Illustration by Erin Taj

When Mom and Dad Call Each Other Mom and Dad

Making sense of parental pet names

You probably knew Ronald and Nancy Reagan best as the former First Lady and President of the United States. POTUS and FLOTUS. Or, in Ronald’s case, the leader of the free world. Or the commander-in-chief. Or Mr. President. But to each other, President and Mrs. Reagan were “Mommie Poo Pants” and “Ronnie” (though Ronnie also would sometimes sign his love notes to Mommie Poo Pants as “Poppa”). For instance, this playful anagram Reagan once composed in childlike handwriting on his personal stationery for Mother’s Day:

M — is for the misery of which I have none.

O — means only that without you I would die.

M — is for how very much (when we’re apart) I miss you.

M — is for the million ways I love you.

Y — Yippie!!! I’m so happy.

Take them all together they spell

NANCY

My wife, my love, my life.

Happy Mother’s Day!

From an admirer (if you’re curious

my name is at the top of the page.)

& I’m on the next pillow over.

If you strip away the Freudian stuff, it kind of makes sense. The Reagans have forever seemed like the country’s grandparents — perpetually old, effortlessly corny and rigidly disapproving of anything that falls outside of their worldview. In other words, the exact kind of couple you would expect to call each Mother and Father. Or Mom and Dad. Or Ma and Pa. Or any variation thereof — e.g., Mommie Poo Pants. Whichever the case, it feels like an antiquated term of endearment, something out of Little House on the Prairie and the last vestiges of prairie culture that surround me in western Kansas, a throwback to bygone eras of sod houses and floral divans.

I remember hearing it once as a kid in the bleachers at the county fair from a farmer in denim overalls. He addressed his wife as “Mother” and she responded by calling him “Pop” as they ate ice cream and watched children leading cattle around the show ring. It was endearing in that it suggested these wind-battered plains people had endured farm life together; had given each other parental pet names as comfort amid shared hardships. And while there’s a folksy dignity in that, it still seemed strange — married people, who presumably had been sexually attracted to each other at some point in the not-so-distant past, now acting more like siblings, calling each other names meant for their progenitors.

This, of course, isn’t exclusive to Kansas, the Reagans or bygone eras. Modern names like Baby Mamma and Baby Daddy reference the same source and also are used as pet names. Nor have the old standards — mommy and daddy chief among them — gone anywhere. “I don’t think its creepy … me and my gf do it all the time,” Twiztid.hippie wrote on The Straight Dope message board a few years ago. “I love when she calls me daddy it turns me on. she loves when I call her mama or mommy too. everyone has their own ways of seeing it. most people probably think its disgusting but me and my lady find it hot and we are doing just fine we always refer to each other as daddy and mama :]” (Sic, obviously, throughout.)

Not that it’s for everyone. “My husband has tried to call me mommy,” another commenter wrote on the Straight Dope thread. “Now, it’s one thing when he’s talking to our daughter about me, and refers to me as Mama, as that’s her name for me. But he tried calling me mommy before I got pregnant. Nope, I am NOT his mother. He tries it every now and then, and I remind him that his mother used to break broomsticks over his head, and does he want me to do that, too?”

The use of parental pet names does seem to originate from parenting, or, as linguist Rebecca Babcock at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin puts it, “When parents are talking to their children about the other parent, they’ll say Mom or Dad, not their name. So, I think they just get used to that and call them that all the time.”

Lisa Pellerin, director of women’s and gender studies at Ball State University, adds that it also might have something to do with the timing and transitions of parenting. “Parents typically respond to their children’s maturity by transitioning into a less active role, and allow their teenagers, for example, to see them as more than just parents,” she says. “They might share more information about their nonparental life, they might share their worries or concerns (in age-appropriate ways). So they become, not just Mommy and Daddy, or Mom and Dad, but also Jane and Bill.

“This transition both assists the children with separation and maturity but also helps the parents relinquish the intensive parenting role, in preparation for the ‘empty nest,’ when they are expected to transition to relating to each other primarily as a couple again. Some people, however, have difficulty with this transition, either with letting go of their children, returning to their couple-ness, or both.”

Pellerin hypothesizes that people who refer to one another as Mom or Dad when their kids are grown probably haven’t yet navigated that transition.

Still, using those names for someone you’re fucking does take on a whole new meaning. That’s assuming, of course, that couples who call each other mom and dad are having sex at all.

Maggie Arana and Julienne Davis, the authors of Stop Calling Him Honey … And Start Having Sex, suggest that using any pet name at all diminishes individuality, which kills desire. You do everything together, your partner becomes the other half of you and you get bored because you’re essentially talking to yourself, they argue. “You are not a Mommy or Daddy to each other — you are adult sexual partners. Being a parent is only part of who you are. Keep those distinctions separate, and you’re more likely to reboot your sexual chemistry.”

But sometimes separating that chemistry — or chemistry of any kind — from the nicknames we give our significant others isn’t so simple, since the names are woven into that chemistry and the connection we have with the other person. So yeah, they’re silly and stupid. Or kind of gross, like Mother and Father. Or all three, in the case of Mommie Poo Pants. And maybe that’s … okay? “Who’s to say what’s appropriate for a grown couple to say in the privacy of their own home?” says Frank Nuessel, the editor of Names: A Journal of Onomastics. “Especially because we all have a private family language. So I don’t think there’s anything literal to take from a nickname like Mommie Poo Pants. Try to explain any name you’ve had for a lover, and it won’t make any sense to anyone but you.”

Layton Ehmke farms wheat and writes words in Lane County, Kansas.

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