I'm a Dad But My Toddler Calls Me 'Mama', and That's OK

When my 2-year-old says "Mama," he can either be calling for my wife or me. I was confused by it at first, but now I know it really makes no difference.

illustration of dad holding child in grocery store
Photo: Illustration by Anne Bentley

My 2-year-old son calls me "Mama." He’s extremely verbal, so it feels a little like he’s doing it to taunt me. It’s just the sort of thing that I imagine 2-year-old me would find funny, and James has a personality like mine—always looking for a laugh, always hoping someone will join him in his joy.

I’ve also been known to neglect other people’s feelings when I’m trying to crack a joke, so maybe James doesn’t realize how sweet those times are when he actually does say “Dada” or “Dad.” And maybe he doesn’t realize how his running bit frustrates me—but of course, I’m reading into this. James is not an insult comic. In his mind, “Mama” is the equivalent of “parent whom I love,” although even that stings a little.

It's Not a Lack of Presence

For the first year of his life, I was in graduate school, and my wife and I split all the parenting duties. It’s not as if Dad was off at work and only Mama was present.

We were both off at work. We were both present. And even now, I’m not some high-powered businessman who’s working as he talks into an earpiece while sprinting on a treadmill. I’m a low-powered English teacher. If I’m on the treadmill, I’m gasping unintelligibly and listening to murder podcasts. During the regular school year, I get home by 5 p.m. on most days. I tuck James into bed every night, and I feed him breakfast every morning. I’m around.

So why am I Mama?

It's Not Confusion

Today—Sunday afternoon—James and I are together at the grocery store. He waves at the other children he sees, and their dads and I nod at each other. James is usually pretty good about riding around in the cart, but it’s slow going today.

We’re in the frozen aisle, looking for waffles (his new obsession), and he’s leaning out of the cart. I don’t know if he’s bored or overwhelmed, but he’s reaching for me, saying, “Hold you! Hold you! Mama, hold you!”

“Mama, hold you” means “Dada, hold me.”

Of course, I hold him.

When we get to the checkout line, I’m pushing a full cart with one hand and holding James on my hip with the other. There’s another dad one aisle over with a girl about James’s age sitting in his cart.

“Mommy!” she yells. “Mommy!”

“Mommy’s not here right now,” the dad sighs. “She’s at home.”

“Daddy,” she urges. “Mommy! Mooooommy!”

The little girl is inconsolable. She wants her mommy.

I look at James, who says, “Crine.”

“Yeah, buddy,” I whisper. “She is crying.”

In the car, I think about that little girl. She knows the difference between Daddy and Mommy. She’s not confused about who her parents are.

I look at James in his car seat, and then we smile at each other in the rearview mirror.

He isn’t confused, either.

He Loves Us Just the Same

He knows who I am and who his mother is. But he doesn’t always care. Of course, he sometimes says “Mama” and really means Mama. His relationship with my wife is tender and sweet in special ways, and sometimes he wants that connection.

Most of the time, though, he says “Mama” and means one or both of us. Because he loves both of us. He wants both of us. If he cries out for “Mama” in the night, he’s crying out for either of us, because he loves us just the same.

She is Mama to him, and I am Mama to him, and the more I think about it, the more OK with that I am.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles