Friday, March 19, 2010

The Field Marks of Motherhood

In the well-known birders' handbook, Peterson's "Field Guide to the Birds", the illustrations clearly point out each bird's "field marks" - that is, distinctive identifiers that indicate, beyond a doubt, the identity of that bird as a member of a particular species. For example, the black-capped chickadee's distinctive - you guessed it - black cap:
Or the ruby-throated hummingbird's - you guessed it again - ruby throat:


Recently, I have begun to discover that it's not just birds who have those distinctive markings that make them so easy to identify in the field. Mothers, particularly new mothers, have a few "tells" that are unmistakable. One that I find I frequently bear myself is the decided dual scents of spit-up and formula, often with a background bouquet of just the slightest whiff of wet diaper. I was in the laundry room recently, moving a load from the washer to the dryer, when I leaned over my left (spit-up-stained) shoulder and suddenly realized: I smell like a mom!

There are many other tells as well as simple aroma. The dark circles under the eyes from midnight feedings, the constant bouncing motion that continues even when someone else is holding the baby, the tendency to lick a finger to clean someone's face or un-muss their hair, the still-unbrushed teeth at 2pm, the reflexive outstretched arm when coming to a quick stop in a car...these are all field marks that clearly identify the species Materna Americana.

With most birds and with most animals as well, the field marks serve to identify prospective mates, or to recognize territorial competitors, but with human mothers, they serve a very different purpose. They allow us to seek out others of our kind who can assure us that we are not alone, to pass along hints that are part of the great oral tradition of motherhood ("psst, it won't kill him to give him a dose of Benadryl every now and then so you can get some sleep!"), and to just give us a chance to whisper to each other knowingly, "Courage, sister!"

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