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It’s everywhere. It’s embroidered on sweatshirts and hats. It’s printed on mugs and jewelry. Pictures and videos use the hashtag.

But what does being a “mama bear” really mean?

Growing up my cousin, Amy, was called a mama bear. But sometimes it was said as a backhanded compliment. When she wanted a home birth, people called her a mama bear. When she didn’t want people kissing her child during flu season or she fed her son certain foods and used specific lotions because he had eczema, people called her a mama bear. Basically, when she did anything that did not align with other people’s opinions or parenting styles, she was called a mama bear. And, people didn’t say it kindly.

What the heck is a mama bear?

Urban Dictionary’s top definition is: “A mom who can be cuddly and lovable but also has a ferocious side when it’s necessary to protect her cubs.” Oh, so basically she’s a good parent then? Because the opposite of protecting your baby is neglecting your baby. Therefore, it’s good to protect them. 

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It’s also a good idea not to cross them. Mama humans might not be 7 feet tall and 325 pounds with strong paws and sharp teeth, but we can make you back off with our words and our actions. And, we will. 

The real definition: A mama bear is a mama with boundaries.

A woman who parents the best way she can for her child, and a woman who doesn’t apologize for her choices. A mama bear is a woman who asserts herself in any way as a parent. She says no. She doesn’t succumb to other people’s opinions and ideas of how she should parent—she does it her way. Because she knows her way is the right way for her baby. 

Do we all want to be mama bears? 

I realized I wanted to be just like my cousinI wanted to be a mama bear. I became pregnant and found myself thinking of how that mama bear parented. Something deep within me gravitated toward her style. I loved how she parented in her own way because she could. I loved how she set boundaries that made her comfortable and stuck by her choices because she could. I loved that she was kind and loving and firm. She didn’t apologize for how she parented. She was driven by instinct. She was not just a mama bear to me, she was the mama I wanted to be

The problem with being a mama bear is people don’t always like you.

In fact, they will openly make fun of you because asserting yourself as a mama intimidates them. It makes them feel threatened. And that’s OK. Being protective is normal and natural for a mama.

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“Mothers are biologically driven to protect, care for and motivate their children to succeed,” wrote Rebecca M. Fischer, a researcher at the University of Richmond, in a review of the psychological mechanisms of motherhood.

I didn’t want people kissing my baby for the first few months of her life (pre-COVID-19), and I still don’t. I’m called a mama bear.

I didn’t feed my baby solids until she was almost 8 months old, I was called a mama bear.

I wore my baby in a wrap (a lot) for the first year of her life, and I got called a mama bear.

People who aren’t very close to me can’t hold my child. Or, if I let them, they won’t hold her for long, and I get called a mama bear.

I don’t let my child FaceTime everyone, and I get called a mama bear.

I don’t let unhealthy family members into her life, I get called a mama bear.

Here’s the truth: if you make any decision about your child’s well-being that someone doesn’t agree with, and you stand by that choice, you will be called a mama bear. 

If you won’t let Aunt Mary smother your baby in kisses, she might call you a mama bear. If you don’t allow your mother-in-law to feed your baby, she might call you a mama bear. If you tell Karen that your child can’t watch that movie, she might call you a mama bear.

RELATED: You Are the Mom. Period.

Early in motherhood, this bothered me. I felt like it was an insult. Anytime I did something someone didn’t like, they would use the label, “mama bear.” It felt derogatory. But now, I love it, because I own it.

I know in this big, deep, protective, mama-bear heart of mine, that it’s the greatest compliment. 

So go right ahead . . . call me a mama bear.

I’ll pause, smile, and say thank you.

I pause to recognize that you think you’re giving me an underhanded compliment.

I smile because I know what being a mama bear truly means—I am a kick-butt mama.

I say a sincere “thank you” so you know I’m proud of the mama I am.

Originally published on the author’s blog

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Abigail Granner

Abigail Granner is a freelance health writer, a certified personal trainer via the American Council on Exercise, and an uncertified coffee and coconut milk expert. Read more of her work at abigailgranner.com.

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