The first time a medical professional called me “mom,” I was in labor with my older daughter. A team of nurses had just grabbed me under my arms and assertively moved me onto my left side in the hospital bed, strapping an oxygen mask to my face. Above my head, a disembodied voice started repeating the same thing, over and over:
“OK, Mom, deep breaths! Big deep breaths for your baby,” she chanted.
Even in that vulnerable position, I took note. Was this nurse channeling the voice of my unborn child when she called me “mom?” In the rush and excitement of the hours that followed, I let it go, content at the end to have my healthy daughter in my arms.
But as time went on and I had another child – this one medically complex and requiring many specialists and hospital visits – I went from finding it curious that other adults would call me “mom” to feeling annoyed whenever I heard it. I suggested they call me Debi — as in my name — but it seldom worked.
“Is this Sammi’s mom?” the pediatrician, with whom I had a friendly rapport, would say when I answered the phone.
“Yes, hi, Dr. Lynn,” I’d reply. “This is Debi. Thanks for calling.”
“No problem. So, listen, Mom, I think it’s time to try a new medication…”
The nurses who weighed my daughter at her gastroenterologist’s office were no better. “Hop up on the scale, Sammi,” they’d coo. After the number appeared, they’d look over their shoulders at me.
“Still failure-to-thrive, Mom,” they’d shake their heads. “See if you can’t get her to eat a little more.”
I reasoned with myself that maybe they were trying to make my daughter more comfortable, calling me by the name she used for me. But actually, she and her sister call me “Momma,” and other parents might use words for “mom” in other languages. How effective could this be at soothing worried children?
This seeming inability to use my name continued in almost every medical setting. Perhaps, I thought, there was no space on a patient’s chart to write their parents’ names. With hundreds of patients, memorizing them would be unmanageable. But one of Sammi’s doctors always seemed to know and greet me with my name even though he was using the same electronic medical records system as all the other specialists. So, it couldn’t be that it was impossible to keep track of my name.
Worse, I noticed that the pediatrician called my husband by his name when she referred to him. “I mentioned this to David when he brought her in last week,” she told me on the phone. “You know, Mom, sometimes it takes another round of antibiotics.”
Maybe it was camaraderie she sought when calling me “mom.” As a mother herself, perhaps this was a way of connecting with me; conceivably, when she said “mom,” she meant “fellow mom.” She was a really good pediatrician: attentive, thoughtful, taking my own observations and instincts into account in her treatment of both my daughters. Maybe I was overreacting.
The truth was that, as we chased down years of treatments for my daughter, my identity seemed firmly grounded in parenthood. Though I always worked part-time, the majority of my life was spent on mothering, whether it was standard-issue tasks like feeding and laundry and walking my girls to school or more challenging undertakings like tracking Sammi’s symptoms and taking her to all those appointments. Who was I if not “mom?” And wasn’t I proud to be a mom, anyway?
I thought about the biblical matriarchs and their own relationships to motherhood. Sarah, whose fierce loyalty to her son Isaac drove her into a cruel act of jealousy against her husband’s servant Hagar, is firmly grounded in her new identity as a mother even at her advanced age. Still, despite many of our biblical heroes undergoing name changes in the Torah, we still refer to Sarah by her name in every portion until the day she dies.
The same is true for Rebecca, mother of twins, whose cleverness brings her from infertility to pregnancy, from worry about their future to clarity about how to help one son destined for greatness to deceive his brother. After her sons are born, despite her main identity in all biblical stories being that of their mother, the Torah refers to her only as Rebecca, not as “the mother of Jacob and Esau.”
This practice goes on throughout the Torah with few exceptions; women as individuals are not erased by their new status as mothers. This is true regardless of the challenges that face them in fertility, parenting and even in loss. Every Friday, as parents bless their daughters to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, we speak their names. Maybe my irritation was well-founded.
My indignation came to head after two experiences I had within a few months of each other. One winter, I contracted whooping cough and was so sick that I needed my husband to come with me to see my doctor. As I sat wheezing into a nebulizer in her office, I heard her ask my husband his name, turn to her computer and tap some keys.
“OK, David, thank you,” she said, and went on to explain to him and me, together, what she planned for my treatment. She never once referred to him in relation to me. She did not say, “OK, husband, here’s the plan…” That would have sounded silly, of course, but it struck me as notable.
The next experience was with our family dentist. I’d been visiting this practice for years on my own, and when my daughters were old enough, I moved them to the practice, too. One day, I’d scheduled all of us for cleanings. In one chair, my daughter was just finishing hers when it was my turn. I settled myself into the next chair and waited. From behind me, I heard the other dentist saying, “Just a minute, Mom. I’m almost ready.”
I was the patient this time. Surely, she couldn’t have been referring to me. I waited, then heard her say, “Mom? Are you all set?”
I looked up, and she was standing over me. “Are you talking to me?” I asked.
“Who else?” she grinned.
“Well, I thought you might be on the phone with your mom,” I answered.
“Noooo,” she laughed, “I was talking to you!”
I sat up a little. “Don’t you have my name on my chart?” I pressed her.
“Yes, yes,” she said quickly. “Sorry about that, Mrs. Lewis.”
In the years that followed, I’ve tried to reclaim my name in as many environments as possible. In doctor’s offices, I stand and reintroduce myself every time, offering a firm handshake (pre-COVID!) and looking doctors in the eye. Every time they call me “mom,” I remind them of my name.
It’s not just for me that I do this, but for my daughters. I don’t want their names erased if they become mothers. With our names, we carry all the credit we take for our expertise, our education and our lives before we became parents. We may answer to “mom,” but we’re always, always more.