If you try to research the origins of the term “mama bear,” you’ll learn there’s not a go-to instance in which the expression was popularized. According to Wikipedia, “mama bear has been used in the sense of “a woman who is extremely protective of a child or children” since at least the 1990s.” But many point to the term “mama grizzly” as being directly associated with the 2008 run by esteemed U.S. politician Sarah Palin, who used the term to refer to herself, and whose philosophy of fierce mama pride trickled into the psyches of thousands of mothers across America. It was around this time that I began hearing the term more regularly in popular culture, and soon enough it made its way into STFU, Parents submissions. If there’s one way to quickly describe your stance on motherhood — particularly on the internet via a mom blog, a parenting forum board, or on social media — it’s by identifying as a mama bear. (Or a momma bear, mamma bear, or mama grizzly, depending on your geographical region and/or proximity to actual bears.)
The expression is used so often now, it almost comes off as satire when a woman uses it. It’s the “boy who cried wolf” of parenting terminology, being tossed around regardless of any real or perceived danger. Forget about the notion that a mother might fly into a rage if someone tries to harm her child; the term “mama bear” now tends to refer to a state of mind. Would you rip the limbs off a criminal who attempts to kidnap your child? What about an old man who doesn’t smile back at your baby at the grocery store? For a lot of moms in 2014, associating with mama bear-ism establishes that you’re a good mom. Being ready to pounce, nonretractile claws freshly sharpened and manicured, means you don’t take any shit from anyone, especially if a situation involves your child(ren). Nowadays, it’s typical for a woman to post something on Facebook like, “I’m about to go full-force mama bear on the person standing in front of me at the bank!” No threatening scenario must first be presented; rather, a person can simply be standing in a quiet, uniform line and deserve the fury of a mama bear’s primal rage for some nondescript and potentially unknown reason.
Therefore, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the majority of comments in response to mama bear posts on social media are overwhelmingly supportive, if not downright provocative. “Rip her hair out, mama!” might be exclaimed alongside comments like, “Nobody messes with the mama bear!” or, “Take charge, mama! Grrrr!” For all the progress that’s been made to de-popularize jokes about female “cat fights” in popular culture in recent years, it’s a little ironic that women are leading the pack, if you will, to normalize the stereotype of the modern mama bear. The term may make some mothers feel empowered or united, but to me it comes across as a tired trope that’s rooted less in “motherly instinct” than the idea of mothers being rabid, irrational, violent attackers.
Yet despite this shift in how mama bears are perceived, the term still resonates with a wide range of women, from crafty, “docile” Pinterest moms to aggressive, Type A moms who might appear on the local news. The meaning has been blurred by the Sarah Palins, the “mama grizzlies” who encourage mothers to react on behalf of their “cubs” (something the Palin family continues to prove to this day), but the expression’s popularity is decidedly on the rise. Even Mariska Hargitay’s character Olivia Benson on the long-running cop drama “S.V.U.” is now being positioned as a mama bear to appeal to young women and presumably boost ratings. At this point, the average woman likely responds (instinctively, of course) to the words “mama bear” with the feeling of either intense kinship or reflexive laughter, as though she’s just heard the punchline to a joke. I clearly fall into the latter category, but for the sake of exploring the former, let’s take a look at some different types of mama bears. After all, only eight species of bears are extant in the Urisdae family, but who knows how many species of mama bears there are in the entire animal kingdom?
1. Exhausted Mama Bear
The exhausted mama bear has no time to hibernate. She is folding, washing, cooking, driving, and cleaning. She is up all night with her precious cubs, and she is stressed with work and life. She has no patience for your stupid, selfish bullshit. Are you in the exhausted mama bear’s way? Well, then, get OUT of the way. This Mama Bear is one snarly step away from marring someone’s face. Consider yourself warned.
2. Unhinged Mama Bear
First, allow me to say that I’m not trying to trash talk Carole’s difficult son. I don’t know if the kid has a learning disability, emotional problems, or if he’s just every administrator’s worst disciplinary nightmare. I have no idea. That said, based on Carole’s status update, I’m going to assume that he fits in the final category and has learned everything he knows from his unhinged mama bear of a mother. Anyone who begins a social media update with, “So apparently the high school didn’t get the memo that I am a bitch” sounds like a real joy to deal with in a scholastic setting.
3. “Momma Bear” Protectors Of The Free World
This is a frequent — and frequently stupid — response from “mama bears” regarding current events and large-scale global issues. Whether a news story is about a suicide bombing, a mass shooting in a school, the threat of chemical warfare, or the problem of eradicating world hunger, mama bears (or, “Momma Bears”) are on the trail and poised to attack (according to the internet comments). In this case, a “Momma Bear” is responding to a Daily Mail article about terrorism with the argument that brutal fanatics haven’t met their match until they meet a Momma Bear from the good ol’ U.S. of A. This particular Momma Bear probably stands on her porch each day just waiting for a brutal fanatic to show up with a machete and some pipe bombs. Ha ha, that no good terrorist wouldn’t even know what’s comin’ to him until it hit him in the face with the force of a 300-pound ursine body, not unlike a military tank covered in fur. You want some of this, brutal fanatics??? Well BRING IT ON, bitches!
4. The “Reserved” Mama Bear
This thread is more like “the makings of a mama bear.” How do you build a mama bear? Easy. You tell her child what to do. It doesn’t matter if you are the child’s teacher, dentist, or a random server at a cafe, because exactly none of those people have the right to tell a child what to do. Especially if the child is wonderfully behaving himself while wasting perfectly good salt paid for a restaurant, because what’s the harm in doing that?! Only a very bitter, very childless server would take a salt shaker out of a tiny, precious, sensitive child’s itty bitty hands and remove his ability to dump more salt on the table.
Who cares if the waitress has to clean it up later? Hello, that’s their job! Would that same waitress just walk up to an adult making a salt pile on a table (as rational adults are wont to do) and grab the shaker out of the adult’s hands? Hell no! Because it would be wrong! Only a mother can understand this level of protective maternal instinct. It begins deep down as a quiet growl, but by the time a child is in grade school, he’ll have a full-fledged bear for a mama! RAWR!
5. Emo Mama Bear
These women sound like mama bears who’ve been shot with tranquilizer darts. Like, okay, y’all, we get it — being pregnant is glorious, and children can see little halos around the fetuses in your belly or whatever. Cool. But is it really necessary to say stuff like, “It’s a mommy thing,” and, “Kids and babies know you’re pregnant before you do”?! I want to be “ultra sensitive” to what Kelly means when she says that being around children after becoming a “mama bear” is “so surreal, majestic, and gut-wrenching,” but I think my less-than-ultra sensitive nerve endings around my heart must be holding me back from taking her seriously. Instead, I feel like the evil child in this video.
6. Look Out World: We Have A Momma Lion
A few years after Palin introduced “mama grizzly” to the mainstream, Amy Chua educated the masses about being a tiger mom. Mothers started wondering where they fell on the spectrum and what all of these animal mothers signified in relation to them. Does every mother connect to a mother animal, and if so, how will she know which one she is? The important thing to remember is that over two million animal species have been identified on the planet, so even if you don’t self-identify with a bear or a tiger, there are plenty of other animals in the sea, so to speak. In the meantime, mama lions, mama tigers, and mama bears (OH, MY!) will continue to roam the earth, fiercely caring for their young, and lying in wait for something in the real world to set them off so they can rant about it online.