Over the holidays my preschool age daughter Sally started calling me Libby. For a couple of days, it was all she used to address me. “Libby, can you get me a drink of milk?” “Libby, can I have a snack?” “Libby, is it okay if I go play in the basement?” I think I can now understand why some parents go by their first names with their children. There is definitely something leveling about it.
Sally has long occasionally called Sean and I by our first names. For instance, I’d say “Sally, could you go tell Sean I need him to come downstairs and help me out?” and I would hear Sally across the house calling “Sean! Sean, mommy needs you!” But it has never been constant, and it has generally been in this sort of context—where I refer to Sean as Sean, and Sally copies me in that moment.
Over the holidays it was different. We were with Sean’s family, and I think Sally was bothered by the fact that there was more than one person there going by “mom.” She found it confusing. So she fixed the problem—she stopped calling me “mom” and started calling me “Libby.”
When I was a child, my siblings and I were required to say “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” to our parents. Oh sure, we also called them mom and dad, but when it came to direct questions or commands the response was to be “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am.” “Libby, I need you to watch the kids for a few minutes while I run to the bank.” “Yes ma’am.” “Libby, have you finished your math yet?” “No ma’am.” And so on. We were told that it was about being respectful, but I now recognize that it was also about maintaining distance—distance between parent and child. It emphasized that distance, and the hierarchy in place in our family. I’ve never copied this practice, because I don’t want to enforce that level of hierarchy in my own family. I value communication over deference and cooperation over obedience.
I’ve always taught my children to call me mom, not seeing any need to buck the general custom, but when Sally suddenly began calling me Libby, I didn’t stop her. Instead, I paid attention, and I realized something. Maybe it was just me, but for me at least, it decreased the distance between the two of us. It put us on the same level. Me, her. Face to face, person to person. Libby, Sally. And it was fascinating.
When we left Sean’s family and headed home, Sally went back to calling me mom. This confirmed my assumption that she was calling me Libby to differentiate between me and Sean’s mother, who was referred to as mom by Sean and his siblings while we were together for the holidays. The whole time, I didn’t say anything to Sally about what she was calling me—but I also didn’t say anything when she went back to calling me mom.
I once read heard a mother much like me explain that why she asks her children to call her mom—anyone could call her by her first name, she said, but only her children could call her mom. I thought it was sweet. I still do. But I find that, when it comes down to it, I don’t have a strong preference about what Sally calls me. On a philosophical level, it was fascinating to feel the effects of her calling me Libby, but I’m not going to stop her from calling me mom, either. As far as I’m concerned, it’s her call, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.