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Mom Milestones

As a first-time mom, I dutifully  -- my husband might say "obsessively"  -- wrote down my son's every new experience and accomplishment.

Henry's first bath: 6 days old.

First smile: 6 1/2 weeks old.

First mimicked sounds: 6 months old.

Taken together, these events paint a portrait of a baby's progress. But a new mom undergoes just as many miraculous changes as her baby does. So where's my list of memorable moments?

Although these eight milestones don't appear in any fill-in-the-blank baby book, and their timing varies from mom to mom, each is a true turning point:

Admitting you can't do it alone

It's one thing to read in pregnancy guides that you should enlist help with the baby. It's another to follow that advice. Most new moms are good at accepting the random casserole but not so good at asking friends and family to babysit or run errands. Needing a hand isn't a sign of weakness; it's a normal by-product of early motherhood's demands.

It took Tonya Hawkins of Dunmor, Kentucky, four months after her daughter Caidence's birth to ask for help. With her husband at work, mother five hours away, and mother-in-law grieving over her best friend's death, Hawkins didn't want to inconvenience anyone. "I was doing everything myself, so I felt I should be able to keep it up," she says.

But one day, when dirty dishes filled the sink, laundry piled to the ceiling, and she hadn't managed a home-cooked meal in days, Hawkins knew she needed to stop trying to do it all. "Only after I'd completely exhausted myself did I realize 'Hey, I need help!'" she says. The people in her life  -- who assumed she was managing fine, since she insisted she was  -- were happy to pitch in. Now, for instance, her mother-in-law watches Caidence once a week and helps Hawkins clean. "It's really boosted my spirits and energy," she says.

Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of Momfidence! An Oreo Never Killed Anybody and Other Secrets of Happier Parenting.

Realizing you're actually somebody's mother

I'll never forget the forms I filled out for my days-old son at the pediatrician's office. "Henry Hartsfield Spencer," I wrote for the first time since his arrival. Even more thrilling was the blank for "Relationship to patient." Mother. On an intellectual level you know you're a mom. But the first time you're identified as such by the outside world  -- wow!

The I-am-a-mom moment for Lynn Lombard of Akron, New York, came when she picked up her 5-month-old daughter from the sitter. A little girl at the sitter's house sang out, "Amanda's mommy is here!" "It suddenly hit me," Lombard says. "Yes, I am a mommy! It was a wonderful feeling  -- and being called a mommy still feels great."

Doing mom duty  -- in public

When I first ventured into the world with my newborn, I used to think everyone around me was sizing up my mothering skills-how well I lifted the baby out of the carrier or changed a diaper or soothed a whimper. It required a leap of confidence to do these things where anyone besides my forgiving baby could see me.

Sometimes you plan for this milestone and sometimes, as Shannon Cornaby of Sahuarita, Arizona, discovered, you're thrust into it. She and her husband had just arrived at a restaurant with another family when 3-month-old Sarah began to wail. Cornaby had never nursed in public and was worried about trying. "But the choices were doing it, disturbing people with crying, or leaving," she says.

So she propped Sarah on her leg and started breast-feeding, struggling to ignore that her face was turning red. Then her friend surprised her by mentioning how calmly she could nurse in public. It proved a watershed moment: By the time Cornaby had her second baby, Noah, she was comfortable breastfeeding pretty much anyplace.

Making a mom friend

Sure, your prebaby friends are still your friends (when you get the chance to see them). But having a baby allows for a new kind of camaraderie  -- "momaraderie," the fast bonds you form with other mothers simply because you gave birth around the same time.

Katie Pabst of Tucson, Arizona, longed to talk to other moms after her daughter Rachael was born. "But none of my friends had kids," says Pabst. While visiting a park when Rachael was 8 months old, Pabst saw a mother with a baby, but was too shy to approach her. "Later, one of the wheels on Rachael's stroller popped off. That mom I had seen spotted me and offered me the exact part I needed to reattach the wheel!" The two then walked together and traded stories of sleepless nights and little victories. "We're still friends four years later," Pabst says.

