You can keep ‘mum’

You can keep mum | Betty HerbertI am growing increasingly sick of the word ‘mum.’

Not, you understand, when it’s uttered by my son; that is the only appropriate use I can think of (even though he does have a habit of conflating ‘mummy’ with ‘dummy,’ which is less than flattering).

No, I mean the use of ‘mum’ by people that aren’t my offspring. On one level, it’s just plain creepy. I am routinely addressed as ‘mum’ by doctors and nurses whenever I take Bert for an appointment. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from saying, I’m not your mother, dear. You’ve got a bit confused.

But it’s worse than that. Too often in the media, ‘mum’ is a happy idiot, blithely trotting through life in a fug of cooking smoke and vague incompetence. This morning on R4’s Today programme, Sebastain James, the chief executive of Dixons, pointed out that the Currys/PC World stores offer something for everyone, because the dads can go to the computer section and the mums can make a beeline for the fridges. Well, whoopeedoo. What lucky girls we are.

Meanwhile, I recently happened across a discussion board on Elance in which freelancers were lamenting the way that ‘mummy workers’ are bringing down the price of work on the outsourcing site. Clearly, mothers who work are a different flavour of worker to everyone else, content to make silly pin money while our husbands bring in the real wage. The act of giving birth apparently wipes clean the slate of all our qualifications and achievements to date. Look! Funny old mummy is trying to work with the big boys! Bless!

But I think I hate most of all the claim that motherhood somehow invests me with a level of moral superiority. ‘As a mom,’ says Sarah Palin, as if that qualifies the jumble of nonsense she’s about to utter. Believe me, having a child in no way transports you to the high-ground. In fact, I think I’ve become exponentially more unscrupulous since reproducing. Andy Murray’s wonderful mother Judy draws criticism for supporting her sons too savagely; I think she’s positively restrained. Personally, I want Bert to vanquish every child he passes on the street; god only knows how I’d behave if he were slugging it out on the tennis court.

When he was two months old, a car full of teenagers cut me up at a junction, forcing me to come to a jolting emergency stop as their car whisked past me with millimetres to spare. At that moment, I knew that if I could catch them, I would hurt them very, very badly indeed. And Bert wasn’t even in the car at the time; he was safely at home with this dad. But he might have been, and that was enough. This is the morality of my motherhood: I would kill for a mere traffic violation. And I wouldn’t be sorry, either. On that evidence alone, we could probably do without a world full of Mama Grizzlies.

The problem is that ‘mum’ is not a tribe; it is not a phrase that has any meaning outside one child’s relationship with one mother. Mums, like women, and like human beings in general, are all kinds of things. So, in future, call me Betty if you don’t mind.

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6 Responses to You can keep ‘mum’

  1. n.lumiere 17/12/2013 at 16:09 #

    Agree! I especially resent the way only mothers are penalised in the workplace for having children when men are also involved.

    • Betty Herbert 17/12/2013 at 19:52 #

      Oh that’s a whole other blog post…don’t get me STARTED.

  2. Lesley 17/12/2013 at 19:27 #

    As a mum of daughters your age Betty, I wholly concur with everything you say – and indeed always have. I would also like to add that I am normally a peace abiding citizen, but despite the fact that my daughters now have great careers and lives I would still commit murder should anyone anywhere threaten them harm. Being a mum never stops but by Christ it’s not all I am… Or was… Or ever will be…

  3. Phil 18/12/2013 at 09:23 #

    Ok Ma’am, Yes, great insight into the assumed moral heightening of motherhood, often used stridently, as ‘leverage ‘ to crowbar some parentcentic madness or benefit on those of us that chose not to procreate and fill the holes either parent leaves when they go off on yet another round parental leave. ‘Mums’ ,used outside the familial bond, always struck me as either a condescending term used by disinterested doctors/obsequious politicians or to describe feckless, but fecund, early teens equipped with foul mouth, fag,’phone ,and double buggy.

    Right… Where is my Champagne and antiperspirant

  4. Amiee 29/04/2014 at 21:41 #

    Completely agree, Betty. Perhaps building on n.lumiere’s post, you might enjoy ‘Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when no one has the time’, if you do ever consider a whole other post on this topic. I am only about half way through the book, and originally bought it because the author talked of women having 33 hours of leisure time a week ( on top of full time jobs) and I thought, wow! I gotta get me some of that! ( I work for the NHS – Enough said there I think on the overwhelmed part). However so far Schulte has given real insight into the inequality women (and men, in some examples) face after becoming parents. Personally for me it was shocking to read the iron-age stereotypical role society expects mothers to meet in a modern world. My partner and I are thinking about starting a family soon, and at work I can’t help but notice (in the mostly female staffed teams) how often the term ‘baby brain’ is banded around when a woman does something a bit silly. Before pregnancy for most us this would be described as ‘a daft moment’ at best or ‘a blonde moment’ at worst. But then all of a sudden once with child, pregnancy apparently debilitates you so sufficiently it warrants it’s own term. I don’t really look forward to being discussed in this way or having to grit my teeth whilst those terms are used when I have said ‘daft moments’, just as I do now (all too often) outside of pregnancy.

    Phil who has posted above might not agree with what I am saying about inequality in the workplace as (I am assuming?) someone who has chosen not to procreate. I can see how this might be irritating to someone having to cover parental leave/flexi hours when you have chosen this path. However Phil, I think you have to consider that we are mammals, and as any species does we survive by procreating. It is through scientific advances available through human advancement that we are given the choice of whether or not to procreate nowadays, but the majority of adults still choose to procreate. It isn’t right or wrong to make either choice, but when the majority chooses to procreate surely employment law should move with the times to reflect this.

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