Friday, August 6, 2010

Mommy as a Four Letter Word

Okay, so the word mommy has more than four letters, but my point is, I actually heard someone use the word mommy as an insult. And you know what? It was more hurtful than being called a bitch...and a bitch is a female dog and capable of motherhood, too, so maybe his insult made sense. I was at the grocery store and a woman pushing her baby in a stroller and this guy were getting into some conflict concerning produce. I wandered into the controversy after it started, but from what I could gather, the woman had said something to this man about tasting the fruit while it was still in the store and before he had paid for it. A pet peeve of mine as well, but I don't think I'm bold enough (or do I care enough or have enough time on my hands) to worry about whether or not some stranger pulls a couple of grapes out of the bag and tosses them into his mouth. But she did. And after a few real four letter words were exchanged between them, the woman started to push her stroller away and as a parting shot the guy said, "See you around, mommy." He said the word mommy in such a twisted, derogatory way, so mean and hurtful that I could see the woman flinch as his words hit home. The way he used it was so mean-spirited and filled with such contempt that I cringed a little, too.

What about calling her mommy was an insult? I'm sure she loves her kids, just as much as I do. And I'm betting all the grapes in that bag that she's proud of being a mother. But in a way, I get his insult and I've felt it's sting myself. No matter how much this woman may have accomplished in her life - she might be a two time Nobel prize winning scientist with degrees from multiple ivy league schools, fluent in French, a skilled jazz pianist and sit on the board of several charitable organizations, but to some, no matter what she has accomplished or even dreams of accomplishing, it will always be overshadowed by one thing - her kids. And sometimes let your mom-side be paramount in your life isn't such a bad thing. But by calling her "Mommy" he reduced her (perhaps not for the first time) to a person who has no other identity -- and that's hurtful, scary and a feeling that most mothers seem to battle with from time to time.

I've talked with moms who were lawyers or surgeons and they complain that they feel like they are getting dumber by staying home to take care of their children. As much as they enjoy staying home it and chose to do it, they feel like they are losing a large part of themselves which had once been defined by work. They feel as if they are losing track of knowledge in their fields, and have been redefined by their peers and accorded less respect because of having children - even if they went back to work. They feel as if being a mother is crashing in on them. And sometimes it does.

I saw a conference presentation recently, an analysis of a novel called Cane, by Jean Toomer, which I remember reading years and years ago. I didn't get it then, but today it resonated with a depth that surprised me and reminded me of the woman in the grocery store I'd seen almost reduced to tears earlier in the week. The premise of the book was that words are incapable of fully describing identity. And in a way, he's right. No one word can ever truly capture a person's identity and it is painful to try to find your identity when there is no all encompassing way to describe it. Words as labels can attempt to describe parts of who a person is, like the woman in the grocery store being called a mother, that is her identity, but she is so much more. And the inability of that word to encompass all the things she is - all the things a mother is - lifegiver, caregiver, teacher, researcher, chef, nutritionist, entertainer, CFO, COO, supervisor, driver, domestic engineer, gardener - on top of whatever career or aspirations defined her before having kids.

Perhaps it is the collision of identities that people struggle with or how our identities morph over time - whether we want them to or not - that is the most difficult for people to accept. I had a strained phone conversation with someone recently, and as he struggled for something positive to say to me, all he could come up with was, "You're such a good mommy." The word mommy stung me. It came out as a put down. It came out as something he said because he didn't know any other part of who I am, so he chose that word to define me. And in his mind, no matter what I've done or what I might do in life, I was nothing more than a mommy. His words made me mad. At first I felt funny for being upset by what was supposed to be a compliment, for being upset for being called something I enjoy and am proud to do. But I realized that I was angered because I knew that I, like the woman in the grocery store, had more going on than that, but to him,the word, mommy, was my only identity.

So I tried to think of what I would have said to the man in the grocery store if he had tauntingly called me a mommy. I came up with several not so clever come backs (something I am notorious for in my family - ah, yet another identity - bad comedian), and then I struck on my favorite, a few choice words to define his identity, at least partially, in a way that told him exactly how I felt about him. If he had called me a mommy, I would have said, "Have a nice day, grape stealer!"

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