If I call you mama, consider it the highest praise. I may tag it to the end of a sentence. I might write it on a card with the fluid swoop of my fountain pen. I don’t care whether you have kids. I don’t even care whether you’re a woman; yes, I may call you mama even if you’re a man. (And why not? We use masculine designations for people who aren’t men all the time — hey guys, what’s up dude, mankind, etc. Switching is fair play.)
Thanks, mama. How are you, mama. I may say it was we embrace, the smell of our perfume and shampoo coming together, the warmth of our arms around each other in greeting, in fellowship. I might draw it out like I draw out giiiiiirl; I might open the door on those two ancient syllables and let them fill with double-meaning that swirls like chocolate-vanilla soft-serve and makes us both laugh.
I say mama because there’s no word I can use to better convey my love for you, or my respect for you. A mama is everything I admire in the world. I don’t mean that like the syrupy pablum of a Mother’s Day card. I mean it far more seriously, and from experience. I mean motherhood as a container of essential and mighty multitudes: perseverance, forbearance, strength of muscle and mind, softness of body and spirit, a capacity for unmatched generosity, a capacity for unmatched tenderness, an acceptance of joy even when it leaves you vulnerable, grit par excellence. I mean it like: mothers as pure force; mothers as creation and destruction, and knowing when to deploy each power; mothers as superlative, formidable; mothers as the irreducible, atomic sine qua non of everything else. It’s a lot to pack into a tiny word, but consider the word’s scope: it is the first word most of us ever say, and sometimes the last, spoken on death beds of all kinds throughout history. Mama bookends life.
I make sure to use the word in the middle of life, too. What’s up, mama. You got this, mama! Spoken to a fellow mother, it’s shorthand for I see you. It’s an affirmation of our shared (if too-often private) glory, and a way for us to relish it. To be sure, as a feminist, I know calling someone mama isn’t totally straightforward: I risk making a fellow mother feel reduced to her “role,” as if her individuating name is less important than who she is in relation to other people. And yes, as a woman who is Black, white, and…