I have been called any number of things over the years – flattering or otherwise – but the moniker I have been given most commonly in recent living memory is mãe (Portuguese for “mum”).
It all began when I entered the world of childcare upon my return to work. At the local crèche, every mum was referred to as mãe and for reasons I couldn’t fully explain at the time, it didn’t sit right with me. In hindsight, it must have partly been due to becoming part of a system I didn’t really understand. Much of it was confusing, if not completely baffling to me.
And I think that at first, the women at the crèche were equally baffled by me. I could barely string a coherent Portuguese sentence together, and, in their view, failed to dress my baby appropriately. I lost count of the times I’d drop my son off in one outfit and collect him in another, completely different and heavily layered ensemble, which they’d cobbled together from his spare clothes supply. The original outfit was never soiled, and where I’d gone wrong in the first place wasn’t fully explained, although allusions to it being chilly at a (to my mind) mild 20 degrees were made.
Despite this inauspicious start, as the years progressed the crèche ladies and I developed an excellent relationship. My Portuguese improved and I went on to have another baby, who was also entrusted to them. I dearly valued the excellent care and attention my babies were given. I was also tickled by their logic that any problem, big or small, could be resolved by the introduction of a Marie biscuit. They in turn, marvelled at how much I evidently adored my offspring, despite being the possessor of Northern European genetics. After 5 years of near-daily contact, I was still universally known as mãe – along with all the other mums. By this point I was not remotely offended.
Nothing changed when my children started school. It looked like I was stuck with mãe for the long-term. Within the education system, as far as I can fathom, you are systematically referred to within the context of your relationship to your child. Every dad is pai and if granny is in the picture, it follows that she’s known as avó. This uniformity spares teachers the formality of calling you Mr or Mrs Whatever, whilst absenting them from having to remember your real name. As a consequence, you’re stranded in a no man’s land of semi-intimacy. I’ve never been addressed in the familiar tu form and yet never in my life have I felt quite as chastised as when a disapproving “oh mãe” was intoned at me by a well-meaning but severe auxiliary, for allowing my child not to wear a coat to school.
Over the years, I have become so inured to being treated as someone’s mum, that I was rather caught on the hop recently. In text message exchanges with my son’s handsome twenty-something handball teacher regarding training and forthcoming matches, I regularly signed myself off with my name and added mãe in brackets. After many months, and completely out of the blue, he addressed me in person by my first name. I was so wrong-footed that I blushed furiously, no doubt giving every impression of being an absurd wannabe cougar. This wasn’t the case – I was just so astonished to have been treated as an actual person with a name and identity that I lost the wherewithal to behave like one. Afterwards, mortified by my loss of control, I even giggled puce-faced in the recounting of this incident to my husband and friends. In light of the hysterics, no one bought my claim that I didn’t fancy him.
I suppose it could be contended that being defined solely as someone’s mum might be a reason to object. My cultural heritage means that I do find it a bit odd to be known as one of the things I am, rather than by my name. This might explain why I struggled with it initially. But, like anyone, I’m multi-faceted and know that being a mother is part of me, but doesn’t define all of me.
The Portuguese are fond of saying “mãe é mãe”, to convey the depth of the mother-child bond. For two little people that’s precisely and uniquely who I am and I can’t pretend otherwise. However, at home I’m never mãe. I’m Mummy.