DEAR MISS MANNERS: In the past few years I have noticed an infuriating trend: service people, such as cashiers, waitresses, etc., but sometimes also complete strangers, address me as “Mama.”
Whatever happened to “Ma’am?”
I find this tacky and disrespectful, and it makes me absolutely livid. I snap back with a haughty “I’m not your mama!” which always causes total shock and surprise.
“Mama,” in this context, is clearly a way of addressing an older women — it calls attention to the woman’s age. Yesterday, a younger friend of mine was devastated because some clerk called her “Mama” for the first time.
Do you have a better retort than a very stern “I am not your mama”? And will you please tell your readers to stop doing this?
GENTLE READER: What happened to “Ma’am” is that the age factor was injected into it from the recipient’s side. Those who apparently consider it reprehensible to grow older, even as they are doing so, took it as an insult, rather than the indication of respect it actually is. (Royal women are correctly addressed as “Ma’am,” whatever their age.)
In contrast, flinging around the hallowed terms denoting motherhood is disrespectful, Miss Manners agrees. Her own dear mother used a softer version of your retort to strangers, which she offers to you: “Surely if I were your mother, I would have remembered you.”
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Would I need to have a corsage for the guest of honor at a baby shower?
GENTLE READER: Because you phrased this as a “need,” Miss Manners gathers that you would not intend giving it as a spontaneous and charming gesture. Rather, you are thinking of it as possibly required, as a badge to distinguish the guest of honor.
No, it is not necessary. At a baby shower, it is not difficult to distinguish the guest of honor.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Every so often, my mom — with no small amount of soft soap — will comment negatively on an aspect of my appearance (say, a hair extension). Do you think I should:
A. Play the respectful daughter and remove or change whatever it is; after all, how often do we see each other and what would it hurt me? OR,
B. Say, “Thank you for sharing,” in the hope of discouraging this kind of behavior in future?
Our time with our parents is short, so I’m inclined to just make my mother happy. On the other hand, if I’ve turned myself out in something, usually I feel good in it.
GENTLE READER: May Miss Manners pick one from column A and one from column B?
From A, she would pick being a respectful daughter, but not changing merely because of the criticism; from B, saying just “Thank you,” but not hoping to re-educate your mother. Being listened to should be sufficiently gratifying in itself, whether or not the advice is followed.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is it rude to eat in bed?
GENTLE READER: Is there anyone else in that bed? If so, that person gets to respond, not Miss Manners. It’s no crumbs in her sheets.
Miss Manners is the pseudonym of Judith Martin. Contact her at [email protected]
Don’t call me mama — not today, not ever
Last year on Mother’s Day, my mother called me before I could call her.
“Happy Mother’s Day!” she said.
I was going to call to ask how she liked the flowers I sent. You know, because she’s the Mother and it’s her Day, not mine.
A brief flash of panic: Does she know something I don’t?!
“You don’t have to wish me Happy Mother’s Day,” I said with a laugh. “I’m not a mom.”
“You’re raising Nora,” she pointed out. “And Rex and Harold.”
Nora is a terrier; Harold and Rex are rescued cats. I adore them, but they are not my children. I am not the mama, to use a ’90s sitcom catchphrase, nor will I ever be.
It dawned on me that with all of the fuss my female cohort enjoys on this day, maybe my sweet mom didn’t want me to feel left out.
Mother’s Day used to be a day for people to celebrate their mothers — and, in turn, for mothers to accept the meager tributes proffered by kids grown and small, ungrateful wretches and li’l angels alike, with a smile and, who knows, maybe an unspoken wish for one well-rolled joint instead of the macaroni art trash the school sent home.
Unless you waited tables at a brunch hotspot, Mother’s Day was once pretty easy to avoid if you didn’t partake. But with the ubiquity of social media, like everything else in our lives — learning the sex of a fetus, asking someone to Prom — Mother’s Day has become a publicized spectacle, an obligatory photo op for the carefully curated private life made ever more public each year. Add into the mix the manic social media performance that seems to be almost compulsory now: “HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY TO ALL THE AMAZING MAMAS IN MY LIFE” followed by what seems like every woman the person knows tagged by name, it’s a day tailor-made to make the vulnerable feel left out. (Come to think of it, those dog flowers should come with something to take the edge off, too.)
Because while for some people Mother’s Day is a simple and joyous celebration, for others it can be a day of mourning, tension, anger, resentment, sorrow, yearning, and complicated love. I can’t blame any woman for accepting flowers on behalf of the dog on a day as fraught with emotional minefields as this, especially those who feel the sting of not being a mother, for any reason, acutely and personally.
And so I get the desire to avoid inadvertently hurting anyone’s feelings by excluding them from the emoji explosion. Some of us, though, are good where we are. And it’s not just my mom who wants to assign me the motherhood status I’ve worked so hard to avoid. The word “fur-baby” had to come from somewhere. (Guillermo del Toro’s nightmares?) Now there’s special coffee for Dog Mother’s Day, and there’s even a parody song — once corporations are cashing in on them, Dog Moms are officially a thing. At the veterinarian’s office, the staff calls me Mom with absolutely no trace of irony. Internally, I recoil, but I would feel churlish telling them to stop. Humans understand each other through relationships and the status they confer. In our culture, to be a mother is to have ascended to a higher social plane, somewhere between war hero and minor deity. Without that status, is a woman just . . . a woman? (The message is implied: Are you sure you want to stop there, honey?)
A recent study shows that parental status really is rewarded in our culture — some people actually feel moral outrage toward non-parents. This stigma can be relatively impotent — disapprove of my alone time in the bathroom, chumps — but it also manifests itself in the pernicious policy roadblocks on women’s health and workplace equality. In light of research like this, even benign comments can contribute to the bias that women are seen only as potential (or failed) mothers, not as the individuals we are.
Mother’s Day — and Father’s Day, too — can suck for a number of reasons. To be clear, I would never tell another person that their dog is not their child, or that the only legitimate Cat Mom is an actual calico suckling a litter. If an individual identifies as a Dog Mom, I respect that and celebrate it and will even feel slightly less creepy about babytalking her dog in public, so thanks! Hell, I will recognize the parent of a brood of five Twitter sock-puppets that troll Piers Morgan all day. Life as a human is hard enough without denying each other these comforts.
But in the sugar-rush of today’s bottomless mimosas, let’s not get carried away and assume every woman of child-rearing age longs, even on an unspoken level, to be included in the flowers-and-pancakes fuss. Some do; be kind. And remember as well that some of us are just trying to walk our dogs over here, and don’t mind one bit sitting this Sunday brunch out.