Who are Mum and Dad?

An update on the power of words

What are we saying when we call someone - or ourselves - 'mummy' or 'daddy'? Jose Maanmieli argues that these linguistic and cultural conventions fundamentally shape our earliest relationships.

Photo by Ergita Sela on Unsplash
Photo by Ergita Sela on Unsplash

‘Everything feels like it has changed. I am a mother now. In less than a year there will be a little voice calling me mummy. Actually already it has started: one of the nurses came over this morning and cheerfully asked: Mummy will you feed her now? I did not realize she was addressing me at first.’ (Pascoe, 2021)

If I stopped you on the street and I asked you where Mary is, you would probably be quite shocked. Who’s Mary? I seem to think that Mary is someone we both know.

But imagine that what I said was, ‘Where’s Mummy?’. This will be really confusing. You might think that I have an intellectual disability, that I am somehow immature, or that I'm suffering from an odd existential crisis.

And yet we both know someone who has this nickname - 'Mummy'. This person can be our mother, the mother of our mother, our spouse, or even ourselves. Besides, if you were a lost child on the street, you would not be so surprised if a stranger asked you, ‘Where’s Mummy?’. We are all, in a way, siblings who can understand that something important makes our mothers Mother rather than Mary.

Of course, the way psychotherapists get to this level of intimacy is not by asking these questions. It was Anna O who began to tell Breuer her made-up fairy tales (Launer, 2005). Since then, Mum and Dad have been largely assumed to denote individuals in the client’s life, as though language were a descriptive tool. Mum and Dad can also be certain ‘objects’, ‘archetypes’ and other mental or metaphysical entities, as though language were an intrinsic part of reality (Stockholder, 1998). However, consider the situation described in the epigraph. If that is how elders approach us during the development of our minds, then perhaps Mum, Dad and language are something else altogether.

In this article, I present my journey into this question both as a child and a parent. I suggest that understanding language on this realistic level could reveal much about our troubles. Conversely, those who understand our troubles could have much to say about language, which remains one of the great mysteries of science (Maanmieli, 2021).

Children

Before I had children, I had a rather idealistic view of them. In my thirties, I subscribed to the views of thinkers such as R.D Laing and Alice Miller, who denounced the toxicity of parental love (Maanmieli, 2018). This led to an exploration of my own relationship with my parents, of how much it was based on morals, and how little on mutual understanding and respect.

As an example, I like to cite the moment when I sat down in an email conversation with my mother, and said to her that I do not feel she listens to me. This moment of honesty took considerable courage, probably because deep down I knew that she would categorically reject any criticism of her job as a mother. That was what happened, even though I had only stated my feelings.

At this stage, I had little understanding of the reasons why mothers and fathers defend themselves in this way. I was absorbed by the ethical aspects of these interactions, which, painful as they were, were a great learning experience. One of the things I noticed was how important language became in those moments. I remember calling my father a man at some point. He experienced this as an insult because I should have called him a father, my father, and he wanted to punish me for this transgression.

Years later I found that many young people argue that others should use the correct term when referring to them, as they don’t feel like a woman, for instance (Patriquin 2021). I noticed the similarities with the case of a parent’s identity and how fragile it seems. Here, again, language appears to be the fabric of reality. The word mandetermines what someone is, which is paradoxical, because when a person demands to be called a man, it must be because they believe that being a man is a language-independent reality.

In my own case, I did not doubt that I am a man, and that if I impregnate my partner, I would be the child's father. So by the time I was ready to have children, I did not see why I should call myself Dad, as if I needed to constantly remind myself and others that I am these things. If anything, this need expressed an insecurity.

The way in which parents talk to children in the third person also seemed strange and silly, for example, ‘Daddy will pick you up', meaning that I am picking the child up from school. This avoidance of personal names and pronouns felt like I would be distancing from my child. I did not want to defend an identity whose origin was external to me, and that established such a profound inequality between two human beings.

Besides, my partner had two small children from a previous relationship, and they seemed to have two options: either they called me Dad too, or everyone called me Jose. I did not want to challenge their father for the title; nor did I want to discriminate against them and make my daughter feel like she was existentially special, ‘Daddy and her’. This seemed to be the essence of narcissism, ‘Daddy and me’.

Of course, something about my life situation was very different. I had moved to this foreign country many years before. I was far enough from my family of origin that I did not have to worry about the cultural pressures that often surround one’s choice of partner, let alone one's choice of gender. I could also decide when to tell my parents that I had a child, or when to visit them, rather than have my culture decide that for me.

I remember when my partner first told her son, who was five at the time, that our baby was due. He replied, ‘but now Daddy will have to take care of another child!’. Clearly, there was a moral obligation in being a father, which maybe the child of a separated couple could perceive especially accurately. Still, in his mind, the obligation was natural, just as the fact that the baby was, naturally, Daddy’s.

