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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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