A Mom By Any Other Name

“Fletcher’s Mom?” The dental assistant called out to the waiting room.

I looked up, annoyed. I’d been engrossed in a New York magazine article while my 5-year-old was in with the dentist. For me, doctors’ offices are like airplanes at 36,000 feet — one of the last few places I can read without guilt because you’re not supposed to use your cell phone — at least according to the signs posted around the office, threatening, in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS, to immediately bounce you from the building if you so much as peek at email. People still do, of course, but I’ll toe that particular line just to grab a few minutes to read something – outside the bathroom no less — not related to any article I’m writing, Magic Treehouse, Harry Potter or The Clone Wars. With fluoride and X-rays, I figured the 20 minutes Fletcher would spend in the chair might just give me enough time to finish the article I was reading. I was nearly done when …

“Fletcher’s Mom.” The dental assistant looked at me, pointedly, impatience creeping into her voice.

I resignedly dog-eared the page. Maybe I’d come back to it later, though I doubted it. More likely, the magazine would join the piles of half-read magazines cluttering my office, the kitchen counter, the downstairs bathrooms, that I keep for a while in the hopes of picking them back up … but that eventually just get tossed in the recycle bin and left at the curb.

Still, that’s wasn’t the source of my annoyance. It was the dental assistant’s choice of words that aggravated me: Fletcher’s Mom. With a single phrase, she’d managed to reduce my entire nuanced, multi-layered identity, fashioned over four and a half decades, to a state of biological guardianship.

I don’t know if this is some national trend, or a more regional phenomenon, but lately I’ve been getting this a lot in doctors offices. Sometimes the staff calls me Fletcher’s Mom. Other times it’s just Mom or — gag — Mommy. Seriously folks, if you didn’t enter this world through my birth canal, calling me Mom is weird and creepy. But beyond that, unless you’re under, say, age 7, calling me Fletcher’s Mom is vaguely insulting. Excuse me, but I was walking the planet for going on 40 years before Fletcher arrived on the scene. How did the genetic connection to my child become my single most-defining attribute?

Call me sensitive. Call me petty. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask for doctors’ assistants to actually call me by the name I use to — hello?!? — sign their bills.

Make no mistake. I love being Fletcher’s mom. The kid wows me daily with his certitude (he’s always right, just ask him) and finely honed negotiating skills (“Mommy, here’s the deal …”). But “Fletcher’s Mom” makes it sound like I spend my days wiping bums and runny noses. Sure, with a kid diverting any attention that I don’t focus on writing, I’ll cop to being more familiar with the Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling than anyone who’s made the New York Times Best Seller list recently.  There are weeks when I spend more time looking at Lego Magazine than New York Magazine. I haven’t seen The Artist or Shame, but I do have the dialogue from just about every Pixar film released on DVD committed to memory. And I probably know more about Bionicles and Bakugans than any adult needs to. Ever. But I also know know where my Personal Life fits, neatly, but separately, into my Mom Life.  I’m comfortable that, even as I lag a bit on pop culture and political news, I haven’t completely sacrificed my personal self on the altar of motherhood.

In the grand scheme of things, it probably shouldn’t matter what some assistant I see at most twice a year calls me. After all, a rose by any other name, right? Still, this Fletcher’s Mom biz bugs the crap outta of me.

Mom defines my relationship with my child, not my identity,” I want to snap when these doctors’ assistants, some times even the doctors themselves, take the lazy way out, not troubling themselves to learn their patients’ parents’ names — a pity since we’re the ones who choose the doctors.

But mostly I don’t. Mostly I just stew silently and smile through clenched teeth. But this morning, something about the dental assistant’s attitude was really working on my last nerve. Maybe it was her impatience that I didn’t immediately hop to attention when she called the first time. Maybe I just had too little sleep. Or too much caffeine. Maybe it was just one of those mornings when everything irked me. But as I dog-eared the magazine page, my Inner Bitch sucker-punched my Inner Diplomat. And for one unguarded moment, my temper flared, and I was Howard Beal from Network – mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

“Is there a remote possibility that you actually know my name?” I demanded, loudly enough for the other parents in the waiting room to hear.

The dental assistant, surprised into silence, nodded, dumbly.

