I Didn't Know How Hard the Switch From Mommy to Mom Would Be

Losing that one syllable can kind of break a parent's heart. But it's not always negative when kids start calling you Mom instead of Mommy.

Photo: Getty Images/agalma. ART: ANNA HALKIDIS

When my daughter went to school for the first time, I didn't shed a tear. I saw so many other parents at drop-off (and their social media posts later) with red noses—dabbing the corners of their eyes, lingering wistfully at the doorways, quietly wishing that time would stop. Later, when her top two front teeth fell out—each barely the size of a corn kernel—I embraced her new, gappy smile. Dismantling the crib, selling off the stroller, even kissing her goodbye before she embarked on seven weeks away at sleepaway camp at the age of 9: no sniffles or melancholy, just joy.

Last week, I suggested she put her hair in a ponytail.

"No, I hate ponytails," she replied.

"It looks nice when it's up, though," I continued.

"Ugh, Mom, ew, no; you don't even know anything."

She's 12-and-a-half. I couldn't care less if she thinks I "know anything," but Mom—that landed with a thud. The staccato single syllable, not the sing-song, ding-dong sound of "Mommy," which until now, she'd still used. I felt my heart catch in my throat.

What a difference two letters and one syllable can make. Mommy is soft edges and cookies after school. Mommy packs your lunch and draws a heart on the outside, which you won't be tempted to hide. Mommy scratches your back until you fall asleep. Mommy is allowed to hold a hand while crossing the street. Mommy can kiss your neck and get a laugh, not a groan. Mommy receives handmade, still-gluey gifts riddled with misspellings. Mommy: skinned knees, not broken hearts.

Mom, on the other hand, seems to be the lead-in to a bunch of sort of naggy things. Before they got cool again, wearing mom jeans was a no-go. Mom hair, mom bod, soccer mom, helicopter mom. Mom is no fun, mom has too much to do. Mom tells you not to mess up the pillows. Mom harshes your mellow. Mom lays down the law. Mom reminds you to put away your backpack and that you already had a cookie with lunch.

Mom—that landed with a thud. The staccato single syllable, not the sing-song, ding-dong sound of "Mommy," which until now, she'd still used. I felt my heart catch in my throat. 

In recent years, the folksy term Mama has caught on much more widely than before, and in some ways, with good reason: it's a term that kids can stick with longer than Mommy, perhaps a happy medium. "I suspect 'Mama' doesn't have the infantilizing overtones that 'Mommy' has," says Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "It keeps the affectionate closeness but not the childlikeness."

There are also regions and cultures around the world where Mama, not Mommy, is the default term, and one that is easily stuck with throughout adulthood. "This could be, in part, due to the more communal nature of ethnic minority families," says Nikia Scott, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents, in Stone Mountain, Georgia, "where 'Momma' or even 'Big Momma' can be used to describe the matriarch of an entire community or an extended family. In this sense, it has a broader meaning than Mommy."

In Latinx cultures, Mami is often the default term, says Alessandra Martinez, a lifestyle influencer and mother of four in Dallas, who was born in Peru. "My 13-year-old still calls me Mommy at home, but when we're out and about, it's Mom. If we were in Peru, she would still call me Mami or Mamita. I personally call my mom, who is now 60 years old, Mami. Even my older aunts and cousins still call their moms, Mami."

For me, I knew it was only a matter of time until my daughter considered replacing Mommy with Mom. "It's a transition many kids make, at varying ages," says Tori Cordiano, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Ohio and the director of research at Laurel Center for Research on Girls. In some ways, my middle-schooler is on the later side, since "lots of kids start to move away from Mommy to Mom when they are in the early elementary school years," says Dr. Cordiano. "That's when children are spending more and more time outside of the home with other kids." And it's there, on the playgrounds and playdates, that children become more conscious of what terms their peers are using, bringing some societal pressure into play. "Kids who have older siblings often get there quicker than the firstborn, simply because of more exposure to different labels," says Dr. Cordiano, who notes that of her three kids, her oldest child called her Mommy far longer than her youngest.

