20 August 2019

Ellis Millsaps: The Last White Mama

My wife is not in fact the last white mother whose children call her “Mama,” but she is one of a dwindling few in the American South, the home of mama’s last stand.  I and all of my friends grew up calling our parents Mama and Daddy. Although we grew up hearing The Beaver and Wally call their parents Mom and Dad, these were people who lived in some strange Yankee place.  These were people who would name their son “Theodore.” Besides, we called our parents Mama and Daddy because those were their proper titles.

Now, of course, a large majority of white southern kids, and a growing minority of African-American ancestry, call their parents Mom and Dad.  I hear toddlers calling out for mama but that stops when they get to school. I even know adults of my advanced age who grew up with a mama and daddy who’ve been replaced by a mom and dad.   I don’t think it’s only the influence of the media that has wrought this transformation. The Beaver and “My Three Sons” weren’t able to shake the hold of mama and daddy for my generation, so I think there’s more going on here.

But what does it matter?  You may well ask. It matters because Mom and Dad ain’t got no soul, which is, I believe, a major reason they got stuck with those diminutives.  That they have no soul is easily illustrated. If Bob Dylan had sung, “Oh, Mom, can this really be the end?” it would have been ineffectual, because no matter what combination of Texas medicine and railroad gin the singer has consumed, the problem can’t be that bad if he’s seeking solace from someone called Mom.  Similarly, if like Merle Haggard you should “turn twenty-one in prison doing life without parole,” and no one could steer you right but Mom tried, it’s no wonder you’re doing hard time. Yo mama would have given it a serious, soulful try.

And speaking of “yo mama,” if you’re looking for fisticuffs and you issue the challenge, “Yo mom,” you’ll get no respect.  “Yo mom? Yo mom? What’s the matter with you man? I wouldn’t embarrass myself fighting a pussyass like you.” And Yankee fans could never have gotten Pedro Martinez’s goat if their chant had been, “Who’s your dad?”

So how did Mama and Daddy lose their souls and become the cardboard cutouts Mom and Dad?  I have a couple of theories about that.

I first noticed this trend in the 1980’s when I realized social workers and school teachers were referring to people whose names they knew, not as Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jones, or even “the mother” or “your father,” but as Mom and Dad, as in, “I’ve spoken with Mom and she says Heather and Justin are home every night, but Dad says she goes out to bars every night and the kids run wild.”  Not only did they refer to the parents in the third person as Mom and Dad, they would actually address them in that manner as in, “Dad says you’re a bar-hopping crack whore. What do you have to say about that, Mom?”

They must have picked up this nomenclature in state university departments of education and social work.  Some influential educator somewhere -- probably a disciple of the same behavioral psychology which decided that following a predetermined schedule of stratagems and goals was an effective substitute for scholarship, talent and intuition -- started referring to dealing with moms and dads and stratagems and goals for having Mom and Dad “utilize” goal-oriented “methodology,” and it spread like wildfire through departments nationwide.  I’m willing to bet this unknown influential educator was not from the South; if he were his mama would skin him alive. 

If you think there’s no harm in the “momming” of America, think again.  Serious consequences can ensue from such cavalier pigeonholing. I’ve read that Cindy Sheehan thought President Bush was disrespectful to her in his initial meeting with her and other parents of soldiers killed in Iraq because he addressed her as “Mom.”  I can just hear him. “Mom, I know how hard it must be to lose a child.” How could his handlers let him utter something like that? Does he get it from his wife, a former school teacher? And doesn’t he claim to be from Texas? If his mama were from Texas, she’d skin him alive, but that was left to Ms. Sheehan. 

(A kindred phenomenon of artificial intimacy is the shift of ostensibly educated people toward addressing adults whom they have never met by their first names.  I first noticed this in salesmen but it has spread to professionals.)

My second theory is that Mama and Daddy lost their titles by losing their entitlement to them.  They stopped being Mama and Daddy by passing their children off to day care, divorcing each other.  How can you address your father’s or mother’s third spouse as Mama or Daddy? Mom or Dad is all they deserve.  For that matter, are you going to call the man who divorced yo mama, Daddy? Daddy wouldn’t do that, but some guy called Dad might.

My own children are now twenty-six and twenty-three years old.  My wife and I never suggested that they call us one thing or the other.  When referring to each other to our children we used “Cynthia” and “Ellis,” “your mother” or “your father,” and we certainly never referred to ourselves in the third person, as in, “Give Mommie the butcher knife, sweetie.”  They called Cynthia “Mama” because that’s who she was, and she never relinquished that position even though almost all their friends had moms and dads. 

(I’m not suggesting our children came up with “Mama” and “Da” in a vacuum. [They call me “Da,” as do all their friends, but that’s another essay entirely.] They developed “mama” the way all children with English-speaking mothers do.  “Ma” is as close as neophyte speakers can come to “moth-,” and although they realize there’s another syllable to deal with, forget that noise, it’s as hard as the first one. Just stick another “ma” on there. And I’m not a linguist but I suspect “Da” is as close as they can get to “Fa,”  the same way they say “dis” and “dat” before they can make the “th” sound.)
So if you live in Jackson, Mississippi, and your children call you Mom or Dad, am I saying that’s a problem?  Of course not, can’t you take a joke? But I am saying it might be a symptom, and the joke may be on you.

How come my children still call their mother, “Mama”?  I think it’s because one or both of their parents were almost always with them or available to be with them during there preschool years.  We played with them and shared their fantasies, but didn’t talk down to them because they were children. We didn’t act one way and expect them to act another, and when they ventured into the world of moms and dads, they saw nothing they wished to substitute for the world of Mama and Da.

And by the way, their mama does dance and their daddy does rock and roll.