“Then use it.”

And with that I strode past her into the exam room to see the dentist.

All right, so this wasn’t exactly a giant leap for mom-kind. And hardly the strongest language I’ve ever used in a confrontation. But I was fairly certain that when it came time for Fletcher’s next dental checkup, here was one doctor’s assistant who’d finally get my name right.

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  1. Um, you probably made her ball her eyes out…

  2. I suppose I’ve gotten used to this also, having school-age children, but have assumed the identity willingly in the short-term. If they move out of the house and people still refer to me that way, I might have a problem with it, however! I was once given a stern talking-to by an employer about how I should refer to him and his wife, both decades my senior. I was always to call them Mr. Lastname and Mrs. Lastname when referring to or addressing either of them. Society has become lazy with such rules, courtesies, and expectations. I hate being called “ma’am” just as much as you hate your nameless identity. Things could be worse. Look at the bright side. You could have snapped on her and beat her senseless, ending up in a position of hearing, “Inmate number 270854, your bedroll is ready.” LOL!

  3. Perry M. Dworkin says:

    I share your point. I tell ALL my physician’s front desk people that I want to be called either Dr. Dworkin or even Mr. Dworkin until we have established a more personal relationship. At one office I slowly rose from my seat and asked the young lady, “Do we knoww each other?, have I ever asked you to dine with me? , No? Then please address me with a more appropriate honorific”. I mentioned this at a gathering of medical professionals and got a surprizing answer. “We do this for patient confidentiality, in some cases we have to call patients by number only”. Wow, thank you Donna Shalala. Maybe I will go to the office wearing a mask and sign in as Don Juan De Dworkin. Or is that carrying confidentiallity a bit to far?.

  4. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Cindy. Much appreciated. I too despise “ma’am” but learned to suck it up when someone clued me that it was a Southern sign of respect. We were at the cardiologist’s office earlier this week and the receptionist called me Mom. This time, I in a calmer fashion, I asked if, given the fact that we’ve been patients in the practice since my son’s birth 6 years ago, she knew my name. When she said she did, I asked her (nicely) to please call me that from now on. We have another appointment next week. We’ll see if it sticks!
    Thanks so much for reading!

  5. I kinda like Don Juan De Dworkin! Thanks!!

  6. Thanks Jodi for reading and commenting.

  7. Barbara Judd says:

    Good news. I do not remember being called….anyone’s mom.. Of course, that was almost half a century ago. And, with four children under five, it would be easier to remember my name. Perhaps, the pendulum will swing back.. You go girl.. I like your energy.

  8. Thank you Barbara! I appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment!

  9. You have a good point. I think everyone is trying to act casual and friendly, as if polite formality is too cold. Yet I would prefer a few more gradations of respect–or of levels of acquaintance.

    Not too long ago, we moved from NYC to upstate NY. In the city, my children called all their friends’ parents by their first names. Up here, friends’ parents are Mr/Mrs/Ms/Dr. It has taken some getting used to; but I smile realizing that I still call my parents friends’ by their last names, even though I am now in my mid-forties.

  10. Hope, thank you very much for reading and commenting. (BTW, I enjoy your She Writes groups!) Growing up I called all of my parents’ friends by their last names, (except one couple we were especially close to, who was more like family), but I went to a very progressive elementary/middle school and called many of my teachers by their first names. For our son, now 6, we’ve picked up the Southern custom of saying Miss First Name or Mr. First Name as a sign of respect. So our nanny was Miss Meghan. Friends we’re very close with, like our childhood or college friends, are all Auntie and Uncle. Interestingly, I cannot get my son’s teacher to just call me Norine. He insists on Mrs. Dworkin-McDaniel, which I know is quite a mouthful for everyday use. Thanks again for commenting!

  11. Norine, I also went to a very progressive school (outside Wash, DC), so I was used to calling teachers by their first names. It never seemed strange to me that I addressed my teachers one way and my parents’ friends another.

    I like that Southern custom of Miss Hope, etc.
    Maybe I should start a movement!

  12. Anything is better than “ma’am” another Southern custom I’ve had to get used to … and that makes me feel about 80 years old. I’m a late in life mom, but not that late in life!

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