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To Mothers Who Are, and Who Aren't : Maternal care: A working mom credits other care-givers who nurture her children and help make a mother's day.

May 12, 1991|MOLLY SELVIN | Molly Selvin is research director of The Times Editorial Page

If I'm lucky, I will receive a hand-lettered Mother's Day card today from my almost-7-year-old son. And I know--because I peeked at nursery school--that my 3-year-old daughter will give me a clay handprint. It will, of course, be decorated with a ribbon and suitable for hanging.

But while these Everymother gifts are priceless, they don't belong just to me. A piece of these treasures, along with a part of my children's spirit, belongs to the other "mothers" in their lives and in mine.

After two go-rounds at this, I firmly believe that the maternal instinct is not always born with a child. Generations of older women used to nurture and teach young mothers; they eased the postpartum blues, gave tips for surviving the "terrible twos" and advised on toilet training.

Yet we charter members of the Superwoman club have not always had that network. Sometimes we spurned it, preferring to "do it all" or invent it all as we went along. But more often, relatives are too far away or we're at work. As a result, "mothering" has become commercialized. We consult "lactation specialists," call "warm lines" for advice and attend parent "training" classes.

But my children have been lucky. Nathan and Miriam have had other "mothers"--men and women, some who are mothers, technically speaking, and several who are not.

My children have had Louise. Through each one's infancy and toddlerhood, "Wheezy," as dozens of children have called her for more than 20 years, cared for my children in her home five days a week, 51 weeks a year. She taught my kids to walk, share toys and use a spoon. But she taught me even more. When I could only see Nathan as an exasperatingly inconsolable infant, and later as a fearful toddler, Louise saw a different and happier child. She insisted that with her he laughed and was gregarious. She helped me relax and laugh with him and she knew that eventually he--and I--would be "just fine."

My children also have had their great Uncle Buddy next door. At 70, Uncle Bud can express more genuine enthusiasm than TV's Mr. Rogers over a wooden boat or a crayon drawing. Watching him, I've learned to listen more intently to my children and to understand more keenly what gives them pleasure.

A few special friends with no children of their own or with grown children talk to Miriam and Nathan more as adults than young kids. The evident anticipation with which my kids await a visit from Rob or Susan or Pat or Andrew has given me a sense of which adults they like and why. And during these intermittent encounters, I see my kids in a kind of fast-forward, as suddenly more mature and, I must acknowledge, worthy of more responsibility and independence.

Nathan and Miriam will eventually have the final say on my mettle as a mother, but if my reviews are any good, I'll share the credit, as they say at the Oscars, with several others. They taught this mother much of what little she claims to know about the business.

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