by JESSICA FERRI
Babysitting teaches you that no family is the same. The very first thing you notice is the house. This family has a different house from mine, it’s bigger or smaller, messier or cleaner. Living on a cul de sac, there were plenty of families to choose from. You live on a golf course in what’s called a “subdivision.” (A subdivision of what?) Sitting at the kitchen table in one home you realize you are looking at completely different part of the golf course. How does it color your life to be situated at the tee rather than on the fairway?
I started babysitting around age thirteen. I wanted spending money for trips to the mall, CDs, books and nail polish. I had adored my own babysitter, Gretchen, with her purple hair and tongue ring. I have always loved kids. It makes sense. When you’re thirteen, the idea that someone could look up to you is a big deal.
Some mothers have explicit instructions for their children: baby in bed by 7, older kids by 9, make sure everyone brushes their teeth and says their prayers. One child pointedly asked me “Are you a Catholic?” No, I responded. I was raised in the Methodist Church. “What is that?” she wondered. I replied that it was still Christian, just Protestant. “But not Catholic?” she said. No. She seemed worried by my response. Other mothers simply bounce out the door, either disheveled or looking and smelling great, breezily chirping “Thanks Jessica!” There’s a tangible sensuality when a married couple gets all dolled-up for a night on the town, leaving you in charge of their children. You are somehow complicit in their romance. You are helping them! And then: I’ll be adult like that someday, with a husband who wears aftershave, own an SUV, birth five kids. You shake it off, though.
Fridges full of carrots, or alternatively, Krispy Kreme donuts. Diet cokes with lime. Beer, or booze that under no circumstance would I ever touch. Some parents are generous. “Eat whatever you want! Watch TV!” But I was responsible. I was the babysitter.
Infants are the easiest. You simply watch them sleep, mostly — occasionally you change a diaper or you get a bottle ready. One night I put the baby down and read all of Interview with the Vampire while she slept soundly without a peep. Another night, different baby, crawled into every room of the house looking for her mom. When she reached the middle of the room and realized mom was no where to be found she would suddenly burst into uncontrollable sobs. I had no idea what to do. I tried to pick her up, but she squirmed and struggled to get away. I tried talking to her, telling her mom is coming back, I promise. I tried singing. She looked offended. Finally I gave in and cried, too. When she saw that I was crying, she stopped.
Older children can be frighteningly aggressive. They beat their younger siblings, and you have to punish them. They don’t like this, and can say things like “you aren’t my mom so you can’t tell me what do.” One little boy actually spit at me from across the room. You then must firmly respond that you are in charge and if no apologies are made there will be no SpongeBob SquarePants. Things can go awry. Juice is spilled, pants and beds are wet. Once, in a kiddie pool we were attacked by hornets. You cannot make this stuff up. I grabbed a seven year old boy, slung him around my back, and raced indoors, both of us screaming all the way.
Then they disappear. Watching four or five at a time, you look and one is gone. Oh, Christ. You’ve really done it now. You failure! You’ve lost the child. You’ll go to prison. Everything’s over. You race around the house calling and calling but nothing. You ask the eldest child, have you seen your brother? Trying not to let the overwhelming panic show on your face. “Nah,” she says. “Who knows where he is!” An hour goes by. Mom comes home. I can’t find him, you say. I can’t find your child. But she, being Mom, knows exactly where he is. At the neighbor’s, looking at the new baby. In what seems like the most gracious gesture, she isn’t even upset with you. “Don’t worry about it!”
When the adults reappear you want to tell them you people don’t know your children at all. Your eight-year-old daughter just asked me if I was a Catholic. Your son spit at me from across the room. Your baby wouldn’t stop crying. Your ten year old daughter wants to know what sex is. Did you know all this? You want to ask them. How are you doing this every day? Exhausted, bleary-eyed, I go home, cash hot in my hands, watch late-night TV, tell my own mom about the antics, and fall into a dreamless sleep.
One morning I wake up and I’m too old to babysit. A mom calls “Can you sit next Saturday?” I can’t, I have a date, or a party to go to. I have to shop for my Prom dress. I have to apply for college. Suddenly, as I drive down the street, the children I once fed, changed, and bathed are teenagers, gangly and alien. My horror is silent, but real. They are older, I am older, and before I know it I am gone.
Much later, one of them dies. A child is dead. A child who felt your legs, wondered about shaving hers. “Do you want to get married?” she once asked. I don’t know, I said. “Why not?” Well, I’m just not too sure. “But don’t you want to have babies?” Yes, I do. But sometimes you can have babies without being married. “Well, that would be weird! Who would be the Daddy?” The grief you feel is unexpected since you hadn’t even laid eyes on her in seven years. She was seventeen. And here you are, you’re twenty-four. Where am I? You feel completely lost. But you check yourself, and you think of her mother. You are, after all, the babysitter.
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