Parents

JOCASTA:

Aieeeeee—

man of agony—

that is the only name I have for you,

that, no other—ever, ever, ever! –

(Sophocles, Oedipus the King, trans. Fagles)

To say that a newborn is 'Daddy’s' is very ambiguous indeed, especially when this is stated by elders. It is supposedly very important to point the finger at the progenitor, such as Jose, because a certain moral responsibility is going to be assigned to him. But kin terms are essentially common nouns.

My own mother calls my father Dad, just as he calls her Mum. This may seem to indicate a cultural relation, like being an owner, a boss or a president. But these words suggest much more than that, like having a ‘logical’ function in the grand scheme of things. In nature, however, being a parent is not such a big deal. Animals do not possess language (Maanmieli, 2021). They do not get married or welcome their offspring into a system of kinship that varies from culture to culture – and these days from family to family – and that implies human beings never cease to be children.

This is why I have defined morality – in contrast to ethics – as a linguistic device that confuses social concepts with natural ones, like myth and fairy tales (Maanmieli and Maanmieli, 2019). I have argued that this definition belongs to a project for a scientific psychology, as opposed to a psychology influenced by philosophy and metaphysics (Maanmieli, 2019). Indeed, the common view of philosophy as the Father of science is not necessarily a compliment. Philosophers have talked a great deal on the intersection of society and nature, on meaning, and even the meaning of meaning. But they have not talked very much about parents and children. Philosophers miss the point that if someone is found to be a biological mother or father, then they ‘logically’ ought to be a mother or a father, whatever that means for a particular place and time.

Fantasy, as is well known in psychoanalysis, similarly arises from an ingrained conflict with reality. I remember after I told my parents the news that I had a daughter. There was a sense that I had unfairly kept ‘Dad’ from seeing her, and that by doing this, I was violating a natural law. He seemingly began to fantasise about his granddaughter; once he reported that two little girls understood his plight in a most sentimental manner. My partner and I felt that if we had told him over the phone that the child was male, he would have had different fantasies, or none at all.

We first visited my parents in Spain when she was 11 months. Eventually, we went with the three children, aged 3, 9 and 11 years. Throughout this unusual encounter, it seemed obvious that there was nothing natural about kinship. My daughter did not appear to recognise my parents in any special way, even though I have always spoken Spanish with her, I have the same mannerisms, and my relationship with them had improved. It became empirically clear to them, perhaps, that those feelings were part of a moral fantasy that needed to be maintained through a form of language (Wittgenstein (1953) called this a ‘form of life’, but how did he address his parents?), not feelings that emanated from an encounter of biological kin.

Because we were not playing Mum and Dad, it was hard for my parents to play Grandma and Grandpa, and my daughter did not have to kiss them when she did not feel like it. She experienced us parents as we really are, people with insecurities and needs, and she could connect with us genuinely.

'Bye bye, man!’, she labelled my father as she waved goodbye.

People

For a long time, Siela did not understand the difference between mothers and fathers, and I am not sure that she understands it today. As I have suggested, this is because the learning of real, biological differences is distorted by the teaching of cultural ones, along with the roles of parents.

Last year, she made a greeting card at daycare with the help of the staff. It looks like a superhero called ‘Super Daddy’ and it celebrates Father’s Day. She first handed it to her mother, smiling and proud of her artwork. ‘I have a surprise for you’, she uttered in Finnish – ‘you’ meaning her mother.

In the last two or three years, Siela has often referred to Karoliina and Jose as her father and mother, respectively, when talking to other children. Not only is Karoliina her daddy; I am her mummy. Once she was telling a puzzled playmate, ‘look, there is my mother-man!’ (katso, tuolla on mun äitimies).

Karoliina and I do all sorts of silly baby talk, and we have many of the common family problems; but as I mentioned, we don't speak to children in the third person. For example, I do not say ‘Mummy will pick you up because Daddy has to work today’; I say ‘Karoliina will pick you up because I have to work today’.

This emphasis on being people rather than doing culture might be considered bad for the child by some. However, try putting yourself in the child's shoes: if I say to Siela that ‘Mummy’ will pick her up, there will be many women – and nowadays even men – coming to pick children up who are called 'Mummy'.

This cognitive confusion might be why small children apply these terms to strangers sometimes (Saxton 2017, p.137; Maanmieli 2019). Recently, at daycare, a little girl looked at me like she wanted me to pick her up as well. She actually said ‘Mummy will pick you up’, as if reciting a mantra.

The use of personal names, as we see it, encourages mental health, reality testing and ego-strength. This means talking with the child about the mental states of the individuals that stand for ‘I’, ‘you’ and 'Jose', rather than uttering sentences that describe a moral state of affairs. That is, Jose does not buy Siela an ice cream because he does not feel like it, rather than because it is wrong or it isn’t the right time for it. Jose has feelings and does not necessarily know the reasons for them.

As a result, we think, Siela has demonstrated maturity and insight. For example, when she gave Karoliina her Father’s Day card, Siela said calmly: ‘you are Karoliina, but you are also Daddy; it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to be Daddy’.

