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Who's your mommy?

May 10, 2008|Melissa Hart | Melissa Hart is the author of a memoir, "The Assault of Laughter." She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon.

'You'll call me Mom now."

I gazed in dismay over my three-tiered wedding cake at my new mother-in-law. "All right ... Mom," I stammered.

Almost every culture offers variations on the word "ma," itself a universal sound produced by suckling infants. The modish "Mom" came of age in the 1950s, derivative of the Greek mamme, the Latin mamma. No other syllable has presented me with such anguish.

My tortured etymology of the word dates to the late 1970s when my mother -- with three children in tow -- left my father for a woman. He remarried and sued for custody of me and my siblings. Victorious, he sat one night at the foot of my bed -- an antique given to me by his new wife, Elsa. "It's not right to call your stepmother by her first name," he told me. "Call her Mom."

Nine years old, I braved his wrath and shook my head in horror. By court order, he'd banished my mother for all but two weekends a month. Now, he wanted to give her name to someone else too.

"No," I said.

"Mama Elsa," he countered.

"I'll try," I whispered. But I didn't.

Yet when my teacher assigned an essay for the city's Mother of the Year contest and mandated that students "write about the mother with whom you live," I dutifully described my stepmother's attributes -- so dutifully that I won first prize. That summer, my siblings and I sat beside our stepmother in a horse-drawn carriage -- celebrities in the local Fourth of July parade. Crowds on sidewalks returned our smiles and waves. Moved by the cheering and the blue sundress she'd sewed for me to match her own, I felt the eternal syllable rush to my lips. "I love you, Mom," I said.

It was the first and last time I referred to her this way.

The next day, my mother found out about the contest and called me. "I'm the mom!" she sobbed into the phone.

Her devastation, even fueled as it was by a breakup with her girlfriend, shamed me. Never again would I be so careless. When a boisterous new woman -- a tennis player named Annie -- moved into my mother's house a year later, I approached Mom. "What should I call her?" I asked.

"Annie," she suggested.

But as one year lengthened into 25, Mother's Day confounded me and my siblings. We feted Annie with handmade cards and presents -- but never as magnificent as those we gave to our mother, and none that said "Mom." But referring to Annie by her first name sounded increasingly cold as I entered my 30s. "I think of her as my other mother," my sister told me once, "but her name's this weird barrier."

Our younger disabled brother found the solution at last. Unable to write more than a few words, he drew a picture of Annie on a card and printed crookedly, "I love A-Mom."

"Is it OK to call her that?" I asked my mother.

She nodded. "Why not? It's cute."

So Annie has become A-Mom. But no such wordplay could resolve my mother-in-law situation. Initially, I'd called her Ms. Smith, which met with a bewildered scowl. For five years more, she was "Janet." On my marriage night, this kind woman who had birthed my beloved made one request -- that I start calling her Mom.

I couldn't. Not out loud. Last Christmas, I choked spectacularly. "Do you have some scissors I could borrow ... um ... "

She looked at me expectantly.

"Please?" I finished, smiling brightly to hide my distress.

Soon, I'll be able to hide behind the word "Grandma." My husband and I are adopting a girl, and I've freely offered the title of grandmother to his mother, my mother, her partner and my stepmother. It's less clear what my future child might want to call me. Mandatory adoption classes offer new maternal nomenclature. The woman who births an infant is the biological mother. The woman who carries someone else's fetus in her womb is the surrogate mother. The woman who cares for a baby pre-adoption is the foster mother. The woman who assumes permanent care of the child after two years of applications, interviews and classes is the forever mother.

When we finally bring our daughter home, I hope to be the woman she turns to with constant and joyful devotion. But ours is an era of open adoptions, allowing both birth and foster parents to request letters and visits from children. Biological and adoptive families are encouraged to communicate, to gather together for holidays. Faced with the possibility of other women helping to parent my child, I understand at last my mother's anxiety over a syllable.

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