It's just another natural milestone along the child's process of separation from their parents, says Dr. Scott. "From a developmental perspective, children age out of referencing their parents in ways that socially communicate dependence and, in some ways, infantilize them." It doesn't always happen all at once—sometimes kids try it out a bit here and there—like a shoe, says Dr. Scott—before they go over the bridge, and they may use one or the other in different contexts, such as when they are feeling vulnerable. "Growth and development are not linear; several steps forward, one step back, is expected," notes Dr. Scott, and neither term may fit perfectly for a while.

Perhaps it's a not-that-deep developmental milestone for kids, but for some of us, it can feel like an entire seasonal shift, like that first bracing wind that portends the fall. It's about what a child sees and feels and thinks when they look at you. Does their heart still think of you as Mommy or is that gone too?

When my daughter was a few months old, I'd come into her room in the morning, where I'd find her wide awake and usually lying on her back. As soon as she registered my face above her, trilling, "Good morning, my love," her whole body would erupt in excitement—her fists would clench, her legs would straighten and kick out, and her eyes would widen as if I was an exploding rainbow. She saw me, and she became electrified. MOMMY!

At pick-up after kindergarten, that distinct current was still there—uncomplicated happiness at being reunited. "Mommy!"

As kids get older, they accumulate so many layers—beautiful and complex ones, but also ones that seem put there by the world and by expectations, insecurities, even leftover emotional debris from all those little arguments over screen-time, timely thank you notes, and tussles over proper footwear. Mommy felt like an easier relationship—one fraught with less tension, built-up frustrations, and mood swings.

Mommy felt like an easier relationship—one fraught with less tension, built-up frustrations, mood swings.

I'm not the only one flinching at the name change. April Corvinus, a mother of one from Pleasant Garden, North Carolina, says her 8-and-a-half-year-old son has tried out Mom a few times, much to her chagrin. "I was crushed! I looked at him in shock and said, 'What did you call me?'" says Corvinus. "There is such an innocence in hearing him call me Mommy, but Mom just seems like he is older and more independent. As much as I want him to grow, his independence, it makes me sad."

The name change felt unexpected—and not all that thrilling—to Lauren Reed, a mom to 8-year-old Shannon, in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. "It was such a sudden change and I'd always loved being called Mommy or Mama. Hearing Mom in my little girl's voice didn't sound like her! I am not sure if she felt that a first grader should be more grown-up or if, after months of not being able to control any of the events going on around her [because of the pandemic], she decided that she was going to assert a shred of independence and call me Mom simply because she was in control of it."

Kids also take note of what they hear in movies and TV shows, says Dr. Cordiano, which can play a part in the switch.

Reed mentioned it a few times to her daughter but eventually dropped it. "I just occasionally whined to my husband about it. And I think that was the right decision, because it only lasted for about two months. Then she went back to calling me almost exclusively Mommy again and has been pretty consistent with that ever since. Shannon is my one and only child, so while I embrace each milestone she reaches, occasionally there is a little bit of sadness and this was no exception!"

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I'm probably overthinking it. In my rational mind, I know that what she calls me is just a blip, just a name! That doesn't mean that the change won't sting, says Dr. Cordiano, "but given how natural it is, it's not always an indication of any sort of relationship change." Still, there are times when I can't help but yearn for the olden days, almost viscerally. I honestly think we're somehow pre-programmed to glimpse old photos or videos and ache a bit. (Never mind how bad the tantrums or sleep deprivation actually were back in those days.)

Just yesterday, an old video popped up: I hear my daughter's little voice saying "Mommy! Watch dis Mommy! I DO IT, Mommy!" and my heart feels like it's being squeezed. For just a moment she's clambering into my lap again, her clammy hand resting on my arm. I'm Mommy and I'm everything.

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