, actually, to our pets.)

    Recently, she’s told me that she’d like very much for the kid to call her “Mommy” when it’s little, but was worried that, as the bio mom, I would feel like that should be my name.

    As much as I do like the idea of being “Mommy,” I like the idea of her wanting to be “Mommy” even more!

  3. I am Eemah, Narda’s Mommy.

    Malka can look at a picture of the two of us, and if I point to myself, and ask her who it is, she’ll say Uma (as in Uma Thurman… heh) And she’ll say “monnie” for Narda. (you know, 19 month old speech as it is.)

    But if she’s wanting something? RIGHT NOW? It’s ALL “Monnie! Monnie! Monnie!”

    What ultimately matters? Is the fact that when she falls down? it’s me or Narda she looks to for comfort. THAT is by far more important to me than my name. (but OK, I’ll back track from my idealistic BS here, and share that when she calls me “Monnie,” I correct her, and say Eemah…)

  4. We were like you, Trista, in that we really had no interest in trying to come up with names before the children did. We use the term “momma” and “mommy” pretty indiscriminately. Now Mitchell just calls my partner by her name and tries to call me just by my name as well. I prefer to have “mommy” in front of my name and always refer to my partner with “mommy” before her name. The funny thing is that I think he associates the word “mommy” with parent, even though he knows that other kids have “daddies” and we use that term when it comes up. He says things like “when I grow up and get to be a mommy, I’m going to…”

  5. At first, we also said that we would let Noah (or Smudge, as he was then known) figure out what how to differentiate us.

    Then we bowed to the pressure and for awhile tried to call me Mama and Jill Mommy, but I was totally inconsistent about it, and so was everyone else.

    For now, we’re both Mommy. Whoever is out of sight, if that is who Noah is talking to or about, is “oda Mommy.” I don’t think either of us feels “other mommy” in that context as a bad thing. If we’re both around, even if we aren’t looking at him, we can usually tell who he means.

    The one thing I don’t entirely love is that we’re also observing the misinterpretation of “Mommy” as the word for “grown up woman.” But just like all monkey-type animals are “bobo” and anything growing out of the ground is either a tree or a “fwower,” I think that will pass.

  6. We were quite conscious of the possibility that my partner, as the non-bio mom, would be in a “one down” position in some people’s eyes, so we tried to give her “first dibs” anytime we could. Thus our son’s hyphenated last name starts with my partner’s last name, we fill out forms with her name in the Mother spot and mine in the crossed-out-and-edited Father field. She has been the drop-off parent for daycare and school, which has been great for shoring up credibility. When it came to mother names, I told her she could have whatever she wanted, and I would choose mine from what was left. I thought she’d call dibs on Mommy or Mama, but she decided that she’d prefer to have a unique mother name, and created Tama (rhymes with Mama), a combination of her first initial and “mama.” So she’s Tama and I’m Mommy, and we’re both his mothers. One of our son’s best friends in pre-school is of Indian and Pakistani descent, and calls his father Baba. I think it was really nice for D to have a friend who also had a “differently named” parent. One day at nursery school my partner came to pick D up, and one of the newer kids said, “D, your mom is here.” One of his friends from the previous year scornfully said, “That’s not his MOM, that’s his TAMA!” Like, duh. 🙂

  7. Hah! We agreed: I am Mama, Pili is Mommy. But roughly a quarter of the time, the wrong names come out of our mouths. I am waiting to see what P’ito comes up with once he moves beyond the “ga! ki ka!” stage of language development.

  8. We agonized over what to call ourselves in the beginning! And i looked all over the internets for a discussion like this one to help us in our decision. I wanted to know what other women were doing, just to get some ideas!

    In the beginning, i really wanted to just be Dad, and unhinge that title from my own gender – and be a Dad who was a woman.

    For a few weeks we were mom and dad, which worked splendidly for me! When i was out in the world i could tell people that i was a new Dad, they would blink a few times and then “get it” and congratulate me.

    But it put my partner in the position of having to come out of the closet all of the time, because folks would understandably assume that LittleE’s Dad was a man.

    So we decided to be Mama E and Mama M, titles that imply that there is more than one Mama. When we’re together he refers to us as “The Mamas”. Which makes me feel like a rock star.


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