Our unwitting surrender to sexism enshrined in a single word: Mama

Super Mom - illustration of multitasking mother

More than two decades ago, when my children were small and I was a working mother, I read an article on how would we know that true gender equality had arrived.

You would know when you received a call at your workplace from your husband who said this:

“Honey, I just wanted to let you know that I’m taking next Tuesday afternoon off to take the baby for his MMR vaccine.

And I noticed that Jake, our three year old, is outgrowing his shoes so I’ll take him to Stride Rite on the way back.

Oh, you may not have seen it, but yesterday in the bottom of Sophia’s back pack there was a note from school; the first grade is making fruit salad tomorrow and Sophia’s been assigned to bring the papaya. I’ll pick it up on my way home from work.”

Nearly 25 years later, that day has not yet arrived.

I thought about that after reading two pieces by writers I admire published on Mother’s Day.

The first was Judith Shulevitz’ Mom: The Designated Worrier, which lays out the problem.

I wish I could say that fathers and mothers worry in equal measure. But they don’t. Disregard what your two-career couple friends say about going 50-50. Sociological studies of heterosexual couples from all strata of society confirm that, by and large, mothers draft the to-do lists while fathers pick and choose among the items. And whether a woman loves or hates worry work, it can scatter her focus on what she does for pay and knock her partway or clean off a career path. This distracting grind of apprehension and organization may be one of the least movable obstacles to women’s equality in the workplace.

The second, The Rise of ‘Mama,’ by Elissa Strauss offers an explanation for why nothing has changed.

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.

But “cloth diapering, natural birthing, … homeschooling, … [etc.]” is not about changing the world. It’s about keeping women in the home, too busy with mothering to do anything else. It embodies the fact that, as I wrote last week, both natural parenting and religious fundamentalism reflect fear of women’s emancipation:

…[A]ll three major components of natural parenting (natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting) were created in direct response to women’s emancipation and their refusal to remain at home content with the traditional role of a mother.

It is not a coincidence, therefore, that natural parenting requires tremendous sacrifice on the part of the mother and only the mother. Indeed every element of natural parenting, extending to vaccine rejection and organic food, makes more work for mothers. Moreover, it is hardly a coincidence that the home is the heart of natural parenting. From homebirth to homeschooling, the natural mother never has to leave the house and certainly should never be employed outside the house when her children are small.

Sadly, the rise of the word ‘Mama’ reflects this generation’s eager, unwitting surrender to sexism.

Don’t get me wrong, I adored being called Mama by my children. I remember musing when my youngest was small that I had three different appellations from four children: Mama, Mommy, and Mom, reflecting their ages.

But Mama is reserved for children. Anyone else who uses the term to describe another woman is reducing that women to domestic work and relegating her to the home. Using it to describe oneself is capitulating to the backlash against women’s emancipation. Instead of rejecting relegation to the home, “Mama” celebrates it.

As a woman who struggled mightily to be accepted into a traditionally male career, I am dumbfounded by women’s willingess to call themselves by an infantilising, pejorative term. ‘Mama’ should have gone out with ‘girl,’ ‘honey’ and ‘Mrs.’ all traditionally used to keep women in their place.

Labeling yourself ‘Mama’ is glorifying gender inequality. Worse, it is a sign of utterly giving up on the possibility of gender equality. It is not merely “mothers draft the to-do lists while fathers pick and choose among the items” as described by Shulevitz, it is making mother’s to-do lists endless, grafting everything from growing your own food, washing diapers and homeschooling onto the already very long list.

This past weekend I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History that includes several exhibits on the rise of technology including domestic technology. You don’t need to be a cultural anthropologist to recognize that women’s liberation from domestic slavery was achieved because of domestic technology including ovens, washing machines, and dishwashers, and medical technology including the birth control pill and infant formula. By deliberately rejecting that technology, ‘Mamas’ are unwittingly re-enslaving themselves, kowtowing to the pressure to retreat from the wider world back into domestic confinement.

According to Strauss:

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.

But there is nothing cool or edgy or sweet about viewing yourself as a domestic slave no matter how much you love mothering.