KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 29-May-14 12:08:18

Justine Roberts: When did mum become a dirty word?

In July's edition of Red Magazine, which goes on sale today, our very own JustineMumsnet considers society's definitions of motherhood, and argues that it's time to shake off the oppressive associations of the word ‘mum’.

Do read the piece and let us know what you think on the thread below. If you're a mother, have people's attitudes towards you changed since having children?

Justine Roberts

CEO of Mumsnet

Posted on: Thu 29-May-14 12:08:18

(276 comments )

Lead photo

"It's pretty much the best time in history to be a woman - until the moment you get pregnant, at which point all bets are off"

In 2009, I was asked to send a Mumsnet blogger to join the media corps at the G20 summit. I immediately put the nomination to our online audience, who collectively chose one of Mumsnet's finest minds to represent us – a prolific poster who went by the name of Policywonk.

She was a smart cookie – highly educated with a particular interest in climate change. And, by all accounts, she had a high old time at the summit, rushing from one interview with a world leader to the next.

Afterwards, I quizzed her on what it was like. ‘Amazing,’ she confirmed. But there was something a little odd, she noticed. Whenever she introduced herself as a Mumsnet representative to a fellow member of the media corps, they would start speaking very slowly and deliberately. As if she were a child. But she wasn't a child, she was a mum – and that was the problem.

Whenever she introduced herself as a Mumsnet representative to a fellow member of the media corps, they would start speaking very slowly and deliberately. As if she were a child. But she wasn't a child, she was a mum – and that was the problem.


Over the past half-century in this country, women have made astonishing strides along the road to equality. Schoolgirls are more likely than their male contemporaries to apply to university – and to graduate with a first or upper-second-class degree. The gender pay gap has dropped from 45% in 1970, when the Equal Pay Act was introduced, to around 15% today. And feminism, which seemed to lie more or less dormant through the 1990s and 2000s, has reinvented itself for the digital generation via grass-roots projects such as Everyday Sexism and No More Page Three.

It is, in short, pretty much the best time in history to be a woman – until the moment you get pregnant, at which point all bets are off.

Leaving aside for a moment all the examples of real-world discrimination – and there are plenty of them – that women face when they have children, let's just consider what we've done with the word ‘mum’ itself. ‘Mummy’ is the first word in most children's vocabulary and, during their early years, arguably the most important one: its connotations, from our offspring’s point of view, are overwhelmingly positive. What happens, then, when we become mothers ourselves, and look at the word from the other end of the telescope? Why is it, when adults talk to adults, that we use it so negatively?

Read more of Justine's piece for the July issue of Red magazine here.

By Justine Roberts

Twitter: @Justine_Roberts

EffectiveCommunication Thu 29-May-14 12:23:28

IT says more about them speaking to someone like that, when they hear the word "Mum".

Andcake Thu 29-May-14 12:23:29

I struggled for years to become a mum and felt completely left out of the world of friends who became mums and looked down on by people I met through work or any other context for not being a mum.
I got the impression that mums saw themselves as better than other women for having had a baby and men saw me as a failure - cold, possibly validating that I was unattractive etc
personally in the years I have managed to become a mother I have not felt discriminated in any way. I have presented at board meetings whilst heavily pregnant and never had any negative responses.
This may be rare but sometimes I think mums need to get over themselves a bit.

It may be that I am lucky. I think Justine is just trying to be controversial for mumsnet publicity.
On the mum jeans issue - yes but research has shown that mums after having a child often put practicality over style - so what!
Better to be a mum than not a mum.

mrsbucketxx Thu 29-May-14 13:29:26

i was thinking that i really dislike that the media especially lumps us all together like one mass.

men (dads) are .....managers, businessmen, milkmen, whatever job they choose.

and mums are just mums with no life other than that.

IfNotNowThenWhen Thu 29-May-14 13:39:30

It's the way adverts say things like "busy Mums" in that sickly patronising way...aaargh.
At work, my Boss was talking about how stressed he was, and he said to me "you're a Mum, so you know ha ha".
My male colleague is also a Dad, but he never would have said that to him. It's like "Mum" is my primary function, even at work?
So, yeah, I hate being referred to a "A Mum", "A Busy Mum" a "Working Mum" (working Dad, ever??). I am a woman who happens to have DC not A Mum.

LuisSuarezTeeth Thu 29-May-14 13:52:37

I think you become a mum first, person second, in many people's eyes. There is the implication that your mind will always be on your children first, to the exclusion of everything else.

In some ways, this is true - many women do think differently, but it's equally true for fathers. For men though, becoming a father seems to enhance their status, if anything, suggesting maturity and wisdom.

I'm not sure "mum" has become a dirty word exactly, but certainly I see it used more often in a patronising manner.

JassyRadlett Thu 29-May-14 13:57:37

You have 'busy men' or 'busy mums' in the media. A woman has to be defined by her parenthood or otherwise, as others have said. As soon as I had a child, I became to society a 'mum'. And there is a fuckload of baggage that goes with that. Are you a working mum? Who is raising your children while you work? (NB: Men do not get asked that question, but are never accused of letting 'someone else raise their child'.)

You look at interviews with female politicians - there will invariably be a discussion of whether she has children, how she manages childcare if she does, if she regrets not having children if she doesn't. Male politicians are not treated in anywhere near the same way.

It's used - probably subconsciously - as a means of keeping women in a comfortable sphere. People are used to thinking of women as homemakers and mothers, so they perpetuate that - and the media is terrible for it.

But the rest of the world isn't much better. The second I had a child, to any medical professional speaking to me about my child, I became 'Mum'. My husband, when he takes our child to medical appointments, is not 'Dad'. He is always asked his name.

