Mom. It’s a weird word if you think about it too hard, which I absolutely have. (See: 200 page memoir/manifesto.) It sounds like nom, as in Nom Nom, as in “you are a popular brand of cookies that children devour while clapping.” Or it sounds like non, as in non-entity, as in “insert generic role for actual human soul here.” Given this phonic (and cultural) bent toward women’s self-annihilation — I mean, hello, mum is a synonym for silence — the title never felt like a, shall we say, appealing fit for me.
Which is why I love that my kids don’t call me Mom now.
For ten years, my husband and I had been purposefully, prayerfully childfree. We had no imagination for children. Not making them. Not raising them.
I worried children would be perilous for me, what with the risk of maternal mortality, pay gap disparity, and, oh, just general intensive parenting asshatery. But I also worried I’d be perilous for children. I didn’t fit the benevolent picture of the Madonna and her nursing baby that hung in my childhood Catholic church. Highly verbal, easily taxed, and with an apparently obscene love for personal autonomy, my god-given “gifts” seemed better used elsewhere in my community — and I did want to be useful.
So, for reasons I can try to explain but change every time that I do, we signed-up for a six-week foster parent training, curious if there were people in our community who might actually need us, if we might actually need them. It turned out to be a wonderful fit. With fostering, all the things that felt like deficits in me weren’t, actually, when the stated goal was not to replace parents but relieve parents and the stated need was for older, semi-independent, semi-conversational kids.
“What do you want the kids to call you?” our social worker had asked before our first placement, and the answer felt so obvious to me, I blinked once, then twice, before stammering, “Um, Erin?”
Chalk it up to an informal Midwestern upbringing with a mother who begged my friends to call her “Perky Patty,” but I didn’t see the big deal in children calling me by my first name. If anything, I hoped it’d give me a cool-teacher-who-sits-on-desks vibe. It wasn’t until the arrival of our actual children — a sibling set of three school-aged sisters — that I realized that this is not parenting protocol and therefore cause for capital C-Confusion.
At the doctor’s office: “Mom, you can come back now.”
At the elementary school: “Can you go ahead and sign her out, Mom?”
At the neighborhood cookout: “What does Mom want to drink?”
Mom would like to drink some gasoline.
It was one thing to be called Mom by a child, but by a perfectly grown stranger?
Dear Reader: I promise I tried to be kind. I tried to perform the disarming lady dance and say, “Hi, I like to be called Erin, what about you?” but it felt as if everyone was conspiring for me to be what was convenient to them: a one-size-fits-all version of woman. Indeed, the only people who didn’t seem freaked out by my linguistic preferences were our girls. It worked out well that I was very much attached to my first name, given that they were very much attached to their first mom. That didn’t change just because they quickly and unexpectedly morphed from our foster children to our adopted children.
It’s entirely possible, probable even, that if I had known my girls in the womb, they’d call me Mom now, too. We don’t often ask traditional mothers, “What do you want your kids to call you?” but why not when we spend a deliciously, ghastly amount of time thinking about what to call them? Surely, I’ve missed out on some of the intimacies that happen before a child has to call you anything; before they even know the difference between where you end and they begin.
But there’s been something magical for me about becoming a mom in a way that honors my not-so-very-obscene-thank-you love for personal and bodily and, yes, even phonetic autonomy.
My daughters are teenagers now. While they still delightfully don’t call me Mom, I can see now that their relationship to me as their mom is changing — and in an exhausting but obvious leap of logic, each relationship is different. Given this turn of completely predictable events, I can only imagine that my relationship to the word mom will change over time, too.
Thank goodness, then, I’ll always have Erin.
Erin Lane is the author of Someone Other Than a Mother: Flipping the Scripts on a Woman’s Purpose and Making Meaning beyond Motherhood. Find her on Instagram @heyerinlane.