Mama: More That Just a Name
I’m expecting my first baby in June. It’s the first grandchild on both sides, so, as you can expect, everyone is ecstatic and totally freaking out with happiness. Especially my MIL. She lives a few blocks away from me and my husband and is just chock full of plans. Sometimes, yes, she can overstep boundaries and needs to be gently yet laughingly reminded that the baby is not going to actually live with her or that whether I breastfeed is not her call, but overall she is really great and I genuinely love her.
Since we found out we were pregnant, she’s been buying heaps o’ presents for the little one, and she signs every card with the name she’s picked out for herself: Mamaw. I had a Mammaw, myself, and I’m excited my little girl will, too. My own mom had actually planned to be Mammaw herself, but since the names are so similar, and MIL “called it” first, she’s thinking of another name and my MIL keeps having packages delivered, cards signed Mamaw, Mamaw, Mamaw.
Then I heard her say it out loud. And Mamaw? Is not pronounced like I thought. It’s not MAM-AW, to rhyme with…HAM-RAW, I guess. The terminal W might as well not be there. Because when my very Southern husband’s family says “Mamaw,” it sounds like exactly like they are saying “MAMA.” As in the diminuitive for “Mother.” As in…kind of what I hoped my kid would call me.
It might just be that I am hormonal, but this is hitting me a lot harder than I thought it would. I never thought I would ever have a baby, due to chronic health problems. And this pregnancy has been fraught; I’ve been in and out of the ER for a lot of it, including a stint of hospital bed rest when it looked like baby would come disastrously early. I guess what I’m saying is that the role of Mother, the title, is really important to me. I’m going to be sharing this baby with a lot of different people, and I’m so glad, I want her to have a lot of people who love her in her life, and I know nobody can replace me in her life, blah, blah, blah. But dang it, I want the title of MAMA for my own.
But on the other hand…I love my MIL. She’s had a tough year, job and healthwise, and I want her to be happy. And being Mamaw, like her mom and her own grandmother, will make her happy, even if it makes me feel pretty sad and a little stepped on. In my ideal world, I would be able to tell MIL how I feel and she would immediately understand and say that actually, being called “Gigi” or “Nana” is fine, too, and unicorns would hold hands (hooves?) and dance together around a pot of leprechaun gold. My husband, however, assures me that his mom is unlikely to give this up, and has advised me that the quickest solution is probably for me to get over it.
Amy, can you see another way? Or do I, like husband says, just get over it?
But…she’s NOT Mama. Not in name, accent-affected pronunciation aside, and certainly not in spirit. Your mother-in-law is NOT going to be your baby’s mama, mommy or mother. She’s Mamaw. Which, for the record, I’ve always pronounced closer to Maw-Maw, which I guess also kind of sounds a lot like “Mama” with a bit of a drawl. But I’ve never honestly noticed that similarity until well, right this second. (While very very quietly saying it out loud in the middle of the waiting room at my son’s occupational therapist’s office, trying not to seem EVEN WEIRDER THAN EVERYBODY PROBABLY ALREADY THINKS I AM.)
I’ve heard other friends and kids and friends’ kids all talk about their Mamaws and Mammaws and Mawmaws, and I always knew they were referring to a grandmother. You might not be hearing that all-important W, but it’s there. And everybody will know that it’s there.
I DON’T want to sound like I’m belittling your emotions over this — or dismiss you with a crappy little headpat that this is something that will surely evaporate once your baby is born into a cloud of “I can’t believe I got myself worked up over that” concerns of the past. But…it might. I was a big fan of being called “Mama,” but once Noah started preschool at three years old he switched to “Mommy” all on his own, probably thanks to peer pressure and a school curriculum that used “Mommy and Daddy” as the default language. I fought the switch for weeks but ultimately lost, quite definitively. And I was sad about it. (I naively thought we lived “south” enough that I’d be able to hold onto Mama as my permanent title.) And then Ezra NEVER called me “Mama,” going right from calling me nothing at all to mimicking his older brother and using “Mommy” no matter how hard I lobbied for the more traditional baby-name.
There was also a stretch of time where I was “Mommy Mommy,” which baffled me for a couple weeks before our part-time nanny admitted that Ezra occasionally called her “Mommy Tati.” If you told me that would happen when I was pregnant — or before I made the decision to hire her in the first place soon after Ezra’s first birthday — I would have…oh lord. My head would have probably exploded the hell off in angst and weeping and working-mother guilt. But when it happened…I laughed. I thought it was cute. I was happy he had bonded so closely with the woman I trusted with his care 20 hours a week. And I knew it wouldn’t stick.
It didn’t. Maybe a month or two. And sometimes? I kinda miss hearing myself called “Mommy Mommy.” It was soooo cute, you guys.
Point is, your kid may also bring his/her own name ideas to the table, both for you and the other adults in his/her life. Maybe even for dear old Mamaw herself. (Just read the comments on a recent column about step-grandparents and note the number of kids who overrode the Grandma/Gammy/Nana decisions and made up their own unique names.)
Since your husband thinks it’s unlikely his mother will take too kindly to having her chosen name yanked out from under her with two months left to go (and I usually award the tiebreaker vote to the person who is actually related to the in-law in question), what about tacking on a name AFTER the Mamaw title? Like her first name or last? “Mamaw Sue” or “Mamaw Davis” or something? This would also leave the opening for your mother to stick with her first choice of “Mammaw” if she agrees to also go with “Mammaw Beth” or whatever. (Because even with the subtle pronunciation difference you hear, a very young new talker probably won’t be able to distinguish the two very well — or between “Mama” and your preferred “Mammaw,” for that matter.) Hell, I’ve heard about kids who simply use “Grandma One” and “Grandma Two,” which strikes me as a kind of Dr. Suessian approach to the name wars, and awfully darn cute.
I get why you’re protective of the “Mama” title. I really, really do. It’s obviously a really important, meaningful title and one that many of us spent ages dreaming about and longing for. I know you’re picturing your chubby little Future Baby looking across the room and calling someone else “Mama” and it’s breaking your heart. And I’m typing from the privileged point of view 2.5 kids later, as someone who has witnessed my babies use “Mama” as the default word for every grown-up woman in the world, from aunts to grandmas to the cashier at the supermarket. But even without that, I just don’t think the “Mamaw” moniker necessarily takes anything away from your title, at least not at the level you’re currently afraid of. If you really, really feel like you’re unable to “get over it” as your husband suggests, try incorporating her first or last name into the name in your head for the next couple months, or hell, applying your own regional pronunciation (that’s what you called YOUR Mammaw! it’s just a hard habit to break! it’s a Yankee thing!). At some point, you may no longer feel compelled to do either mildly passive-aggressive thing anymore, but for now it’s definitely preferable to spending the final weeks and months of your pregnancy in a stressed-out competitive snit at an otherwise loving, involved and excited grandma-to-be.
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