There are two hard truths all new mothers learn very quickly. Firstly, your baby won’t be the first person to call you Mum. In fact, by the time your baby looks up at you and utters a tentative “Muuu-”, you’ll be totally sick of that word, having been called it daily, since the second you gave birth, by everyone from doctors to shop staff to street canvassers yelling to get your attention.
The second ineffable truth of motherhood is that when you have had a baby, people talk to you in an odd, slightly cutesy manner. It’s the tone you’d use to beckon over a nervy donkey, or convince a happy dog to put down a bone – if the bone was actually a lit stick of dynamite. It’s how the key-workers at my younger son’s nursery talk to tantrumming toddlers. I call it “Mum-whispering”.
I’ve been a parent for almost five years now, to two children, so I’ve been Mum-whispered to a lot, and it drives me bananas. I can now easily spot a Mum-whisperer from the off because they’ll tilt their head, subtly raise their voice, and pepper their sentences with mum-qualifiers such as “lovely” and “little”. They use “tummy” for stomach and subsitute “pop” for put.
I realise this all sounds a bit delusional – my husband certainly thought so when I first tried to explain it to him (Did I not want people to talk to me nicely, he asked, bemused). Then I invited him along to a postnatal medical appointment where even he witnessed me being addressed as Mum, when it was my husband (addressed as “sir”) who was holding the baby.
Next, I was invited to “just pop yourself on the bed and we’ll have a lovely little look at your tummy”. And finally the health professional committed the worst and gravest of Mum-whispery crimes. “Now, Mum,” he said. “Can I ask you to pop Baby on the scale there?”
Not “the” baby. Not your baby. Just “Baby” – as though we had named him that on his birth certificate or our child had somehow cast himself in the Jennifer Grey role in his own personal reboot of Dirty Dancing.
There’s just no rational explanation for calling a baby “Baby” and whenever someone does it to my baby, it feels like they’re scraping their nails down the blackboard of my soul. I have to bite my lip to stop narkily asking what they plan to do with all the time they’ve saved by omitting the definite article.
Until recently, I’d assumed these issues were my personal peeve, but during a recent Twitter rant, other mums came seething out of the woodwork. I do realise there are bigger things in the world to worry about, but this habit of speaking to women who’ve had babies as though they are babies speaks to a larger, much more serious, tendency to treat mothers as lesser citizens.
I talk to mothers regularly as part of my work and every one I’ve met has war stories about not being taken seriously – whether it’s a stay-at-home mother being patronised by a salesman; single mums; mums who are too old or too young; and women who aren’t mums, of course, but are judged just as harshly.
Even wildly successful entrepreneurs can be treated like dull-witted hobbyists by investors, simply by dint of having had children. I get it, too, sometimes.
Every once in a while when people find out I a) have kids and b) earn my living as a journalist, they jump in with “Oh, a Mummy-blogger!” when I’ve been in my profession for a decade before I had kids. Actual Mummy-bloggers, of course, get the short end of this, criticised for not being “proper writers” no matter how prolific they are (or how many books they write).
I’m not saying that Mum-whispering is to blame for all this. But not adopting a special tone to talk to mothers might help right the perception that mums are people, not soft little idiots who don’t understand words bigger than “Orla” or Kierly”. Ada Lovelace was a mother. Marie Curie was a mother. Wonder-Woman herself, Gal Gadot, has two kids, and I bet no one mum-whispers her.
Let me tell you something that happened to me last year. I was travelling into London for a work meeting – luckily, a baby-friendly meeting, so I had my younger son with me in his buggy. At St Pancras Station, I approached the wide ticket barrier, but as soon as I put my ticket in the slot, a man barged past me through the barrier, which snapped shut before I could walk through myself.
Obviously, I yelled expletives at the man, asking what an earth he thought he was doing, and did he realise that by doing it he’d trapped me behind the gate.
“Oh,” he replied airily, “I thought you’d know to come through the barrier directly behind me. All us Londoners do it. It’s a common commuter trick!″
I just gaped at him, first in shock, then in apoplexy at the sheer gall of telling such an obvious lie and believing he’d got away with it. But of course he had, because to him I was just “a mum”, so how would I know if commuters didn’t in fact, routinely nip through ticket barriers on another traveller’s dime?
Being just a mum, I definitely wasn’t worth crediting with anything like a past, especially not one where, say, I’d lived in and commuted through London for the past decade, and therefore knew he was talking out of his bum.
Then this awful man, this lying liar, tipped his dirty-looking fedora at me with a smirk, and got on to his micro-scooter, but I couldn’t let this lie. I yelled at him as he wobbled unsteadily down the concourse.
“Don’t mansplain commuting to me, you.. you..” not knowing how to finish, I looked down at my tiny, wide-eyed son, and suddenly knew how to finish. “You patronising BABY!”
There, you see? THAT’s how to use “baby” in a grammatically correct sentence.
Obviously I don’t know if he heard me, but the moral of the story is this: Do not talk down to mums, otherwise they’ll disparage your hat and scooter technique on their mummy-blogs. Think on.