Itsfab Thu 29-May-14 14:01:07

I do not understand this and think it is bollocks that Mum has negative connotations. If people think you are less capable because you are a mum then it says more about them than you. Arguably being a Mum makes you capable of doing almost anything given the many "jobs" a mother has to do.

JassyRadlett Thu 29-May-14 14:05:19

That's the point, Itsfab. People do use it as a catchall and make sweeping assumptions and generalisations as a result. It says a lot about them, but it affects us.

So it matters.

MillionPramMiles Thu 29-May-14 14:10:47

Mumsy
Mummy track
Something your 'mum' would wear
Mummy brain
Yummy mummy

Not exactly used in a complementary way are they? Even yummy mummy is patronising.

mrsbucketxx Thu 29-May-14 14:15:33

i hate mumsy ugh makes me shudder.

an your right id be offended if someone called me that.

PartialFancy Thu 29-May-14 14:16:17

"It says a lot about them, but it affects us."

This is going to be my new catchphrase.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 29-May-14 14:27:31

I agree with ItsFab and would add that I have never experienced this.
Perhaps at first I could think it was because I don't work, but many opportunities provide themselves where I am communicating other than as a mother and don't see this.
I think there are more negative connotations surrounding how a mother chooses to spend her time tbh.

Rokerwriter Thu 29-May-14 14:28:00

'Mumsy' and 'Something your mum would wear' have the meanings they do because they are usually said by one generation who judge something on their own mothers' styles. I certainly reject anything my mum would wear, not because she's a mum but because she is, inevitably, from a different generation. My daughter would, quite rightly, dismiss something I wear as 'something her mum would wear', I'm not offended by that, I don't expect my 18 year old to dress like me.
Other than that, I agree some terms are annoying, although so many people talk on here about baby brain, I wonder why mummy brain is any worse.
Yummy mummy, definitely not, and I don't know what mummy track means, I've never heard it before.

JassyRadlett Thu 29-May-14 14:32:36

Aw, cheers, Partial. It's true, though, isn't it? Sure, it's them being arses, but it's not them who are held back by it.

Itsfab Thu 29-May-14 14:33:00

I have only ever wanted to be a mum so the fact I am has mostly always been positive for me. Anything less than positive has not been because of anyone else but because of what it has done to me emotionally.

I can see though that some phrases can be seen as negative but just as someone saying there is a stigma around mental illness perpetuates the "stigma" saying someone is mumsy in a negative way makes it negative.

Make is something to be proud of.

JassyRadlett Thu 29-May-14 14:40:33

Mummy track is where, because you have had a child, you are assumed to have lost your ambition and will be an unreliable and unproductive employee, so your options decrease dramatically. You are not considered for opportunities, enrichment or promotion in the same way as men.

It's not universal but the attitudes are pervasive. The first thing most people in the workplace ask when a woman is going on maternity leave is 'is she coming back part-time, then?'

In Britain, mothers who work full-time earn 21% less than men. In the US, it's estimated that the lifetime earnings of high-earning mothers are 21-33% lower than non-mothers, and 10-14% for low-earning mothers.

Mothers in Britain are less likely to get a bonus, and more likely to be made redundant.

That's the mummy track.

JassyRadlett Thu 29-May-14 14:42:42

I'd just rather not be defined by it rather than by any of my other attributes, Itsfab. I'm incredibly proud and happy to be a mother to my son, but it is utterly irrelevant in a lot of contexts.

Unfortunately marketers, coworkers, the media and others find it very convenient to put women with children into a box called 'mums' and affix some flowery labels to it, regardless of the diversity of the group of women contained inside.

MerryMarigold Thu 29-May-14 14:45:27

I find this debate a bit odd. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong in the word 'mum'. I think people judge mothers though. I think there's a lot wrong with that, whether you call them mothers or mums or mammas. It's not about the word, it's about attitudes, isn't it? Some words are derogatory - poof, n*** (most of the time), p* - but I wouldn't put 'Mum' in with these at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with the word.

[Post edited by MNHQ]

thecatfromjapan Thu 29-May-14 14:49:43

My experience is definitely that the second my first pregnancy was visible, I lost some of my validity as a full human. Admittedly , not to everyone - but enough- and in all sorts of ways: big and small.
I, too, like the radlett's phrase: it may well be " their" problem- but "they" made it mine.

thecatfromjapan Thu 29-May-14 14:53:28

By the way, policy wonk is brilliant. The fact that she experienced the "talking slooooooowly" syndrome says it all. I loved her dispatches from the g20.

morethanpotatoprints Thu 29-May-14 14:55:01

I don't agree that the media zooms in on motherhood anymore than fatherhood. There are just as many celeb males who are asked about being a parent as there are women. With the men its likely to focus on how much childcare they do, their relationship with their children, if they miss them while working, funny anecdotes, etc. If they are not yet parents when that's likely to be with a focus on settling down, having dc and becoming responsible. It is the same for both genders.
I give you Buble, members Take That, and other boy band members as examples.

IfNotNowThenWhen Thu 29-May-14 15:02:21

"Unfortunately marketers, coworkers, the media and others find it very convenient to put women with children into a box called 'mums' and affix some flowery labels to it, regardless of the diversity of the group of women contained inside."

So true Jassy
I don't know about slebs morethan, but "Dads" are most def NOT a supposedly defined group to be marketed to.

MarshaBrady Thu 29-May-14 15:05:55

I wonder how they would have spoken to someone from dadsnet?

A friendly punch on the arm and joke about the little blighters. Would they be as serious as they were to other contributors.

frenzy69 Thu 29-May-14 15:06:25

I only find Mum a dirty word when people ask what I do for a living, if I say Im a stay at home Mum I get the "oh you dont work" line!! So now I just tell people I work in child care, seem to get more respect for that only its my own children I care for lol x

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