At Sea: Being More Than Mother

Names matter. Of course this is a trite sort of thing to write, given that many scholars have written reams on the spiritual, psychological, cultural, economic and political value of names. In my own field Jane Bliss’s Naming and Namelessness in Medieval Romance (2008) springs immediately to mind. In my own book, I spend some time talking about heroes without names, and how finding a father and finding a name are both complementary pieces in that patriarchal puzzle of fashioning identity in late medieval narratives. I also write, more briefly, about daughters without names and how their identities are subsumed into their fathers’ desires, often at great cost.

Today, however, I’m thinking about mothers. I tweeted yesterday about my frustration that my local health visitor service and baby clinic seem to have a policy that staff address the mothers of babies as “Mum”, even though the names of these women are freely available (indeed, even on the slips of paper we use to check the babies in to the clinic!). Now, the baby clinic is, as the name suggests, primarily set up to check on the health of infants, and it’s an important resource. But health visitors are also meant to be checking on the mental and physical welfare of new mothers, and judging by the response I got to my tweet yesterday, many mothers feel being addressed by someone other than their child as “Mum” or “Mommy” is depersonalising and vaguely patronising. It certainly makes me feel less inclined to confide in a health visitor if I had any problems; if someone can’t be bothered to learn my name – or even read it off a slip of paper – why would I tell them if, for instance, I was worried about postnatal depression, or any of the sensitive and sometimes embarrassing physical problems I might have post-childbirth?

This is quite a minor issue on the face of it; but I know that many women, both in and out of the workplace, find the struggle to balance their multiple identities challenging. It is a curiously painful thing to feel as if one’s name does not matter. And I have many outlets for my identity in my work and social life, so this pain is a passing annoyance. For many women it must be a heart-wound. And it makes me even more sympathetic to the women who are buried in medieval records – both “historical” and “literary”, though those of you who know my work know I’m sceptical of such distinctions – as “wife of”, “daughter of”, “mother of”.

I would like to write more about this, but my daughter’s naps are fleeting things, and I have lots to do. Still, my journey into motherhood has made me more committed to uncovering women’s experiences in the middle ages, and so I’m glad that this summer I’ll be speaking at the Medieval Women Revisited conference in York, and very glad that this is supported by Palacky University in the Czech Republic, since our central European colleagues often go unheard in English-speaking environments. And I hope I will also soon have a CFP to share for an exciting venture titled “Women at Sea”, which will offer boundless opportunities to explore female identity. After all, no woman is an island – but she may contain oceans.

About menysnoweballes

Feminist medievalist, teacher of history, consumer of pop culture. Lecturer at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Blogging in a personal capacity.
This entry was posted in Family History, Feminism, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

68 Responses to At Sea: Being More Than Mother

  1. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    I hope you don’t mind a non-mum comment, but this echoed what so many friends have said. And reminds me of the fact that the one place my own mum uses her doctoral title is on her child benefit book – because she got so bloody fed up with people patronisingly assuming that ‘mum’ and ‘person with any intellectual capacity whatsoever’ where mutually exclusive.

    I think there’s a patriarchial pressure to use ‘mum’ to put women in their places – it is patronising, it’s meant to take you down a peg or two, part of a wider set of hints that you’re not supposed to care about anything intellectual, like names and naming, you’re just supposed to be maternal. It really makes me angry how much being a ‘good mum’ is also about rejecting your own brain.

  2. AliceInAcademia says:

    I’m looking at this from a bit out the other side, my children are 9 and 12. Motherhood and identity, and motherhood in patriarchy, are newly fascinating topics for me, almost a (re)awakening. I finished my Masters when my son was 18 months, and my PhD I did part time while being the primary carer. That was hard in the sense that it was a huge feat of organisation, but I am only now realising the extent to which motherhood can sort of hollow you out, intellectually and emotionally. You go from being an autonomous adult, to ‘mum’, as you say; a person who often cannot be allowed to decide when she can visit the bathroom. You’re certainly not really supposed to be worrying about self actualisation or identity. Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born is quite a revelation. Thanks for posting this, and congratulations on your new little one.

  3. chakreepc says:

    quite an interesting topic. I really never gave a thought from this point of view.

