Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Keeping Mum

This reader is worried to hear her four-year-old refer to his father's new girlfriend as "mum". Should she raise the issue with her son? Or just keep quiet?

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

My husband and I are separated and for the last year my husband’s taken my four-year-old son out on his own at weekends. For the last month, I’ve been persuaded to let my son stay over once a week, which means he has to meet his father’s new girlfriend. I have no objection, but I’ve been extremely upset to hear my son twice, when talking of her, referring to her as “Mum”. My husband says our son’s been told to call her by her Christian name, but I wonder. It hurts so much I feel like stopping him visiting, though of course I wouldn’t do that.


Yours sincerely,




Virginia says...

Ouch! I can well imagine how you feel. But you must try to rise above it. The truth is that both children and old people often get names muddled up. My grandson often calls me “mum” by accident and then, when he returns home, has been known to call his mother “granny”. I’ve called my son by his father’s name, and my grandson by my son’s name. When you get older all the generations get confused and when you’re younger your mind is so focused on what you’re doing and the role people play in your life rather than their actual personalities that you tend to get confused as well. That’s partly why at school children are often encouraged to call their teachers, simply, “miss”. It’s too complicated for them to remember which “miss” they’re actually addressing.

And in one way you should breathe a sigh of relief. Because if this new woman were a total monster, your son wouldn’t be accidentally calling her “mum”. But as it is, he’s only getting you confused in the role you’re both playing.  You’re both older than him, you’re both women, both semi-parental figures in that you either have been or are with his father… could you not imagine that there’s an unspoken word “figure” tagged on the end of his “mum”? He’s not describing you, in other words, or the love he feels for you, he’s describing a role. A “mum” role.

It’s easy for you to tell him you feel a bit uncomfortable hearing him referring to this other woman as “mum”. You might ask how he’d feel were you to describe his best friend as your “son” – though I imagine he’s so secure in your love that he wouldn’t mind either way and just think it rather funny. And you might ask your husband always to correct when he accidentally calls his girlfriend “mum”, explaining that you don’t like it. I’m sure everyone would understand.

But remember that if you get too prickly about it, he may start to be aware of how insecure you feel in his love for you as his mother above all else. He then may, subconsciously perhaps, start to feel he should be more protective of you, more “good”, and that may make him feel he has to be a more careful guardian of the state of your mind, and this, in turn, may make him anxious.

Virginia Ironside will appear in ‘Growing Old Disgracefully’ at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms on 12 August

Readers say...

A slip of the tongue

As a mother, you’re ultra-sensitive to the threat posed by this new woman, but you mustn’t let that upset your relationship with your son. His references to her as “mum” are probably a slip of the tongue in his excitement at telling you what’s been happening. Encourage him to draw pictures of all his family and friends, including your ex’s girlfriend. Build his confidence by praising him, and teach him to write simple words like “mum” and “dad” to label his drawings. The girlfriends may come and go: you are his anchor. Rather than focus on your own insecurities, try to be the best mother you can be to your little boy, and you’ll eradicate any doubt about your place in his life.

Isabella Graham, Broxburn

Just ignore it

At the age of four most children know they have a mummy and daddy, but they don’t know why; they just do. As far as your son is concerned, whoever lives with “dad” must be “mum”.

So ignore it; you can tell your son that you are his real mother when he is old enough to understand.

Malcolm Howard, by email

Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

We’ve been asked to a Heroes and Villains party.  I’m going as Tony Blair but my partner wants to go as Jimmy Savile. He’s got a great sense of humour and most of our friends know he can go a bit near the edge, but there’ll be quite a lot of new people at this party who don’t know him and I really don’t want him to go like this. I wouldn’t be upset – I think it would be quite funny – but I think it’s too risky. My partner doesn’t get my concerns. How can I argue him out of it? Or should I just go along with it and see if he can carry it off? He usually does!

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Jim to do?

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