Please Don’t Call Me Ma’am. Or Mom.

Nobody wished me a Happy Mother’s Day yesterday. I don’t have kids, so honestly that was pretty nice. Last year, however, I had to make a pre-cookout grocery run. First at the deli counter, then at the checkout, the cashiers chirped “happy Mother’s Day!” instead of telling me to have a nice day – or a “blessed day,” in the words of my favorite cashier. I just… like… hmm. Let’s run through this point by point.

  • I didn’t have a child with me.
  • I didn’t have any child paraphernalia or accoutrement with me (diaper bag, macaroni necklace, birth certificates, positive pregnancy test).
  • I don’t think I had any kind of drool, spit-up or spilled food on my person, although to be fair I can’t make a complete guarantee on that.
  • I’m a small person, which doesn’t mean much — so are a lot of the moms I know. But that also means I wouldn’t look at me and be like “yep, no doubt that person has 100% birthed humans.”
  • Likewise, I’m in my late 20s, which is certainly old enough to have a kid. But most of my same-aged friends aren’t parents, so I also wouldn’t say that someone in her 20s is definitely a mom.
  • No ring. Of course many married people don’t have kids, and many unmarried people do, but it’s not like the cashiers were going by that.

“Happy Mother’s Day” isn’t a holiday greeting you give to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have kids. I don’t think those cashiers were also wishing 20-something bros and tiny children a Happy Mother’s Day. [Wegmans, you know you’re my favorite grocery store, but let’s be real.] You can’t even say that everyone has a mother, because a lot of people don’t. Wishing me a happy mother’s day is fairly innocuous, but I can also imagine it would be a gut punch to someone who wanted kids but didn’t have them.

A few years ago I might have just laughed off these folks thinking I’m a mom. But that was before I started to get ma’am-ed. For the uninitiated, that’s when people call you ma’am and your youth starts to slip into the abyss.

Ma’am is gross. Ma’ams wear elastic-waist pantsuits from Alfred Dunner and have carefully-styled, short poofy hair. Ma’ams are named Linda, or Deb, or Bev. (Make no mistake: not all Lindas, Debs and Bevs are ma’ams). Ma’ams yell at waitresses. A ma’am used to be young, I guess. Ma’ams used to be. Being a ma’am isn’t to be confused with getting older in general, which is really pretty nice. I’m a lot better now than when I was 18, and in 10 more years I hope I can look back and say I’m better at 38 than I was at 28.

Let’s compare ma’am to its cognate, sir. Sir is fine. A “sir” is anywhere above the age of 18 or so – no arbitrary age distinction required. “Miss” and “ma’am” is like if we called men “young guy” and “old dude.” Imagine if every time you gave someone their change at the store, you had to decide whether or not you were going to call them “young guy” or “old dude.” Know what I’d do after about a week of that? Totally bow out and quit using both terms. Barring that, I’d just start calling everyone “young guy.” It just seems nicer.

It’s pretty easy not to refer to someone as miss or ma’am – just say “have a nice day!” instead of “have a nice day, ma’am!” Or, “excuse me” instead of “excuse me, ma’am.” The only exceptions are for Southern people or military folks, who were trained to use “ma’am” and “sir” — but in those cases, I also don’t think it carries as much age stigma. If you’re Southern or from a military background, do what you will. But if you’re not, please don’t ma’am me. I already see my age slip by at the grocery store when I see that the sign prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to people born after this date in 1997. I don’t need a cashier calling me ma’am or mom to remind me.

Oh, the second cashier, by the way? After he said “happy Mother’s Day!” I just cheerfully replied “You too!” He looked perplexed, but I don’t think he got it. Bless his heart, I think he just thought the old ma’am was confused.

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3 thoughts on “Please Don’t Call Me Ma’am. Or Mom.

  1. I went to law school in Alabama, and ma’am is just a marker of respect in the South. I don’t get the angst about ma’am, honestly. I guess it has the connotation of “older” as in “no longer an actual child”, but I just read it as polite.

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  2. Pingback: Saturday Spotlight: Aca-Relevant | cookies + sangria

  3. We all have moms, so celebrating mother’s day isn’t just for mothers to celebrate but everyone who has a mother. Or that’s what I thought. But, sorry to break it to you, motherhood is expected of women. And if you look over 18 people often assume you have kids just by virtue of you being a female. When I was 23, almost 20 years ago now people were constantly asking me if I had kids or if I was married. The WTF look on my face said it all. No, no and hell no. I also detest being called ma’am, even though I am so far past 20 it isn’t funny. No its not. But there’s no way being called ma’am doesn’t feel as if people are distancing themselves from the old lady and just looking past me with this false respect. Nobody respects old people in this culture unless it’s your own grandmother, let’s be real. And she better act like a stereotypical grandmother and stay home all the time, not have a sex life, dress like a nun and be baking cookies 24/7. That being said, ma’am wouldn’t be so bad if everybody from toddlerhood on was called ma’am, but for some reason people feel compelled to categorize women into “young chick” and “old chick” when just “chick” is all that’s required.

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