The change happens some time between 8 and 10 in the morning as my neighbors and I walk out our doors, briefcases in hand, and head toward the Woodley Park- Zoo stop. Behind us on the sidewalk or front steps we leave our children -- the one-year- olds trying to walk, the two-year-olds trying to sweep the sidewalks with baby brooms, the three-year-olds trying to play catch, or, failing that, trying to take away the two-year-olds' brooms.
To the eye, the scene is a happy commonplace, repeated as many times as there are neighborhoods. It takes an ear to catch the change and understand it.
For the warning voice directed at a toddler heading boldly toward a step he cannot master says not, "Watch Out!" but "Cuidado!" The affectionate diminutives bestowed on these grimy and winsome creatures are not "Sweetheart," or "Honey," but "Mi Amor" and "Amorcito."
Don't misunderstand: This is not, by and large, a Latino neighborhood, nor an enclave of would-be-Spanish-speakers trying out new-found phrases on captive children. What it happenning is simpler, and perhaps more profound. Between 8 and 10 o'clock, many of the mothers of my neighborhood join the fathers heading downtown to an office. Behind us we leave our children and our homes -- a sizeable portion of our lives -- in the care of others.
So for a time our neighborhood belongs not to us, the mothers, but to our chosen surrogates. The mingling that a generation ago would have been woven into the fabric of our days is woven into theirs instead: the borrowings of sugar, milk or eggs, the commiseration over a child's illnesses, the admiration evoked by a new tooth or new word, the anger at fast- moving cars on our quiet street, the chat with the mailman, the expeditions to the sea lions' pool at the zoo.
As it happens, thanks to Washington's demographics or the world's, most of the women we pay to care for our children and our homes were born in Bogota or Lima or San Salvador; the language of their lullabies is the language of Cervantes and Garcia Marquez. And it is now the language of our children: My 15-month-old son could point to his "nariz" long before he figured out where his nose was; my neighbor's 20-month-old can say "zapato" (or at least "pato") while the sound of "shoe" still eludes him. Another young neighbor, in the midst of celebrating her second birthday, proudly counted, "one, two, three . .." to 10, and then 10 "uno, dos, tres" to "diez."
Of course, the fact that the preschool children in one small corner of Woodley Par are cared for by someone other than their mothers is nothing new; the children of 19th-century European nobles and American slaves were cared for by someone other than their mothers; the history of child-rearing probably is filled with as many surrogate mothers as real ones -- grandmothers and nurses and governesses and aunts and tutors and who knows what else.
The generation of working mothers to which I happen to belong is hardly the first group of women in history to go to work, as a result of choice or economic or both, leaving small children behind.
Yes, the choices have changed somewhat over the years -- there is more economically and intellectually rewarding work available outside the home for us than there was a generation or two ago, and more acceptance of the mothers who leave home for all or part of the day to do that work. The cottage industry of working mothers providing helpful hints to their fellows has gone big-time; the magazine "Working Mother" now sells 400,000 copies a month; three months ago Time magazine devoted 61/2 pages of text and color photos to proving the thesis that pregnancy is the new in thing among women lawyers, doctors, reporters and movie stars. There are also many more books by pediatricians, psychologists and other professional kid-watchers propounding political, medical and sociological theories about childbearing.
The media attention given to working mothers could make us feel we are somehow special, different from the women who came before; the books and theories give us plenty of intellectual support, whether we choose to be self-confident or anxiety-ridden or seesaw between the two. But a look at the rhythm of my neighborhood tells me far more about the choices we've made than my bookshelf or magazine rack can.
We have decided to let other women replace our lives with their own for those six or eight or ten hours a day, and replace our hugs and lullabies and discipline and dancing with their own. Sometimes when I come home my son clings to his babysitter, preferring her arms to my own, and I joke about my jealousy to keep it manageable.
To cut the gap between my son's daytime world with his babysitter and his evening world with my husband and me, I try to learn the key Spanish phrases in his life, then idly wonder how far I could get in Santiago or Madrid saying things like "No en la basura!" ("Not in the garbage!"), "Como hace el perro?" ("How does the dog talk?") and "Donde est,a la nariz?" ("Where is your nose?")
In some ways, the changeover is painful, because it shows me the price I pay for the work I enjoy. In other ways, it is a gift, because it is such an affirmation of how little of a neighborhood is bound up in the architecture or the azaleas, and how much is bound up in the people who inhabit it. Those inhabitants may change during the day, but some things don't: In whatever language, with whatever words, for whatever reasons, our children are loved even when we are not here. That doesn't change.
And at night I come back, reclaim my child and my house, and go through a litany of questions about everything from his encounters with neighborhood dogs to the workings of his gastrointestinal system. I turn him upside down, tickle his belly, read him a book and start getting dinner ready. There are sometimes reminders of my absence -- the TV and radio tuned in to Spanish-language stations, the random toys or dishes that belong to my next-door neighbor or her next- door neighbor or someone around here. But they don't matter much; until the next morning, I am home.
So, greeting-card dealers, go ahead and push the myth of the mother so people will buy cards and flowers for Mother's Day. The reality of family life may have changed a lot since 1914, when Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed the day. We may no longer be honoring a single self-sacrificing individual who does most of the work of loving and raising her children. I don't think that matters much. It's enough to let the day honor all who bring their love to the task.