Near the end of spring break, I sat down in my childhood bedroom to complete an interview for a summer internship. Upon picking up the call, I paid no mind to the fact that I’d donned fluffy pink pajama pants and sat sprawled out on the carpeted floor: not only would the conversation take place over the phone, but I was fairly sure I wouldn’t get the job. I was about halfway through the call when my mother walked in. Assuming that I was just on the phone with a friend, she wouldn’t leave. I declared, frantically, “MOMMY, I’m on an interview!” It took a moment after her frazzled departure for me to realize my mistake.
“Mommy,” as it turns out, has a very different connotation from “mother” or even simply “mom.” My abject horror was not merely at the fact that my mother had walked in––it was that I had revealed my utter immaturity to the man who would decide whether I got this job. It is an unfortunate fact that in the past generation or so, the previously endearing terms of “mommy” and “daddy” have taken on an inescapable sexual connotation. Someone might call a woman “mommy” to denote her allure, maturity, and sexual dominance. “Daddy” is employed in a similarly submissive manner, playing into the inherent power dynamic of the paternal term. While the terms are certainly not exclusively heterosexual, they take on their most unsettling meaning in a heterosexual context. Often, a girl described as having “daddy issues” doesn’t just have problems with her father, but also has an Electra-like attachment to him, which she transforms into an attraction to similarly controlling older men. As someone who uses both of the tainted terms to refer to her real parents, this turn is particularly disconcerting. Thank goodness I didn’t say “daddy” on my interview.
As it so happens, I got the position I had interviewed for. At best, my slip of the tongue must have revealed a strong relationship with my mother, and at worst a failure to lock my door. “Mommy” is not beyond salvation. What we call our mothers, I realize, is a very beautiful thing. “Mother” is invested with a dignity worthy of the role it describes. Still, it does not carry the same personality or affection as the various nicknames it inspires: mom, mama, and yes, mommy. Our words for our mothers transcend cultures and languages.. The “m” sound is one of the easiest for the human baby to pronounce, and so the English “mom” echoes the Hebrew “imma” echoes the Chinese “māmā.”
Our maternal monikers convey our heritage, both personal and cultural. They are one of the few relics of childhood we hold onto as we grow up. My brother and I, in fact, never quite grew out of “Mama,” which we lend a slightly clipped intonation, suggesting that we assumed the epithet from our mom’s address of her own Japanese mother.
As we age, we are supposed to grow out of terms like mommy, into new ones, like mom, or mother. If we don’t we are told to be at least mildly ashamed. I feared my interviewer would think I hadn’t grown up, and that I certainly couldn’t handle a job. But the truth is, even as our names for our maternal figures change, our relationships often don’t. When I have breaks from school, I return home, reassume my pink pajamas, and call on my mother to hold me when I cry. At this point in my life, everything seems to be changing. I blink and I am halfway through college, applying for jobs. I look in the mirror and I am no longer a little girl. But some things stay the same. My mom will still be the receiver of all my best gossip, she will keep finding in a minute the things I have lost for months, and I most definitely will keep calling her “mommy.”