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What ‘mom’ really means in America

How a distinctive word for motherhood came to carry so much freight

istockphoto: illustration by dan zedek/ globe staff

Since Mother’s Day was proclaimed an American holiday 100 years ago, we’ve called our maternal parent by many names: mother, momma, mama, ma, mumsy, and so on. Today, however, “mom” reigns supreme, far and away the most popular American word to call the women who brought us into the world.

But “mom” is more than an affectionate (or exasperated—jeez, Mom!) term of address. “Moms” have become a baggy collective, encapsulating all women with children—whether as a political demographic, a market sector, or a social identity. Moms come in subvarieties: super-, soccer, teen, alpha, Octo-. It’s a word worn as a badge of honor by everyone from stay-at-home mothers of 10 to Michelle Obama, “mom-in-chief.” And “mom”’s journey from a private term of endearment to a powerful, sometimes fraught generalization tells us a lot about the way we conceive of motherhood today.

“Mom” and “mommy” began appearing in the mid 19th century, part of a slew of variations, including mam, mum, and marm, that pop up in dialect and casual written language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English. (“Marm” would’ve usually been pronounced without the “r,” said Ben Zimmer, linguist and producer of Visual Thesaurus—and a former writer of this column—meaning that “Little Women”’s Marmee was probably an early namesake of today’s mommies.) As the language in general became more standardized in the late 19th and early 20th century, “mom” became the prevalent spelling.

“Mom” was also an appealing alternative to “mama” and “mother,” the two other big contenders at the time. “Mama” carried class signifiers, depending on whether you said it with an off-the-boat, Scandinavian accent or accentuated the second syllable (Frenchified and fancy). “Mother,” as a title, was a relic of Victorian “Mother Love,” the notion that the bond between mother and child was a sacred, all-encompassing duty, according to Rebecca Jo Plant, a historian at UC San Diego and author of “Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America.”


“Mom,” on the other hand, is a teenager’s word, colloquial and even a bit gum-snapping: A 1911 OED listing describes “City-wearied fathers of youngsters who called their parents ‘pop’ and ‘mom.’” “When people switched to use mom and pop, it’s...more playful,” Plant said. “‘Mom’ could be your friend.”


Marmee, played by Mary Astor, reads to her daughters in MGM’s 1949 production of “Little Women.”bettman/corbis

As the 20th century came into its own, “Mom” became a key character in two central arenas of mid-century American fantasy, patriotism and commercialism. The frequently repeated idea that World War II soldiers were fighting for “Mom and apple pie” and the rise of the phrase “mom-and-pop store” in the 1940s both helped fuel the word’s dominance. Around the same time, “mom” and “mommy” began to be invoked in advertisements for everything from soap to cereal to war bonds to Kotex maxi-pads to cigarettes (next to an image of a sad-looking baby: “Before you scold me, Mom...maybe you’d better light up a Marlboro!”). By the later ’60s, when the editors of DARE were asking people around the country what they called their mothers, “mom” was by far the most popular choice, with “mother” and “mamma” following behind.

The 1950s mom with her apron and sparkling kitchen began to fade from advertising by the mid-1970s, as feminism gathered force and women flooded back into the workplace. “Mom,” however, thrived. And it expanded its syntactic territory, going from an informal term of address for an individual mother to become a common way to refer to all mothers, with certain expectations attached.

This public, collective use of “mom” had already started by the 1950s—“mom cult” is an early harbinger in the OED—but it really took off in the 1980s and 1990s. Meredith Michaels and Susan J. Douglas’s 2004 book, “The Mommy Myth,” points to early “celebrity mom” profiles as helping drive the shift toward mom-ization: the explosion of tabloid stories, beginning after the Diana-Charles wedding boom and showing no sign of abating, that described stars like Whitney Houston or Niki Taylor as “Superstar Moms,” “Hollywood Moms,” or “The Sexy New Moms,” and interviewed them about why motherhood had made their lives complete.


“Mom” isn’t quite “mother”—it’s cozier, more intimate. So what does it mean to be called “mom” if it’s not by your own child? Michaels, a professor of philosophy at Smith College, sees in the label “a kind of infantilizing of the mother,” defining her almost in baby talk. “Mom,” a more private term than “mother,” also places a mother’s nurturing role above any other female-parent duties (running a household or providing for the family, for instance). As Douglas, a communication studies professor at University of Michigan, points out, you’re a “stay-at-home mom,” but a “working mother” (or worse, a “welfare mother”)—and there’s some judgment implied on both sides.

Today, the word “mom” has become central to the loaded, intense way motherhood is discussed in the media—for example, in the aggressive 2012 Time magazine cover story “Are You Mom Enough?”, featuring a photo of a 3-year-old breastfeeding. A nostalgic and affectionate use of “mom” still persists in advertising, especially food advertising, from the “Shake and Bake Mom” TV ad of the 1990s to the Lunchables S’mores “Fun time Mom” of the early 2000s to the Campbell soup football moms over the past few years. Most recently, there were the Proctor & Gamble “Thank You, Mom” ads during the Olympics, showing mothers cheering their Olympian children to greatness. That series aimed to bring fond tears to the eyes, but some “mom” marketing rides a more uncomfortable line—like a greeting-card commercial released for this Mother’s Day called “#worldstoughestjob,” in which a human resources representative interviews candidates for a job with zero pay and constant miserable work, then announces it’s already filled: by “moms.” Mom ads don’t just sell to moms; they also sell a concept of “mom,” in this case the ultimate, quasi-Victorian self-sacrificer. Send her a card already, you ingrate!


If “mom” is ubiquitous in advertising, it’s in part due to the market strength of mothers, who control trillions of dollars a year in spending. Child-raising women are equally important to politicians, who have often treated “moms” as an essential voting bloc (as compared with “men”), starting with Bill Clinton’s SUV-driving “soccer” moms back in 1996. Mitt Romney used the word 14 times in his 2012 Republican National Convention speech, and rallied support during his campaign from a group called Moms for Mitt. Female political figures, meanwhile, use the word to play up their warm, family-oriented side, while male politicians may find that unnecessary. Hillary Clinton’s Twitter bio begins, “Wife, mom”; Jeb Bush, another likely 2016 contender, doesn’t reference his parental status in his bio, and neither does Bill Clinton.


Over the last few years, the status of “mom” may be shifting once again. Douglas thinks that, since the 2004 publication of “The Mommy Myth,” there has been “a certain amount of rebellion” against the strict definitions of motherhood that the authors described. There’s a wider variety of “mom” types in advertising than ever before (“millennial mom,” “career mom,” “stay-at-home mom in skinny jeans,” etc.), and you’re more likely to find dads ably sharing parenting duties onscreen, as with the “#1 dad” in the Toyota Sienna “Swagger Wagon” commercial from 2010. In advance of this year’s mid-term elections, analysts have been buzzing about non-moms instead: the befuddling demographic of “unmarried women” (who have now earned their own pop-culture acronym: PANK, or “professional auntie, no kids”).

Less emphasis on “mom,” the cultural catchall, might be welcome news for many moms, the people. For such a tiny word, it’s borne a lot of weight over the years. This Mother’s Day, it might be worth thinking about why Mom is so very important, and yet “mom,” the myth and legend, could stand to be a little less so.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.