Because my family is so different, Siela seems to be trying to cope with the mixed messages. On the one hand, there is her family, and on the other, the greater family of the society we live in – a place called ‘Fatherland’ (Isänmaa) by many. She also seems to believe that being Dad is a game of pretence, which Karoliina does not have to play if she doesn’t want to.

But then there are those moments when the other two children leave for their father's place. She misses them and often asks Karoliina why they have to go. Just the other day she replied, ‘but why don’t we have Daddy?!’. Apparently, if we had Daddy with us, He could lay claim to the children and they would stay.

Conclusion

Words were originally magic, and the word retains much of its old magical power even today. With words one man can make another blessed, or drive him to despair; by words the teacher transfers his knowledge to the pupil; by words the speaker sweeps his audience with him and determines its judgments and decisions. Words call forth effects and are the universal means of influencing human beings. (Freud, 1920, p. 3)

In the original myth, the Oracle told Oedipus that he was to kill ‘his father’ and marry ‘his mother’. This inescapable fate was his torment, and with some hesitation, it was established by Freud as the pillar of psychoanalysis (Zepf et al., 2018).

However, understandably for his time, Freud never acknowledged that those fateful words are also a means of influencing human beings, if not the primary means. Indeed, the Oracle did not answer Oedipus' question of who his parents ‘really’ were, as if this did not matter.

Today science is similarly secure in its knowledge of Mum, Dad, language and everything that depends on it. Scientists condemn Freud as unscientific, in much the same way Oedipus mocked the prophet Tiresias for being blind. But I think psychotherapy, insofar as it is conceived as the ‘talking cure’, has a greater awareness of language.

As Pascoe (2021) has put it: ‘We would not consider calling the family dog by the generic term “dog” when his name is Norman. But the mother of the family, despite being loved and valued (hopefully in equal or greater measure) is more likely to be called by the generic ‘mom/mother’ than her specific given name. Why do we do this? And why is there so little metalinguistic awareness about doing this?’.

In therapy, we can explore the extent to which our relationships are made of words, from our relationship with a child to that with a fatherly God, an ambivalent Nation or a motherly Nature. Of course, something about these arrangements has not been working out.

According to the Step Family Foundation (2021), the majority of US families are remarried or recoupled. In these situations, it is difficult for children and parents to agree on what they want to be for one another, although it is easy to agree on what they do not want to be for one another.

This unrelatedness might seem scary and problematic, and yet it is intrinsic to what we have always considered relatedness. The ultimate goal of psychotherapy, then, is to help ourselves transition to a more conscious way of relating.

Jose Maanmieli is an independent thinker and researcher. His work on the nature of language and morality proposes a synthesis of the behavioural sciences that has implications for psychoanalytic theory. He manages a research network devoted to filling the gap between academia and ordinary life: alethes.net. His contemporary psychotherapy profile can be found here.

 

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References

Freud, S. (1920). A general introduction to psychoanalysis. New York: Boni and Liveright. Available at: https://archive.org/details/psychoanalysisin00freuuoft/

Launer, J. (2005). ‘Anna O and the “talking cure"’, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 98(6):465-466. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hci068

Maanmieli, J. (2021). ‘Prescription: A biological definition of language’, Alethes.net, vol. 1. Available at: https://alethes.net/journals/prescription-a-biological-definition-of-language/

Maanmieli, J. (2019). ‘The nature of kinship: From dad and mum to god and society’, Alethes.net, vol. 1. Available at: https://alethes.net/journals/childrens-pretence-a-scientific-perspective-on-social-reality/

Maanmieli, J. (2018). ‘The Drama of Alice and Ronnie’, Contemporary Psychotherapy, 10(1). Available at: https://www.contemporarypsychotherapy.org/volume-10-issue-1-summer-2018/the-drama-of-alice-and-ronnie/

Maanmieli, J. & Maanmieli, K. (2019). ‘Children's pretence: A scientific perspective on social reality’, Alethes.net, vol. 1. Available at: https://alethes.net/journals/childrens-pretence-a-scientific-perspective-on-social-reality/

Patriquin, L. (2021). ‘Why it’s important to oppose Jordan Petersen’s views on gender pronouns’. CBC Docswebsite. Available at: https://www.cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/features/why-its-important-to-oppose-jordan-petersons-views-on-gender-pronouns

Pascoe, M. (2021). ‘The acquisition of kinship’, Babel Magazine. Available at: https://babelzine.co.uk/store-2/babel-issue-34/

Saxton, M. (2017). Child Language: Acquisition and Development, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Sophocles. (1984). Oedipus the King. Trans. Robert Fagles. London: Penguin Classics

Stockholder, K. (1998). ‘Lacan versus Freud: Subverting the enlightenment’, American Imago, 55(3): 361-422. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1353/aim.1998.0020

The Step Family Foundation. (2021). ‘Step Family Statistics’, The Step Family Foundation. Available at: https://www.stepfamily.org/stepfamily-statistics.html

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

Zepf, S., Zepf, F.D., Ullrich, B. & Seel, D. (2018). Oedipus and the Oedipus Complex: A Revision. New York: Routledge

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