  4. bookwormys says:

    This was really interesting to read and very true also. I think you have really addressed a topic not spoken about much nowadays- addressing people with names. I agree with you in the sense that it would be better if mothers at health clinics were addressed by their names rather than ‘Mum’ as we have all got a name that makes us unique and being called ‘Mum’ – a term used for so many- depersonalizes us. It would make my day if you check out my blog, thank you.

  5. Thank you for posting this. I’m not an academic which is kind of sad because I would have been a stellar one if I’d had the opportunity. :o) What I love about the article is the broad concept that a part of history is missing because females have always been considered secondary and therefore less important. And how the same attitude takes our personality away from all of us even now, though to a lesser degree. When my children were young I was always called Mom…only rarely by my actual name. Thanks for the deep thought.

    • Definitely! While I’m proud to be a mother it’s not my only defining characteristic.

    • modestly says:

      I echo this as my experience too. Once I became ‘Mum’ , my identity to the external world forever changed. (and the internal one too of course) . Whilst internally, my other selves continued to bicker and chatter, they were invisible and silent to those around me.
      It is a tricky trick to pull off – fulfilling motherhood competentlyis challenging enough – I only managed that part and not always competently. To do it well and survive in the external world was a step too far for me.

  6. Chez Shea says:

    Names are important. The convention we use for assigning sur names to children is just so patriarchal. I wonder how it would be if girls adopted their mothers surnames and boys took their fathers. It would just be a different way of doing things.

  7. Thank you for an insightful and interesting post. The erasure of my individuality and identity once I became a mother was devastating for me! And conflicting too, as I love my daughter to bits. I wish I’d had words as wise as these to console me during those long and tiring baby days and well meaning but irritating health workers.

  8. shambbave says:

    It is like your favourite person calls you by a particular nickname and how you would not like someone else to call you by the same name. However this could be tolerated. Not like being called ‘mum’ by a stranger and not to mention the age difference:/
    Such a good post to remind people on why calling people with their name is necessary!

  9. michaelkubly says:

    This is a very interesting article. It really hits home because my fiance is going to be a mother soon and it can be difficult being sensitive to how she feels about things right now.

  10. wildeaboutyou says:

    I love this article. Thank you for writing this!

  11. Plectrumm says:

    Shouldn’t your children know you for the person you are…? No matter what joy you derive from a name, that makes you feel something…your child’s vision of you is the single most important aspect of being a parent of either sex…?

  12. The Tea Room says:

    I really like how you see things. I’ve never even thought of it that way before! xx

  13. thedownhomegirlblog says:

    I find this to be true, though I never gave it much thought myself. As a new mom for the very first time I did find it hard to confide in the nurse that referred to me as “mom”. They didn’t all call me mom. But, the one that did, I felt almost as if she was just a mommy-sitter or a fill in for a real nurse. Like she was patronizing me without even trying to. As if your identity as a mom for the first time isn’t difficult enough to weed through, there is this.

  14. uma197 says:

    This subject has really made me think and question a few things. It’s almost making a write a blog on the subject. Are names important?? I was born in Sri Lanka and migrated to Australia almost 26 years ago. My neighbors are Italian, Australian, Greeks, and many more. I observe the many cultures, the pros and cons of different practices. Importance of name is strange one in our community. When a kid is born, the complexity that goes into naming that child is not taken after that, names are always shortened or completely and different name would be used to address that child/person. Until recently I thought my aunties name was Rani, only when I went to book her flight tickets, did I find out her real name on the passport and all was Rajeswari. You know what I think I am going to write something on this subject. thanks for the inspiration

  15. Maddy says:

    A very interesting read. Every word of this is true. Names do matter . And not only is the name a source of confidence but also a proof that people acknowledge the uniqueness of your identity. When that doesn’t happen…. a mental crisis occurs.
    Thanks for posting this. 🙂

  16. writegill says:

    And its not just the ‘mums’ who get dehumanized – addressing anybody by their ethnic origin, profession, color, creed or some such referral is patronizing, dehumanizing and reductive. Would love to come and listen to you in York!

  17. Love the thoughts you presented and can relate to it so much as an academic. In India, where I live, forms often have a column for Ms/Mrs for women and just Mr for men. I feel its very reductive for a women to be fit into such categories of being married/single. It annoys me when people say ‘oh you are still using your maiden name after marriage’. I mean its ‘my’ name, not any maiden’s! So much can be said about this crisis of a woman’s identity, sigh!

