Bad news, ladyparents. “Mum” is making its way on to the long and terrible list of gender-specific terms of abuse.
It’s the thin end of the wedge, granted. Slut, whore, c*** and bitch are more popular and powerful, some for both genders. As the author Jessica Valenti put it, “The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult.”
Mum-as-a-diss isn’t commonplace yet, but its popularity is growing. I realised this when people started to direct the word at me as an intended slur (why, yes, on the internet! How did you guess?). As is so often the case when misogynist bullshit becomes apparent, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop.
A few times a week, on average, people (who doubtless have mummy issues of their own) will send me an angry message that makes reference to the fact that I’m a mother. Usually the inference is that something I like is lame, or that I don’t know what I’m talking about. “GO AND TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN” was a recent gem, from someone who had taken umbrage with a question I asked when conducting a radio interview (I replied that I would, since my children were cleverer than him, with better manners).
The idea that mothers expel their critical faculties and/or aesthetic sensibilities along with the afterbirth is nothing new. “Mumsy” (a 19th-century epithet for “mum”) has meant dowdy, dull or drearily domestic for decades. More recently, “mum” or “mummy” has become a derisive part of speech used to dismiss (“mummy bloggers”) and diminish (“yummy mummies”).
“Mum” as a prefix is used humorously, but generally with less affection than “dad”. Dad-dancing and gags are embarrassing, but sweet. “Mom jeans” are so ugly only size-eight hipsters can rehabilitate the cut, and only then with a heavy dose of irony. In reality, they’re for everyone but mums.
The appropriation of “mum” as an insult follows the same path as many of the most profound and personal slurs in the English language: taking something that should be a source of pride and making it a term of abuse. This often applies to insults connected to aspects of identity (ethnicity and sexuality, as well as gender).
It’s a sort of reverse alchemical process: attempting to turn something precious and joyful into something shameful and unappealing. Interestingly, this seems to be reflected in the origin of the word itself: insult comes from the Latin insultare, to jump or trample on. How damaging is this verbal trampling? It depends.
I have an uncomplicated, joyful relationship with motherhood; so, while I dislike it, I don’t feel personally wounded by this kind of language – but perhaps other people do. I sounded out Twitter about the topic to see how other mums felt.
Lisa agreed that “mum” was now a diss: “I’ve noticed it recently, too. ‘Mum’ jeans. ‘Mum’ shoes. General connotations of tedious or twee uncoolness.” Helen commented: “My husband deemed my new haircut a ‘mum cut’ with derision. I had a baby three months ago. And it’s a great haircut.” Rosie added: “It is a new thing and it’s not good! The use of the non-word ‘mumsy’ is annoying and clearly meant to be insulting.”
Miss Red described the response she got to an “I’m exhausted” post on social media: “‘That’s the first mumsy post you have ever made.’ As if I had broken some rule, or should try harder not to sound like a mum. I was tired from my long commute…”, while the formidable Kathryn summed the subject up succinctly: “‘Mumsy’ is shorthand for not-very-bright and a-bit-parochial, for those who don’t want to look terrible shits by saying it directly.”
In our cultural conversation, “mum” is a diminished status, often preceded by the qualifier “just a”. Pregnancy, birth and (most of all) post-pregnancy is horrifying. Mothers are encouraged to cling on to or reclaim their pre-children lives – to get their bodies “back” after having a baby.
The best compliment you can give a pregnant woman is to tell her she looks tiny. The nicest thing you can say to a new mother is that she doesn’t look like she’s had a baby at all. If “being a woman is the ultimate insult”, it follows that being a mother isn’t too far behind.
I’m not saying we should stop making polite conversation with new mums (though I do think these cultural quirks and the structures that underpin them are worth noticing). The answer as I see it is to reclaim the word. Michelle Obama has already rebranded Mom Dancing. There are two billion different mothers in the world – don’t allow the word itself to be patronising shorthand for anything.
If you are one, own it – whatever it means to you. Don’t apologise, pre-empt assumptions or qualify your status. Maybe you’re cosy and nurturing? Ballsy, brisk and no-nonsense? Overstretched but doing your best? Perhaps your relationship to motherhood is complex or ambivalent. Maybe motherhood is incidental to who you really are… and maybe if your kids are fine, all those things are fine, too.
This post was written for The Pool – Lauren Laverne & Sam Baker’s new online platform for women. Check it out if you haven’t already!