During my years abroad, I became a mother. I’ve been back in Ireland now for a while. Yet still I stop and look around me when I hear a child shout “Mummy”. I forget that in Ireland that’s what kids calls their mothers. Up until recently, I was the only “Mummy” in a blowing gale of “Mammas”. Mummy or Mamma said loudly in the playground, quietly on the bus, thankfully at the school gate.
There are many ways to refer to your Mother. According to the New York Times anyway. Here’s a screenshot from their recent dialect quiz for the British Isles.
That’s the basic word we use isn’t it? “I want my mummy”. But then you have Yummy mummy and Mummykins. And even “mummified” – a term many other mothers might agree they’ve felt on occasion.
For most of my life as a mother, my kids have called me Mummy. But I was usually the only one around, all the other kids were calling their mums Mama or Mamma.
This is the superbly solid Norwegian word for mother and a large part of my identity during the 7 years I lived in Oslo. I was a mor. Solid and strong? I tried to be.
Even the way you say the word is great. Mor is pronounced to rhyme with “moore”, just add a bit of a Kerry lilt on the R. To me it’s a word for a large, serious-looking, wise woman, who has full control over her family (in all directions) but probably also runs a large company. My second daughter was born in Norway – she and I were under the care of a jordmor (midwife), a word that literally translates as “earth mother”. I never once saw a doctor during those 9 months (including the free home checkups afterwards). I was in the best of hands.
This is what little Norwegians call their mother. “Mama, mama, se på meg!” (Mummy mummy look at me). Typically heard in a playground and nowadays heard more as the modern child tries to distract their mama from her phone screen.
Those were the first words my 2 year old learned – “se på meg” – look at me, see how brave I am, think what I can do. Because in Norway kids are left to explore and experiment. I learned there to be a mother that could relax and am forever grateful for it. If the kid fell off the monkey bars – chances were the ground was designed to be soft enough to manage the impact. “Opp igjen” (up you get).
Like Mama – but it’s got two Ms. Mmmmmmm.
We moved to Italy when my girls were 6 and 9, and they had to quickly add in that extra “m” to the Norwegian “mama”. The longer sound was almost more precious, less practical. But it was beautiful. Mam…ma. They’d rarely call me Mamma, it was how they referred to me to other people.
“La mamma” – the mother figure that is Italy. Just the sound of it is stronger, more obvious and public than the slightly nervous “mum” or “mom” of English speakers.
For example: “My mamma cooked for 20 people yesterday and she’s going to mind the kids at the sea for most of July”.
“My mum’s going to have a word with my dad about minding the kids on Saturday night”
Yes they do say it, often shortened to just “Mamma!!” One of my daughter’s school friends used it all the time. Driving them both home to our house one afternoon, she was being shown all the wackiest photos from the Guinness Book of Records in the car:
“look at this one”–“mamma mia”. “And see the size of that one”–“mamma”. As we drove past about the Madonna carvings stuck in the wall of our country road, I could only smile.
Living in a country where your kids only speak your own language at home, you have to make a conscious decision about what you want them to call you. While every other child around us called their mother “mamma” or “mama” – I got to choose what my kids should call me.
My husband has his “mom” and I had my “mum”. But I was an Irish woman abroad and I thought I’d get them to call me “mammy”. This is a word that brings to mind a hard-working, hard-done-by but devoted mother, a superhuman status comparable to the Jewish mother. Or, of course, Mrs Brown and her boys. I thought I could elevate myself to the level of Mammy by suggesting I’d be called a proper Mammy, not just a Mummy.
What was I thinking? It only occurs to me now how at odds it seems with the “mammy” of the American south, the matronly older black servant of plantation days. It would have sounded odd to any passing American mum in the streets of Florence if they’d heard a child yell “mammy can we have a gelato?”
No-one in my family growing up was ever called Mammy. We weren’t inner city or deepest country. Like it or not, I’ll just never be a mammy. It never took off.
One morning when she was about 4, my elder daughter decided to stop calling me Mummy and started to use just my name. You might think she mixed the two together: Emma and Mama sound similar, but she was old enough by then to know the difference.
And then she started calling her father by his first name too. Maybe she picked up from a German friend, we never got to the bottom of it.
“Don’t!” I’d cry. “You are one of only TWO people in the entire world who can call me mamma, mother, mum – whatever. But not Emma. Everyone else calls me that.”
This went on for a year or two, long enough for her younger sister to start doing it too. And then it just stopped and I became mummy again. And I was happy then.
After a visit last summer to my husband’s family in Canada, this same daughter picked up on all the “moms” she heard her cousins and friends use. When we came home (and she started big school) she called me “mom” for a while but now she’s settled for just Mum. That’s what big girls call their mother. And I’m a little sad.
I talk regularly with my daughters about my Mum, or Nana, as they called her. We keep her in the conversation, don’t shy away from her not being here but keep her memory alive. We only ever called her Mum, as did my Dad. She was never “mother” except when I hear “you look just like your mother”.
My mum’s mother was known as mama (pronounced with a broad Irish Aaa). I never knew her as she died long before I was born. But I have her baking trays and Christmas pudding recipe.
My mum mothered us, never smothered us. I didn’t really get to mother her, but I’m trying to mother my Dad now we’re home.
Look up the word mother and you’ll find hundreds of related words. The most special words in the language. The most difficult.
Nurture, protect, cherish, tend, raise, parent, pamper, cosset – that’s an awful lot for one person to do. But we do.