    • Thank you for reading and commenting! Yes, for women it’s hard to escape a focus on marital status. I get annoyed when I clearly mark “Dr” as my title and still get called Mrs!

  18. Nice.. Quite interesting.. A different way to look at it 😄

  19. Umme-imamah says:

    Its a point to Ponder… Thanks for giving our thoughts a new dimension.

  20. when I came to the point mother of “wife of” I just snapped damn yeah.It makes so much sense,why rip me of my name?

  21. goldenfoxweb says:

    Really interesting read! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  22. urvashiradhe says:

    Loved the article..

  23. agnesmack says:

    I think you may a series of great points here. It is so challenging for women to juggle the many roles in our life and it’s frustrating when we are stripped of our ability to choose how we identify ourselves – and how others identify us. Thanks for writing this. It’s important.

  24. Great point you make, one that needs to be addressed. Thank you for committing your time and energy to such important work. My best friend lost his mother at the age of ten to post-partum depression. As you know, it’s not uncommon for the mental welfare of women to be glossed over all throughout the world. I do not speak from personal experience, but the need is apparent. Would you mind if I cited your post and made some response poetry?

  25. saraaahanderegg says:

    This was wonderful to read and very interesting! Thank you for sharing this. This is so powerful and speaks volumes to me.

  26. dommehouse says:

    When my mother visited me at school, she found that other mother’s introduced themselves as “mom-of-so-and-so.” She found it disheartening and finally responded to one woman, with “I DO have a name!” The other woman seemed to think this was great fun and responded gleefully, “oh! Me too!!!”
    I’m at an advantage. Professional BDSM scrupulously avoids blurring the lines between “mom” and “Domme.” Of course, that then creates another set of issues to manage, though, when you find your life fractured like a prism, where the colours, bright as they are, seem to never touch. On one hand, lose who you were before the baby. On the other, take on a new identity and try to manage completely separate lives. It’s tricky… but at least it’s not boring.

  27. momunchained says:

    I think this is great. Although I am only pregnant for the first time now, I know very well that I do not only want to be known as “mum”. There are so many different layers to women, just as their are men. The fact that, we as women, are meant to shed those layers and become 1 dimensional once they do become “mum” is disappointing- but historical.

  28. Well spoken and thought out. I love the progressive ideology here and that you’re interested in taking your readers back in time to a place when women all were “daughters of” or “wives of”. Very interesting to me.

  29. Woman Working With Words says:

    Absolutely, it drives me mad when people unthinkingly use patronising or reductive terms to refer to women and when challenged respond with “its only a word!”. Language is power and the first thing we all deserve is the power of recognition through our own identity.
    I thought your point about a woman being addressed as ‘mum’ finding it harder to share their feelings about possibly post natal depression particularly poignant.

  30. Quite interesting and something that I will possibly never encounter. So my comment can be hugely ignored.

    However, when one becomes a parent, or one of the many roles one plays, isn’t that part of one’s identity? Isn’t that person expanding? Obviously I’m not talking about how women were treated in historic times and I’m also aware that equality is far from achieved in today’s world. Also, names are important but also are the roles that one plays. It’s synced with one another

    • Oh definitely. “Mother” is part of my identity now. But I am “mummy” only to my daughter, not to anyone else – particularly not strangers who, I think, would be more courteous to address me by name!

      • Ya know, being called mum makes everyone in the room the same. It zeros you out.

        Perhaps if we change the word it will be easier to understand the discomfort.

        The same discomfort would be felt if you were all called “Seamstress” because that’s what you all do for a living. It’s your occupation.

        How well would it go over if I started calling my gf’s by their occupation or a role they play.
        Hi Home Maker
        Hi Jeweler
        Hi Radiologist
        Hi Tupperware Sales Representative


  31. Thanks for giving our thoughts.A very interesting read.And very true for women it’s hard to escape a focus on marital status.

  32. This is definitely a worthwhile read for me, I certainly can identify with the experiences I had when my daughter was very little and at a point of being a new mother feeling incredibly powerless and frustrated by the depersonalised service of my health centre. As mothers we face endless battles of have to reassert our identities whether it is in the work place etc and is important that we challenge this preconceived notions of motherhood!

    Great read and will certainly share.

