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Mother of all seasons

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It's fitting that Mother's Day occurs in the spring, but not because life is bursting out all over. It's fitting because spring is when daycare centers and kindergartens need to know your plans for next fall. Will you stay at home with your kids (if you're lucky enough to have choices)? Start working or increase your hours?

            Instead of leading to cut-and-dried answers, these questions often lead to the Big Philosophical Questions, like: "Who am I?" and "What was I put on this earth to do?"

            I blame Maternal Stockholm Syndrome. It's not unlike Stockholm Syndrome, named after a group of people in Sweden who were kidnapped by bank robbers and grew to identify with their captors. Maternal Stockholm Syndrome is what happens to us when we've spent just a little too much time nursing, pacing, wiping, bathing, singing, and patty-caking.

            If you've had the resources and desire to stay home with your child and you haven't gone broke or bonkers, you're already ahead of the game. At some point, though, it's time to plan a return to work. But mothers worry that in caring for our children, we've lost something of our old selves. Of course we love our little captors. How could we not? They're, well, captivating. But there's a downside.

            The tone of our conversations has swung from the extreme irony of our child-free years to the mind-melting sincerity of parenthood. Black clothes reveal the spit-up, so we now wear "fun" colors. Gorgeous Italian shoes don't do sandbox time so well, so we wear sneakers. Showers become so infrequent that they replace hot sex in our fantasy lives; our neglected hair flies in wisps all around our heads.

            Not only do we identify with our captors, we look like them. How can we ever go back to work? Who on earth would hire us?

I made a break for it. After 18 months of cooing and coloring, I decided I should either go back to work or just stick my brain in the microwave and be done with it. When I landed an interview for a PR/marketing job, I polished my job-lady pumps and squeezed into an old power suit. I don't know what I was more excited about --- the prospect of making money or having access to, in my friend Michelle's words, the "adults-only bathroom."

            My prospective employer, an older man, and I chatted as we drove to the lunch interview. I astonished myself at how well I was doing --- I could talk like a grown-up! I remembered what a marketing plan was! Just as the shiny brass ring of having a real life dangled within reach, I had the great misfortune of noticing a train passing overhead on an elevated track.

            "Oh, looky! A choo-choo," I squealed.

What hubris to think I had any control over my life. I was in denial about being in the grips of Maternal Stockholm Syndrome (M.S.S.). My only comfort, other than vowing to carry cyanide pills from then on, was that any mother worth her salt would understand why this happened.

            This is where the M.S.S. pedal hits the metal: As mothers we know that we are our infants' and toddlers' windows to the world. There is nothing more important to them --- and therefore, to us --- than a big noisy train, a grazing horsey, or a rainbow. So sometimes when we're out with "grown-ups," we forget ourselves. Recall that now-mythic story of the mom who, at a dinner party, cut up the meat of the man sitting next to her.

            Maternal Stockholm Syndrome is, in the final analysis, a disorder of the willing. If you postponed working and opted for the baby-talking, sing-songing lifestyle, it's inevitable that you're going to feel a little of your gray matter leaking out of your ear and running down your neck. But you knew that when you signed on. Like most people, though, you'll try to keep your M.S.S. a secret. No one wants to be viewed by other adults as dopey or baby-obsessed.

Speaking of which, what would a Mother's Day column be without a little teary-eyed sentimentality? As sure as spring turns to summer, your little tots will grow up, go to school, and leave you alone with nothing but your spit-up-stained pastel clothes, monosyllabic vocabulary, and a wicked M.S.S. hangover. And you'll miss those little cutie-patooties. Aww.

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