Still the Babysitter, After All These Years
Barnard Magazine, Spring 2000.
We step out of the building into the soft spring night and the next thing I see, Nick's lighting a cigarette, taking a deep drag as we cross Lexington Avenue. There's barely a pause in the conversation we began after leaving his mother's apartment she made a wonderful dinner for us until Nicks stops suddenly on 74th Street and says, "Thanks for not saying anything about this," and nods at the cigarette. He's used to my weighing in on his welfare; I've been doing it for twenty-six years.
"That's all right, one of my other kids smokes too," I say without thinking and startle myself with the easy but not technically accurate choice of words. I have no children, but there are now in my life three not-such-young adults, all in their late twenties, whom I've known since I babysit for them when I was in college across Central Park, families I found through the Barnard College babysitting service.
In those days, my best friend thought it was weird and a little pitiful that I babysat so much. I insisted to her that I did it for the money. But I knew even then, on Saturday nights when I would sometimes cancel a date to babysit and sometimes, with families who knew me well, bring the boyfriend along, that money was only part of it. I needed to be near a family that seemed to be working. I needed the company of the parents of these children, whose apartments were filled with books, whose conversation was filled with ideas, learning, wit and what seemed like sanity all in short supply in my own family, which had blown apart during my last year of high school.
But even before that, the role models it offered were of another sort. One of the years my father's business did well, he hired a violinist to serenade guests at a party, playing songs from Man of La Mancha and Breakfast at Tiffany's. The movie my family more closely resembled when I was in college was Days of Wine and Roses, about a sharp reversal of family fortune brought on by alcoholism. After my parents separated, my sister and mother moved to a one-bedroom apartment and lived on her salary as a secretary. I went to Barnard on scholarships, loans, and babysitting money. I had almost nothing to do with my alcoholic father for many years; very little, I'm sorry to say, with my struggling mother and sister; and was so strapped for money that dinner was often yogurt or a slice of pizza.
I am sure the two families I babysat for most often, and am still close to, had no idea how dire my circumstances were or that I needed anything from them beyond the money they paid me. But in those years when I was unhappier than I have ever been, I was genuinely happy when I went to take care of their children, acting out not fantasies of motherhood but of childhood, having chosen the parents I much preferred, back then, to my own. And I was happiest, delirious really, when they invited me to sit with them and their friends after their evenings out, even though I might perch?? mutely on the couch for an hour, intimidated by all the things and people they knew. Decades later, I joked with them that I had had the good sense to babysit up.
For fifteen years I was out of touch with one of the families. Serendipitously, five years ago, we ended up in the same university town. The children were grown, I was married, though soon to divorce, and teaching for several years at the same university as their father. I have spent a lot of time in their house since then, sleeping in a spare bedroom, getting to know the adults I took care of when they were infants and toddlers, and the parents I could only idealize when I was in college. Though the younger children have few memories of my taking care of them, the fact that I did and that I have memories of them has a sweet intimacy for all of us. Occasionally I can even tell them something that went on in those days, when they were learning to walk, talk and read, that only an outsider fleetingly allowed inside could know.
Babysitters and child minders come to public attention only when something goes wrongas it did with British nanny Louise Woodward or with Michael Kennedy, who had a romance with his children's babysitteror when we focus on the complex social issue of child care. Literature's most famous child minder, Jane Eyre, compels us not because she took good care of a child but because she fell in love with the child's father. A position meant to last for the child's youth became "til death do us part."
In two notable short stories, James Salter's chilling "Foreign Shores" and Robert Coover's ribald "The Babysitter," the teenage girls, once a Dutch au pair, the other a neighborhood girl working for the evening, are clearly fated to be transient characters in their fictional families. Babysitters, like pediatricians, aren't meant to stick around indefinitely.
But interesting things can happen if we do.
We are raised to think and Freudian psychology and its offspring tell us that significant relationships fall into a handful of categories What's interesting to me as I consider the relationships I have now with the kids I used to take care of and their parents is the surprising multiplicity of connections between us, because of my having come into their families the way I did. Because I began as neither the parents' friend nor the child's, I seem to have the trust of both sides. I am family without the emotional baggage; an intimate who stays out of and always has their power struggles. I've got my own family for those.
Because of the unusual fence I straddle, I am occasionally the goodwill ambassador, straightening out a kid's misperception about a parent's opinion or passing on good news that kids don't always think to tell their parents. (Recently I told a mom that her son had just told me something he had not mentioned to her: that he is happier than he has been in years.) The caretaking goes both ways. Soon after someone I was close to died suddenly, one of the grown kids took me out to lunch and listened to my troubles. We hugged goodbye and I said, "Thank you for taking care of me." "Thank you for taking care of me," she said.
I say goodnight to Nick with a few gentle words about quitting smoking and get onto the crosstown bus, thinking of the first time I arrived at his apartment, when he was three and I was eighteen and had spent my last fifty cents on the bus getting there. As this bus barrels through the 79th Street transverse and across the park, I ponder my just having referred to him and the others as "my kids." Who could have imagined this plot twist? That all those years ago when I needed parents, their parents were sort of my parents, and now, without children of my own, these wonderful young adults whom I have known all their lives and most of my life are sort of my kids.