People Watching: My Tool for Predicting the Future of Motherhood


I am sitting in an airport across from a mother and her son. The mother, who I judge to be in her mid-forties, is staring at but not seeing something behind me. Her arms hug her body, wrapped in an oversized black sweater. She looks unhappy.

Like her arms, her legs are crossed. They are crossed away from her son who sits beside her chewing a wad of gum so large he can’t quite close his mouth, or at least he’s making little effort to do so. He looks to be about 16, wearing skinny jeans, Converse sneakers he’s taken a marker to, and a t-shirt from a band I imagine his mother doesn’t approve of. It’s the sort of get-up that might have caught my eye on a cute boy in the mall a decade ago. Back before I unknowingly wandered over some invisible line where, once on the other side, one begins to question why anyone would write indelibly on a perfectly good pair of shoes.

The mother leans over and offers him a bottle of water from her bag. He accepts, but doesn’t bother to remove his earbuds to engage with her, his eyes remain fixed on the screen of his smartphone. The mother and I make eye contact. I realize I’ve been staring and look away, embarrassed, while she opens the magazine in her lap.

It is this moment and many like it I’ve connected with since giving birth to my son five years ago. Before I became a mother I wouldn’t have noticed the dynamic between the pair sitting across from me in an airport terminal, standing in the grocery store aisle, or the line at the post office. Now I am fascinated by scenes like this one, these glimpses into my possible future as the mother of a pre-teen, a teenager, or even a grown man.

I now know what it is to bring a child into the world, to place their head in the bend of my neck and breathe in, relieved to know them as more than the curve of my stomach. I know the perils of parenting a toddler as they gain mobility, as they find the world with not only their eyes, but hand and mouth, or with skin against concrete. I am currently immersed in learning the ways of pre-schoolers, but there is still so much about motherhood I have yet to experience.

I am as excited as I am fearful of these yet-to-be-embarked-upon stages of life we will experience together, my son and I. It is the fear I’m focused on when the son sitting across from me gestures to a page in the magazine his mother is reading. He pulls the headphones from his ears and says something that makes her laugh. They both laugh and in that moment, I relax.

It is a lesson I have learned as much through my own experiences as I have from watching the interactions of the strangers I encounter in my day to day — motherhood will always be as bitter as it is sweet.

Photo credit: Morgue File

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