When I was growing up in the ‘90s, “yo mama” jokes—wherein amateur comedians competed to call one another’s mothers ugly, fat, and stupid—were the scourge of my middle school. (A mild example: “Yo mama so dumb, she thought a quarterback was a refund.”) These days, a kindler, gentler mom joke has taken its place. This one doesn’t paint moms as outright dumb—it just softly implies that they’re woefully naïve and totally out of touch. Case in point: When the New York Times published a winkingly simplistic comic strip illustrating how bitcoin compares to traditional dollars and cents, it titled the item “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom.”
Maybe it’s time for mothers to explain something to the New York Times: Giving birth does not instantly render people ignorant. It may, however, make them more sensitive to the implicit ageism and sexism that is casually broadcasted whenever someone invokes “mom” to mean traditional, oblivious, or uncool. Consider “Mom This Is How Twitter Works,” a primer that hopes to “demystify” the “basic facts” of the social network for child-bearing women (apparently dad already gets it or just doesn’t care). Or “Not Your Mom’s Zumba,” which presumes that your mother’s cardio routine is embarrassingly retro while yours is cutting edge. Your mom’s so stupid, she can’t even keep up with the latest sandwich trends. (Dad occasionally gets this, too, though the phrasing can backfire: The “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” campaign in the late ‘80s was the beginning of the end for the brand, as it explicitly alienated the car’s core demographic: older dudes.) No amount of knowledge acquisition can prevent your mother from falling into this stereotype. The only thing worse than a mom who doesn’t get it is one who tries: Mothers who attempt to stay abreast of youth culture are caricatured as pathetic harpies, a la Mean Girls’ “cool mom,” who embarrasses herself by attempting to adopt the parlance and wardrobe of her teenage daughter and friends.
I heard about “How to Explain Bitcoin to Your Mom” from my mother, of course, who spotted the item on the Times’ Twitter feed. She is a New York Times subscriber (since the audience of the nytimes.com is 52 percent female with a median age of 47, I assume moms are a key demographic for the newspaper), so she is well aware of the paper’s near-constant coverage of the cryptocurrency, even though these articles are written using grown-up words and not pretty pictures. (The same cannot be said for my father: When I called and asked him “What is bitcoin?” he replied, “I’ve been asking everybody the same thing for months.”) My mom also knows how Twitter works, though she’s never read the condescending mom guide. And despite the persistent stereotype, my mom isn’t the only one capable of birthing children while understanding current events. “You know Marissa Mayer is a mom, right?” Lori Pickert asked the Times on Twitter. As Lisa McIntire put it: “My mom was a futures trader, thanks.” In fact, being a mother can be a serious advantage in staying on top of evolving generational touchstones. Because she is invested in the lives of her two millennial children, my mom is aware of our cultural reference points and intimately familiar with our technologies in a way that childless people may not be. Like many female baby boomers, she also spends time taking care of her silent generation parents, meaning that her intergenerational knowledge is on point.
So why are people so eager to paint moms as out of it? Unlike “yo mama” insults, which are targeted at insulting other people’s mothers, this iteration of the joke asks us to be complicit in the disparagement of our own moms. Some millennial practitioners of the joke even view it as a term of endearment. This could be seen as a form of middle-class generational warfare: It’s a reminder that old people may have money and institutional power, but the young glean influence from their cultural cachet. What do we have if we can’t hold our youth and coolness over our parents? But for a generation that likes to view itself as so current, the new mom joke relies on some mighty outdated assumptions. It seeks to reposition mothers in their traditional roles—mom may know how to make us dinner and send care packages, but isn’t it funny how she doesn’t understand the Internet?
For women, it’s really hard to hit the sweet spot: Young women are dismissed as too naive to understand the world, but once we have kids of our own, we’re instantly infantilized again. That’s insulting to our moms, but it’s not very respectful to ourselves, either.