Hearing That Magic Word: "Mommy"

Your hear it 5,000 times a day, yet you never tire of the sound.

From behind the bathroom door I could hear the endlessly repeating chimes of "Mommyyyy" (my 2-year-old) and "Mommmm" (my 6-year-old). It is the car alarm of parenting. In that moment, I'd have traded a weekend in Paris -- even a whole week in Paris -- for the chance to pee in solitude. But then I paused and remembered that not too long ago, I ached to be called Mom.

As soon as our eldest daughter hit 6 months of age, my husband and I clustered around her like people listening to a staticky radio. We sifted through her purring consonants in hopes of hearing a word, any word, but especially that word.

A few months later, I was lying on our bed with that sublimely round baby girl, and there it was: "Mammm." Now it might have been a random "mmmm" or a serendipitous pairing of consonants and a vowel, but I wanted her to be talking about me, so I seized on the word and was ridiculously happy. The birthing and the breastfeeding didn't alter my identity as much as having this little girl christen me. It must have something to do with that ancient link between humanity and language. We label everything from bottles to beetles for them at the beginning. Later we're constantly telling them to "use their words." And yet there is no language to define what happens during the first year of a child's life when you are up to your earlobes in unfamiliar, intense emotions. The utterance "Mama" doesn't begin to cover what passes between you and that baby, but it's a start.

Our second daughter was born four years later on the night before Mother's Day. After the rest of the family had gone home, she and I lay swaddled and sore, watching the dawn crest over New York Harbor. This Mother's Day will be completely different, I thought. On my first Mother's Day, it had been strange when people gave me Mother's Day cards. Mother? Me? The word seemed so formal and fraught with expectation. Now it was ordinary. Of course I'd already been a mother for four years, so I figured that one more child shouldn't be a big deal.

But when I took our small new girl home, she was so different from the first. I realized that it would take some time to feel like I was her mother too. I was a part of her, and she me, but I didn't know her yet. It was like meeting a cousin for the first time who looks like you. You know you can love them, and they seem so familiar, but you're still awkward around each other. I'd been a mom for years, but I'd only been this new baby's mother for a few days and it's a title you earn uniquely with each child.

These days I'm bound to hear some version of Mom from both girls approximately 4,762 times per daylight hour. And though it hasn't yet lost its thrill entirely, I will admit to a sudden lack of attention when that word prefaces a request to remove an infuriating Polly Pocket doll's plastic dress. I am assuming, without turning around, that the child means take the dress off the doll and not out of some part of her. But that's the thing: After six years on the job, you can usually tell by the pitch of the "Mommy!" whether it involves a painful fall on the tile floor or a jammed Shrek video.

Those skills aren't exactly resume material, but I find that the word "Mom," with all the joy and doubt it imparts, fits me pretty well. Maybe too well. I can count on one hand the number of times in the past week that anyone has used my first name. Before I get too frustrated, however, I have to remember that soon enough, our little girls will be teenagers and those "Mommys" might morph into an exasperated "MO-THERRRR!" or disappear entirely into sullen silences. And though silence can be really appealing, I'll certainly miss those Homeric tales of school days that inevitably start with: "Mom, today I hung up my coat on the hook next to Vicky's" and "Mommy, Mommy, are you listening to me?"

With that in mind, this year, when I get a handmade card from my older daughter that says "Happy Mother's Day, Mom," I'll cop to both titles and hope she and her little sister never stop using them. Mommy today, Mother tomorrow; I'll take them all. As the saying goes, I don't care what you call me, as long as you call me. Then I'll dial my mother and tell her again that I can't believe she managed so well with four kids when I can just about keep up with two (the laundry issue alone boggles the mind). I'll then be compelled to apologize profusely for my behavior between ages 14 and 17. She'll laugh and say, "Don't worry about it. Your time is coming," and I'll know she means both the bratty teenage years and the good stuff, like grandchildren. So Happy Mother's Day to her and to anyone else out there who also answers to the M. word. May you wear it well.

Susanna Schrobsdorff, the mother of two girls, writes frequently about parenting. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2004.

American Baby

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