I have often wondered, during those rare times that I manage to go out in public without my children, if I bear some distinguishing mark that identifies me as a mother. Surely I must exhibit certain characteristics unique to mothers of all ages and income levels. As a bird watcher looks for an unusual crest or listens carefully for a specific songbird's call, could not a mother watcher locate a woman with children, even when she did not have her children with her? Carrying this one step further, I began to develop a theory that not only could one recognize a mother, but like the bird watcher, could identify the various stages of motherhood development through careful observation. On this premise, I have created a field guide to mothers of North America:
A hatchling mother (birth to six months) will exhibit unique characteristics. She may, while standing in line at the grocery store, gently bounce a 25 pound sack of potatoes on her hip, to keep it entertained. She may, upon hearing someone else s baby cry, quickly cross her arms over her chest to stop the involuntary milk let-down reflex. She is likely to have mastered the ability to pick up objects with her feet, without interrupting the ritual baby dance, perfected in the first six months of motherhood. She will, undoubtedly, exhibit the universal signs of new motherhood : dark half moons under the eyes, and a spit-up stain down the back of her left shoulder.
An examination of her purse contents will reveal baby Anbesol, Tylenol elixir with the eye-dropper top; the pediatrician's office beeper and home phone numbers; a two-week-old list of things to do (still undone); a few birth announcements that have not yet been addressed; and a large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol.
A nestling mother (6 to 12 months) can be picked out of a crowd by looking for a woman who double ties her shoes, smells faintly of diaper wipes and apple juice, and has one arm much stronger than the other. She will jump to catch any falling object seen out of the corner of her eye, and will have it in her hand before she is aware of having reached for it.
An examination of her purse contents will reveal a set of brightly colored plastic keys, a slightly crushed package of crackers from the salad bar two weeks ago, the contents of her wallet strewn all over the inside, a bent pair of sunglasses, and a large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol.
A fledgling mother (12 to 24 months) will exhibit a singular vocabulary, rich in two syllable words. A seemingly intelligent woman will suddenly want to use the potty or show you a boo-boo. She will be the one looking around anxiously when someone else s child calls, "Mommy!" The truly devoted one will answer, "Right here!", before embarrassment can win out over instinct. At the end of each day, she falls exhausted into bed and goes night-night.
In her purse is a crayon fragment, a half-chewed bite of the grocery store's daily free sample wrapped in a napkin, one plastic block, and a large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol.
A juvenile mother (two to five years) can also be easily recognized. Some tell-tale signs are a cartoon-character bandage on her finger, a ketchup- colored hand print streaked across her sleeve, and legs that haven't seen a razor lately. She will be the one with the grateful, silly smile on her lips when the stranger beside her has a 2-year-old clinging desperately to one leg screaming, "I want it!" When driving down the highway, you can recognize her as the one who appears to be talking loudly to herself. Closer inspection will often reveal one or more full car seats in the back. She's probably singing "The Wheels on the Bus" with gusto.
Her purse contains Band-Aids; Neosporin; a straw; a Barbie shoe or Hot Wheels car (or both); an emergency package of candy; a checkbook covered with artistic renderings of cats, flowers, and suns; and a large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol.
You will recognize the mature mother (6 to 12 years) as the one who crosses to the opposite side of the mall and quickens her speed when a toy store is spotted. Her grocery store cart will contain three packs of family-sized hot dogs, a case of Spaghettio's, and four boxes of cereal with three gallons of milk. Savvy in the appropriate value of a lost tooth when placed beneath the pillow, she is also the one who will be able to help when a stranger asks, "Does anyone have a tissue?"
This mother only appears to be by herself. Look closely: her child is probably 10 steps behind her, trailing in anguished embarrassment, trying desperately to appear alone.
An examination of her purse contents will reveal a permission slip (due yesterday), a piece of sea grass from the weekend at the beach, a wilted flower, a Gameboy cartridge, and a large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol.
In using your field guide, it is important to remember that a mother can only be spotted during special seasons of her life, and once mature, she will gradually blend back into society. Her migratory routes through Toys-R-Us and K-Mart will cease, and the basic functions of speech and concentration will slowly return.
The final challenge she faces is the difficult and emotional task of convincing her brood to leave the nest. Depending upon the migratory habits of her offspring, this may take anywhere from 18 to 36 years.