  33. Made me think. Thanks!

  34. i think this blog post was very important, it’s too often that women, mothers and daughters are de-humanized and are referred to as their roles rather than who they are. brilliant post ! 🙂

  35. Really enjoyed reading this! Love the perspective you bring and the psychology of names. Our names really do have an impact, a solid stone in the foundation of our identity that perhaps leaks into our self-worth. Awesome post!

  36. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend.

  37. The importance and use of names is very interesting particularly cross culturally. I’m an Australian living in Japan and it still feels unnatural to me to not even need to know someone’s name before you invite them over for tea. Other kindergarten mothers are simply referred to as ‘child’s-name mother! It feels to me as an Aussie that I can’t properly have any kind of relationship with someone until I know their name. Here, it seems so much less relevant.

    • That is very interesting! I would find that very strange. I have a friend who is Canadian but lives in Japan with her Japanese husband and his family, and she’s often frustrated by the patriarchal expectations of the family that she do everything – childcare, cooking etc – because her identity is completely meant to be Wife and Mother.

      • Yes, there are still very strong expectations on women to fulfill traditional roles, while men work VERY long hours. I’m not sure if this is a great way for anyone to be content and satisfied with life unfortunately.

  38. goodkat2016 says:

    Just ask the nurse or doctor or whatever to address you by name I guess. I don’t see the issue, I always thought they addressed new mothers as mom or a variation of that in a playful way or maybe to get them used to the idea that they are now a mother since newborns don’t speak.

  39. Your post title caught my interest as I’m a mom at sea in a literal sense; my husband and I are raising our four kids on a sailboat.

    There are many cruisers like us, and our interactions with other boaters can be fleeting. It follows that sometimes we tend not to be known by our names, but by our boat name instead.

    It wouldn’t be uncommon for our entire family to be referred to by our boat name, as in ‘The Aphrodite family’. I’ve got used to being called the mom of Aphrodite, despite the fact that I don’t have any kids with that name.

    I feel a strong sense of identity as a liveaboard cruiser. And, don’t have issue with this odd, culturally-specific naming convention. But, the term ‘mom’ is more personal and precious. I’ve certainly blanched at being called ‘Mom’ by healthcare professionals. I’m nobody’s momma except , of course, to my four lovely children.

    • That is very interesting! The internet is so great – how else would a woman sailing the sea come across my academic musings? I like the idea of you being the mother of your ship. It sounds quite powerful!

  40. No woman is an island, but she may contain oceans…. I will not forget that.

    My name is Faith. I chose this name for myself. I chose my middle name after the humble woman Magdalene. For me, she is inspirational. The last name was one of convenience. It took 7 years to come up with the first and middle. I went by it in all circles for 7 more years. Finally I made it legal on paper.

    The day I had the first 2 I wanted to try it out. I chatted with a friend about my anxiety about changing it. As I got up to leave my friend called to me, “Faith, it’s a good choice.” If ever a person could find themselves, well it was that day. I smile as I recall these details.

  41. It’s Faith again.
    Removing a person’s name is the first step to dehumanizing. Once we are considered nothing and are convinced of it, our fate is violence and abuse.

    To regain identity, to demand recognition as a living breathing thing is powerful. My family bucked hard but I didn’t budge. I am Faith!

    Fast forward 22 years absence from the family. I saw my mother and sister in public. I walked up. My sister said nothing. I said hello. My mother, whom I had not seen in 22 years, turned around, gasped and said, “Faith”. You know what? I wrote that date and put it in a small bottle because everyone now knows that I AM FAITH.

    Smiles to you and yours…

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  43. I’ve been often aware of people introducing themselves to me as “So and so’s mum” and omitting to tell me their name in the pricess. It confuses things when I respond “hi, I’m Jen” and don’t follow it up with my child(ren’)s name. I grew up as “Amanda’s little sister” I’m determined to just be Jen now.
    Thank you for the read.

  44. ash98com says:

    i have loved it and thanks for standing out and speaking out on behalf of the women and mothers. thanks for sharing

  45. annj49 says:

    I did not find this “a trite sort of thing” to read.
    I reminds me a bit of when I finally decided I could take my husbNd’s name and not worry too much about losing my own and being swallowed up into his identity…..but that would be more relevant to the topic of being more than “just” a wife.

  46. gonerustic says:

    Very thought-provoking. Thank you! Sharing on my Facebook page.

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