Over the past decade, many women have turned away from the what they believed was the terminally uncool term “mom,” choosing instead the rootsy “mama” in a play to project their relevancy and hipness. However, recent linguistic trends among the millennial denizens of the internet suggest this was the wrong move.
According to a story in the New York Times, calling someone “mom” has become the highest form of flattery, a softer sister to sobriquets like boss or queen, and applicable to everyone from tweens to grown women regardless of whether they care for a child. As Jessica Bennett reports, “mom” as adjective has been used to describe celebrities like Beyoncé, Ruby Rose, and Taylor Swift—who once felt compelled to remind a fan named Maddie that only her mom has earned the right to be referred to by her as “mom.” “I’m more like your crazy aunt,” Swift wrote. It’s also used among twenty-somethings to describe their more knowing and inspired friends, or anyone else they admire.
Bennett traces the recent rise of “mom” as a non-familial term of endearment back to a Twitter exchange between Lorde and Kim Kardashian, following the November 2014 publication of the latter’s glistening backside on the cover Paper magazine. Lorde responded to Kardashian’s announcement of the image by quoting her Tweet and adding only the phrase “mom.” When pressed to explain her pithy commentary, Lorde explained: “[I] retweeted kim’s amazing cover and wrote ‘MOM,’ which among the youthz is a compliment; it basically jokingly means ‘adopt me/be my second mom/i think of you as a mother figure you are so epic.’”
Linguists have no definitive answer on the provenance of this “youthz” trend, but suspect its roots—like other popular phrases including “yas queen” and “throw shade”—may lie in 1980s drag culture. According to Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com, those in the drag community would, and still do, live in houses in which leader-figures are referred to as “mom” or “dad.”
There’s a cynical way to interpret the recent use of “mom” that might go as follows: Today’s teens and twentysomethings are so beholden to the the glamourous unreality of social media that they have decided to bestow a term of endearment and authority on those who rule in that domain. In this world, it’s youth, polish, photoshop, and a knack for optics that earn one respect, not the act of caretaking.
This might account for some of the “mom” phenomenon, but I don’t suspect it’s the whole story. Instead, I’m more inclined to see this trend as a reflection of the positive changes in the way we view moms, and the way moms view themselves.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, no matter the outcome, was a big moment for moms. In April 2015, Clinton announced her candidacy with a video featuring a number of moms discussing an upcoming change in their lives and concluded with Hillary—who would soon become the first-ever mom, and female, major party presidential candidate—revealing her decision to run. Throughout her campaign, Clinton put a mom-friendly care work agenda front and center, and she relied on Michelle Obama, longstanding mom-in-chief, as a powerful, and sometimes eclipsing, surrogate who could connect the dots between the caring for one’s own children and caring for country overall. In their hands, motherhood became a source of power far beyond the domestic realm and, ultimately, something to aspire to. Win or lose, this made Hillary totally mom.
Another shift behind the embrace of “mom” may have something to do with the way moms today refuse to see having kids as an occasion to retreat. For many women, motherhood no longer represents a sharp pivot, but another plot point in the story of their lives. This is made clear in the shifting nature of the coverage of celebrity parents: Beyoncé’s ambition is not generally perceived as a threat to her ability to raise her daughter. Instead, we have full faith that this wise and powerful woman can manage both, making her, in the words of one Instagram commenter, “everyone’s mom.”
I don’t imagine I’ll ever be “everyone’s mom.” Honestly, I might not even be “mom.” It doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to be living in a time and place in which “mom” represents a figure of comfort and power, the kind of woman non-moms would like to get know.