BETHEL PARK, Pa. (AP) — Like a high-noon shootout in the old West, I raced toward the empty ‘‘stork’’ parking space at my local grocery store and found myself bumper to bumper with another mom driving a large gold SUV.
I had been gunning for weeks for one of those spaces set aside for pregnant women and new mothers, and now, at 8 months pregnant, thought this was finally my day.
But looking down at the SUV’s flashing blinker, I deferred and drove past, instead pulling into an empty spot about 10 spaces away and resigning myself to the long walk.
As I waddled past the SUV, I saw the stick-thin woman get out of her car, and take a child about 4 or 5 years old out of the back seat.
That was it. No baby bump. No new baby in a car seat. No gaggle of small children in tow.
Why was she entitled to that space and not me? Then again, was I more entitled than anyone else just because I had a belly the size of a large bowling ball?
Stork parking spaces started appearing in store parking lots many years ago, though their exact origin is unclear. They can be a lifesaver for new and expecting moms, an annoyance to motorists who don’t believe in the special treatment and a pain for some disabled drivers who feel the reserved spaces take away from those who really deserve them.
‘‘We started seeing it in the last couple of years, mainly in shopping centers with supermarkets,’’ said Erin Hershkowitz, a spokeswoman for the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade organization. ‘‘Basically it’s just for mothers who are expecting and to make the shopping experience more comfortable and convenient for them.’’
The idea has spurred other kinds of special spaces as well, including parking spaces reserved for hybrid cars that have popped up over the last few years at everything from grocery stores to office buildings.
Babies R Us, which has 250 stores across the U.S., had been offering stork parking since its first store opened in 1996 in Westbury, N.Y. The number of spaces varies from store to store, depending on the size of the parking lot and lease restrictions, and there are no laws governing the spaces.
The store offers the spaces simply as a convenience, similar to the baby care rooms that are also in every store, said Jamie Beal, a Babies R Us spokeswoman.
‘‘We want to make ourselves an invaluable partner in preparing for and raising baby,’’ Beal said.
Some pregnant customers use the spaces, while others prefer to park farther away to get more exercise, Beal said.
In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists promotes safe exercise such as walking during pregnancy as a way to combat fatigue and promote health.
‘‘Exercise during pregnancy can help prepare you for labor and childbirth. Exercising afterward can help get you back in shape,’’ according to the group’s Web site.
(Hmmmm. Maybe I shouldn’t complain so much about the long walk in the parking lot after all.)
In March, California state lawmakers considered a proposal that would allow some pregnant women or new moms to park in spaces reserved for the disabled. The bill didn’t make it out of committee.
Opponents, including some advocates for the disabled and women’s groups, argued that the bill wasn’t necessary. They said if pregnant women have special medical conditions that qualify them for a disabled parking permit, there are already procedures they can follow in California — and some other states — to get temporary disabled placards.
Shannon Smith-Crowley, a California lobbyist for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the bill’s sponsor had good intentions, but that it isn’t appropriate to label pregnant women as disabled.
‘‘Most pregnant women are able, and in fact are encouraged, to be physically active. Walking is the best form of exercise for most of these women. In the event they are unable to walk greater distances, they can ask for, and obtain a placard. There is no reason why a physically capable pregnant woman should be using the limited number handicapped parking spaces when there are people who truly need them,’’ Smith-Crowley wrote in a March 2008 letter to the bill’s sponsor.
Smith-Crowley said she sees stork parking as a completely separate issue, since it’s something stores usually do as a customer service and it usually doesn’t take away from existing handicapped parking spaces.
Gloria Kraemer, 51, of Long Island, N.Y., started a Web site in the late 1990s advocating for parking for pregnant women or mothers with young children. The oldest of her four daughters are 18-year-old twins, and she never had the opportunity to park in stork spaces but remembers thinking there was a need for them.
‘‘With the twins, I was really OK. I could handle them in the parking lot. I had the double stroller,’’ Kraemer said. ‘‘But adding that third one, I thought, ’Now there really should be something for moms.’’’
Kraemer said she sees it primarily as a safety issue. And she said the last thing she would want to do is take away spots set aside for handicapped motorists.
‘‘My concern is for the safety of children and pregnant women,’’ she said. ‘‘As life gets busier, people are more careless in their driving. Cell phone to ear, trying to adjust a/c, fiddling with the iPod while driving. All these things create more accidents even in parking lots.’’
On Monday night, I stopped at my local grocery store again just to grab a few items. There it was again — the stork parking space, completely empty. I made it there without competition, and parked.
No guilt. No second thoughts. No entitlement.
After all, this wasn’t a right. It was purely a convenience. So why not?
I grabbed a cart and swiftly made it through the aisles, picking up juice boxes and lunchmeat for my daughter’s summer camp lunches, then a fresh loaf of bread. I paid, left the store and walked my cart to my car just four spaces from the store’s front door.
Ahhh. A quick, convenient trip.
Until I had to return the cart to its rightful place — several more spaces down the row.