You don't have to wait for fate to bring you mom friends. Contact your childbirth-class instructor and see if she can put you in touch with members from your group. Check the bulletin board at your pediatrician's office and your local newspaper for mothers' groups. Register with gotkidsnetwork.com

Feeling human again

There's a reason they call the first weeks after delivery "the fourth trimester." You need time apart from the rest of the world for recovery and newborn care. Your work, your interests, and even your mate fade into a postpartum whiteout. Gradually, though, the fog begins to lift, and you start to reclaim your brain  -- and body.

Dressing in an outfit that doesn't include maternity jeans or an oversize top feels great, but parting with your pregnancy clothes isn't always easy. I couldn't do it until I attended an all-employees meeting at my company. I looked at the big denim shirt and black stretch pants that had become my postbaby uniform and was seized with the urge to do better. I broke down and bought clothes that weren't my old size but weren't maternity wear, either.

"I didn't want to stop wearing maternity clothes because I was hiding in them," says Maribelle Lewis, a mother of two in Avenel, New Jersey. "When I finally got the courage to donate them, my husband started surprising me with hip clothes. He helped me realize that just because I'm a mother doesn't mean I have to dress like a great-grandmother!"

Laughing at motherhood

New parents tend to take their responsibilities rather seriously. And why not? You're charged with keeping a tiny, helpless human alive. But when you watch your mate get sprayed in the face during a diaper change or you hear ear-splitting snores over the baby monitor, you discover a fabulous, hidden side to parenthood: Kids are natural-born comedians.

Sitting in the hushed stillness of her ob-gyn's waiting room, Lupe Ramirez and her mother watched baby Araceli drift off to sleep after her bottle. Suddenly, the 6-week-old belched. "It wasn't a sweet, ladylike burp  -- it was a loud beer drinker's burp," says the Chicago mom. "Everyone looked up from their magazines. My mom asked if that was me! I had to say it was the sleeping baby. We still laugh about it today."

Handling the impossible

So much of motherhood is a vast unknown. It always will be, but at first you're so filled with apprehension, like you're going uphill on a roller coaster, that you can't relax. Eventually, though, insecurity crystallizes into confidence. Like a girl hero in a novel, it dawns on you that you can manage whatever this baby throws at you.

Or poops on you. Kelly McElwain was at Disney World watching a Lion King show when 7-week-old Kate had a diaper blowout that made a mess of McElwain and her 2-year-old daughter, Taylor. "I never knew I could hold a newborn and change a wiggly, screaming toddler at the same time," says the mom from Davidsville, Pennsylvania. "The rest of the week was a breeze. And I learned to pack an extra T-shirt for myself, instead of just outfits for the kids, wherever we go."

Believing you're a good mom

It takes the happy combination of confidence and common sense to reach the best milestone of all: the knowledge that you are swell at mothering, just by being you.

Like many new moms, Richelle Morgan of Portland, Oregon, assumed being a "good mom" meant doing it all: working, pumping, making baby food from scratch, and being on hyperalert "to avoid making a horrible mistake," she says. She plowed on until her daughter, Eliza, was 8 months old and Morgan was sick with cold after cold. "I came to understand that everything I was doing was great, but it wasn't what made me a good mother," Morgan says. "I put away the pump, sent formula to daycare, and bought some jarred food. It was liberating to realize that I'm a good mom because I love my daughter  -- not because I only give her breast milk or puree organic peas."

My version of this epiphany came as I shared a teary goodbye with my own mother after a month of her helping me with Henry. What would I do without her?

Her parting words were, "You'll be fine. You're a good mom!" She wasn't one to give out rootless praise, so I clung to those words' echo as I headed back into the house. "It's just you and me till Daddy comes home," I said to my little guy. He stared back. We went about our day of feedings, diaperings, a stroller walk, a run to the store, and colicky screams. I was fine. By the time my husband came home, I felt, for the first time, like I could handle motherhood. My mom had called it  -- and now I knew it was true. I was a good mom, or good enough, anyway, which should be good enough for anybody.

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