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The day one of my twins first uttered the “amm” sound I was ecstatic. I pointed out to my husband how similar it was to “amma,” all but laying claim to their first word and my maternal title. But, despite repeating the palindrome over and over again, it didn’t happen that day, or the next day, or the next week. It was just a question of smacking your lips, I urged my kids, showing them how to do it, but they looked back at me, curiously alert and stubbornly mum. A few days later, both girls were repeating “dada” in hysterical delight to their dad’s chuckles, and without the exertion of any lip smacking.

In due time, the twins settled on mamma, but it was to be just a temporary placeholder, for purple dinosaurs and red dogs on television colluded with the girls to re-label me “mommy.” I didn’t think much about it. It really didn’t matter.  Or so I thought.

It was when my girls turned into little talkers that doubts emerged. While strapping my goggle-eyed daughters to their carseats one day, I explained to them that Mommy, the name, lacked the nuance of our language or roots. I persuaded them to backspace on Mommy and was soon slavishly obeying their every high chair Amma command.

The elementary years were a time of reckoning. The magic of books shaped my children’s imaginations and language began to prune their thoughts. Their bedtime stories invoked stories of beauty, valor, animals, moms, mothers and mommies. Favorite teachers endowed the M-word with authority and Mommy came back home to stay. Though, every once in a while I reminded my kids that I was their Amma.

It was more than just about a title, a label, or a name. At the center of this internal Amma-Mommy debate was the question of how much melting we must do into that conforming pot? Culture, language and heritage are negotiable components of integration. Whether or not to call me Amma was like a diacritical comma to an entire language. But that comma happens to be a small, yet truthful, representation of linguistic accuracy and pronunciation.

Amma was my name for my mother. It should be my daughters’ name for me, if for no reason other than continuity. Wrapped into the titles we give ourselves are the feelings we bear for the people who carried those titles before us.

Over the years, my children have called me amma, mamma, mommy, mom and mother, depending on their age and the company they’ve kept, but a pattern began to emerge. I realized it when my eight year old fell down, cut her lip, ripped her dress, and walked over to me with tears barely contained in her black eyes. “Amma,” she whispered, “it hurts.”
And I understood.

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....