When you are making nursery rounds, how do you greet a woman who has just delivered her first child? If you welcome her into the realm of parenthood by addressing her as “Mom,” as I often did, you might want to rethink your opening lines.
In a letter to the editor by Camela Zarcone on Nov. 10 responding to an opinion piece in the New York Times (“ Our Mommy Problem ,” Heather Havrilesky, Sunday Review, Nov 9, 2014), Ms. Zarcone, who is from Seattle and has three sons, described a scenario in which you or I might have unwittingly played the role of villain. The pediatrician made two mistakes that I hope we wouldn’t have made. First, as she remembers it, he failed to introduce himself. And second, he walked in on her with her breasts fully exposed as she was struggling to nurse her newborn.
I have tried to avoid both of these errors by announcing, in my most manly voice, “It’s Dr. Wilkoff, the pediatrician. May I come in?” But I must say that the vast majority of nursing mothers are so focused on their babies that they rarely made any attempt to cover their breasts.
According to the author of the letter, the most serious misdeed the pediatrician committed was referring to a woman he had never met as “Mom.” I suspect, like me, he uttered this three-letter word believing that he was doing so out of respect for her new status as a mother. However, in her eyes this was the first assault in her more than 2-decade struggle to make it clear that being a mother does not define who she is.
Before we get into the deeper question of personal identity, I admit that I share some of her discomfort. If you aren’t going to refer to me by my first name, please refer to me as “doctor” not “doc” (another three-letter word). But, her overriding concern is that regardless of whether you address her as “Mother” or “Mom,” by making a reference to the fact that she has delivered a child, you are ignoring that she is a multifaceted person with talents, emotions, and sensibilities that are unrelated to her reproductive status.
The problem for us as pediatricians is that our primary interface with women who have delivered children is dominated by their role as mothers. By addressing a woman as “Mom,” a pediatrician is not ignoring the fact that she is a marketing analyst who sings in the church choir and whose father is dying of lung cancer. He is merely using a shorthand that connotes respect for one of her roles that includes a wide range of responsibilities and concerns.
Unfortunately, not everyone is a pediatrician, and many people do expect that when a woman becomes a mother she has entered a nunnery of sorts in which she has taken vows to forsake all of the other pleasures and aspirations of her former self. What makes it most difficult is that some of those folks with tunnel vision are mothers themselves who equate motherhood with a life of self-sacrifice.
But, that leaves us with the issue of identity. Regardless of how you address me and regardless of how society views me, I am the one who defines my own identity. For 40 years I defined myself as a pediatrician. I probably wasn’t as complete a father and I certainly wasn’t as good a husband as I could have been because of the way I chose to define my role as a pediatrician. I could have defined myself as something else (such as a chess master or a bicycle racer) who was also a pediatrician. But, I am lucky enough to be married to a woman who was willing to define herself as a mother. That made it much easier for me to define myself as a pediatrician in the way I did.
I no longer consider myself a pediatrician. In fact, I don’t even refer to myself as a retired pediatrician. If asked I merely reply, “I was a pediatrician, a former identity for which I have no regrets.”
Being a mother is a special case far more complex than being a pediatrician. But, a woman should still be able to choose how she weaves motherhood into the identity she crafts for herself. When we refer to her as “Mom,” we aren’t defining her. We are simply offering a token of our respect.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.