The best and the worst thing about babysitting are one and the same: they aren’t your kids. You get to hand them back at the end of the day. After all the screaming and whining and Play-Doh throwing, after a full day without any adults, without a single voice of reason, you get to go home and watch television by yourself knowing that Quinn is probably crying and Logan is rubbing his eyes in the kitchen, asking for a glass of water because he’s “firsty” but really he’s a little liar who doesn’t want to go to sleep. And it’s not your problem.
But when you’re playing in the backyard one day and Logan, who is three now and in his “Why? Why? Why?” phase wants to know where the grass came from and did God make it, you want to tell him that no one really knows the answer to that and these mysteries are the most fascinating and frightening aspects of life as a human but you bite your tongue, because he’s not your kid now either. You’re basically just here to make sure he doesn’t kill himself.
The longest stretch of time I ever babysat for was four days in a row, nine hours per day. I had never been so exhausted. And people do this shit for eighteen years.
As the youngest child, I was curious about children and agreed to watch my neighbor’s baby, Logan, while his mother worked from home. I was sixteen when I first ventured through the tall fence of neglected plants that separated our yards.
For the first month my job mainly involved restraining Logan while he screamed, but I was as determined to get him to like me as he was to get away from me. It didn’t take long. As an infant, he only had a handful of people in his life, all relatives. I became one of his favorite people (his third favorite, if I had to guess) and the only person he knew who was a teenager. Adolescence was a concept he couldn’t grasp. I had parents, it seemed, but they weren’t always watching me.
“Did you walk here?” he asked.
“On the road?”
“…I wish I could walk on the road.”
Trust me, I wanted to tell him, by the time you can you won’t think anything of it.
His understanding grew even more complicated when I moved away and only babysat Logan in the summer and winter.
“Where do you go to school?” he asked.
I gave the simple answer: “I’m in college.”
“Is it far?”
“Too far to walk?”
“Way too far to walk.”
“I go to college,” he said. That’s funny, I thought. I’ve never run into you. What’s your major?
One day while I was back at UMass Amherst, Logan got a new pair of shoes and went next door with his mom, to show my parents. They were running sneakers; he told them he was going to “run to college.”
I didn’t want Logan to know that I got paid to hang out with him, though I’m sure a child of his age wouldn’t have thought too much about the implications of this. Truthfully, I would have watched him for free. The concept of babysitting baffled Logan even more than my age.
“Do you have a babysitter?”
“Do you babysit all kids?”
Yes, I am the Santa Claus of day care.
“Did you babysit my dad when he was little?”
No one warned me that a concept as fundamental as the passage of time would be new information to a four-year-old.
Whenever I told people with no childcare experience that I babysat kids under the age of four, they had the same reaction.
“Do you have to change diapers?!”
First, of course I have to change diapers. They’re babies. Second, after spending four years with these kids, I’d say that diapers were the least of my problems.
When Logan would not stop throwing Play-Doh which I worried would get stuck in his parents’ rug and I yelled at him in such a way that Quinn found hilarious- this moment was worse than diapers. It was the first time I learned the joy of having two children conspire together to laugh at you when you’re infuriated.
Wiping Logan’s ass was less troubling than watching him burst into tears after splitting his lip open on the kitchen table. I had been chasing him around the house for his amusement, and mine. This is an experience most parents are probably familiar with, the ultimate tragicomic moment when your child goes: “HA HA HA HA – AHHH! WAA (wimper wimper).” Fun is dangerous. I have a scar under my lip from a moment like this.
I wasn’t simply worried about Logan. I spent the following several hours wondering how his mother would react to her son’s bloody face. This was the first and only time Logan injured himself on my watch, though I’d had many tense moments that summer watching him jump into his kiddie pool from the porch steps, a few feet away from the cement driveway.
“Stop jumping!” I yelled. “I mean it.”
“I can. I just can!” he protested.
After running into the kitchen table, Logan sat silent on the floor; his injured bottom lip quivered. So did mine, and with his tiny body in my arms, he saw how scared I was and stopped crying. This is a level of empathy I didn’t previously know children could possess.
His mother took one look at his lip, said, “Oh it’s fine” and went on to tell me about the concert she went to that night. She’d seen worse.
When Quinn was born, Logan seemed neither phased nor especially excited. Once, he did say that Quinn was “kinda cute” and kissed his baby brother on the forehead. This was when I first met Quinn. In a crib at the foot of his parent’s bed, his tiny, wrinkled, alien-looking face and body had no definition yet. I passed on the chance to hold him. You hold things every day of your life, no problem whatsoever, then someone asks you to hold a newborn and suddenly you’re not sure if you can be trusted.
“Let’s get cozy,” Logan says watching Caillou, which was his pre-bedtime sedative, in his parent’s bed. He wanted me to get under the covers with him. This lack of boundaries is one of my favorite things about children, but he’s still not my kid and I wonder what his parents would think if they came home and I was snuggled up with him in their bed. So I tuck him in and he’s sleepy enough to relinquish control and let me stay above the covers.
I listen to his breathing, wondering how close he is to falling asleep.
“You’re right, it’s raining.” For a few more minutes I listen in silence to his breathing. If I tell him to be quiet and try to sleep he’ll protest. Instead I breathe deeply myself, hoping he’ll unconsciously copy me. I’m frustrated when I hear him speak again.
“I love you.”
It meant nothing. He said it in the same tone and with the same level of importance as he had said the word “rain.” It was just a fact, something he realized he knew (he knew so little) and decided to say aloud. He loved me like he loved the color red.
It wasn’t like my mother’s “I love you,” which sounds more to me like, “I love you, you need to realize that, that everything I did for you I did because I love you and no matter how much you screw up and make mistakes I will bail you out and I’ll always be here even though I’m underappreciated.”
Or my father’s, “I love you, and I’m going to say it every chance I get because it’s much easier to say to you than to your brothers and I’m so happy I have a daughter so I can hug her without slapping her back three times. I never wanted to have a third kid. I don’t even know if I wanted any kids really but I’m glad you’re here. Sometimes I wish you could’ve stayed ten years old forever.”
Or my boyfriend’s, “I love you, I just need to say it, I love every inch of you and everything about you, even though we won’t always be together we are now, so I might as well say it now, I love you I love you” (kiss kiss kiss kiss).
It was better because it meant absolutely nothing coming from a child with a half-formed personality and a fuzzy picture of the world, a child who wasn’t trying to stop time with his words or to get me to say it in return and who doesn’t even remember saying it and will barely remember me- just a child, not my child.
Emily F. Butler is a high school librarian by day, stand up comedian by night. She lives in western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Halfway Down the Stairs, This Zine Will Change Your Life, and Bone Parade.