BABIES BABYSITTING BABIES

 


BABIES BABYSITTING BABIES

You were born into a family that doesn’t always appreciate you. But one day things are going to be very different.

— MISS HONEY, MATILDA




I started babysitting at around ten years old—you know, the age when a child still needs a babysitter herself. As I saw it, I was already raising myself and my sister, and you know what would be a fun home to be in as much as possible? Not my home! Add in the fact that as far back as I can remember, I’d gotten the distinct impression my parents were not exactly in this for the long haul. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t think I needed to start earning money so I could support myself.


I also knew I was going to be a comedian/writer/actor/musician, and those people don’t usually make a ton of money right off the bat, so I figured why not combine my blossoming childhood work addiction with my desperate need to feel like I’ll be able to support myself in a few years so I don’t end up homeless and die, which is everyone’s primary childhood fear! My recently proven track record of being very, very good at child care led to my early career in babysitting. (Hi, again, I’m ten in this story.)


Because it was a small town, I babysat for the woman who lived down the street, Mrs. Anders. Mrs. Anders was very quick to tell me during my Job Interview—ten, I’m ten—that they didn’t live in this development, no, no, they were just here for a few months while their much larger, better house was being built, making me feel incredibly poor in a weirdly adult way. Her husband owned a large, high-end jewelry store in the area that I had heard of, as it bore their name: Anders Jewelry. (I just quickly googled them; they do not have a very high Yelp rating, which makes me feel better about this sad woman politely letting me know she was richer than me, which honestly, the more I think about it, Jesus, she must have been such a sad lady to have to brag about having a fancy house to a freaking child she was hiring to take care of her children. I’m sorry for your wealthy sadness, Mrs. Anders. I hope you’re divorced now and live in the woods and make jam every day and your hair is super long and sometimes it gets caught in the jam and you laugh.)


I don’t want to brag, but I nailed the interview, having spent most of my childhood auditioning for pretty much everyone all the time. “Adopt me! Hear that I can really, really sing, I can! Please protect me, things aren’t great at home!” I had become very, very skilled at being poised and witty and very adult. Being a child is so lonely in and of itself, even without added abuse and neglect and fear for your own life and the lives of everyone around you; merging the two can create a powder keg of need that quickly solidified my one huge goal: to work all the time, in every possible way, and to be perfect. To be so perfect they had to hire me, had to notice me, had to see me, had to love me, had to take care of me.


Around this time, I remember taking care of Mrs. Anders’s two-year-old girl and being silly and sweet with her, and taking care of the baby girl while I was watching TV, letting myself fall into the constant commercials for Anders Furniture and imagining where they would move soon—betcha he reads, betcha she sews, maybe she’s made me a closet of clothes, etc.—and thinking maybe if I was a good enough babysitter, they’d take me with them. But also, no, because who would take care of my sister, never mind.


I babysat until I was about fourteen years old—you know, the age when you usually start babysitting. Not me—that was my retirement age. That’s when I started cleaning houses, as many as possible, and working every other odd job I could, sometimes five at a time, gotta pay these future bills, man! Gotta pay ’em! I’d clean weird houses in the neighborhood and they’d leave for a few hours and I’d blast alternative radio and use the time as a great reason to practice my singing while “dusting the moldings” like Ms. IDontRememberHerNameButSheWasNotSuperNice asked. I so clearly remember dusting while getting deeply into the maudlin joy of belting Sheryl Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake” and “Strong Enough” loudly enough to fill the whole house until I could hear myself really clearly and think, “Wow. I’m getting really good. Nice.” And then back to scrubbing the floors.


I can’t count how many families I’ve babysat for, but I definitely picked it back up after high school, continuing swiftly along my workaholic path. By the time I got to New York City, though, it was different. After you’re out of high school and are more formally in your adult years, you notice more. You notice the parents who don’t hug their kids. You notice the parents who hate their partner and it permeates every inch of the home, no matter how spacious or well decorated. You notice the mom who keeps you for an extra two hours after each ten-hour shift, whether you want to stay or not, so she can bitch about her husband while she pays you ten dollars an hour—cheaper than therapy for her—which makes you resent her, but you also understand this role and you keep quiet as the anger builds. You notice your wanting to take these kids and to love them forever in a way their parents can’t or won’t. You notice all the parents reluctant to pick their kids up from school. It’s not as if they’re bad people, but you feel their “ugh, gotta take care of these dicks” resentment, which might actually be a very understandable level of exhaustion backed by so much love, but nevertheless, you hear it and you’re a child again. An act of emotional transference occurs, and suddenly they’re your family and you’re the child they wish would go away but won’t. And you see those little kids who are not you, but seem to feel how you felt, and you would do anything to protect them.


I remember one job interview for a family like this and the mom told me, “Yeah, FYI, they both have the flu, they’ve had it for like three weeks now.” I, appalled, said, “Have you given them anything for it?” and she said, “We had steak last night.” I said, “I mean, like, medicine, vitamins . . .” and she said, “I don’t know. There’s some expensive Whole Foods vitamins in the fridge, but I haven’t tried that.” Five seconds later I literally begged her to hire me because this was so upsetting.


I could talk about the rich, bizarre worlds I lived in while babysitting, about Samantha, a two-year-old who was spunky and too loud and too weird for her parents, who would sing at the mailman with me (songs about spaceships, duh), and cried when girls her age (they’re mean at two?????) wouldn’t play with her and so we went elsewhere together and blew bubbles and I told her I liked her so much more than all those girls combined and that one good person who loves you is always way better than three mean ones who don’t, and she nodded and I smiled and she laughed and we ate golden raisins and it felt better.


Or about Amelia, who was friends with the other girls I was babysitting, but we spent all our time together on the playground. Amelia was seven and had a tiny mustache above her upper lip and bushy black eyebrows and we met because she told me she liked my style. I was wearing rainbow knee socks and heart stickers on my cheeks and a dress with flowers on it and glitter rings on my hands, which had hearts drawn on them in Sharpie—eternally a children’s TV host (or, as some drunk people on the train recently described me, “OMG, you look like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century,” which is fair. I will also gladly accept that I look like a human My Little Pony or Rainbow Brite, all style icons obviously). Amelia had too many feelings and a huge imagination and no one liked her and I didn’t get it! “This kid has it all!!!! Cool ideas! Mismatched socks! An Amélie haircut! A sick mustache! WHAT ARE YOU NOT GETTING, FELLOW YOUTHS????” Fuckin’ idiots. Amelia ruled. We started scheduling playdates with Amelia’s sister, who was “cooler” (pfft), and the girls I babysat for, specifically because I wanted to be Amelia’s friend so bad. I wanted to hear her British accents and tell her they were so, so good and to play video games with her and make up silly voices for the characters and, when she felt too many feelings, raise her chin with my hand and tell her, “Hey, that is what makes you great.


Subconsciously, I thought if I couldn’t find the person I’d been waiting my whole life for, I’d be that person for other people. If I couldn’t have parents, I’d be everyone else’s parents. If no one was going to take care of me, I would take care of everyone. If no one was going to tell me all the things I’d always wanted to hear, I’d make damn sure as many people on earth as possible heard them. So at least someone was.


My last two babysitting jobs were my favorite. One was a six-year-old girl named Rhiannon who was so stunning that everywhere we went, because often people assume any woman with any child is their mom, people would tell me my daughter was gorgeous and should be a model. Now, first of all, I would think, “I AM NOT HER FUCKING MOMMMMMM. DO I LOOK OLD ENOUGH TO BE A MOM? NO!!!!! GOOD DAY!” but then I would think, “Oh man, you think I’d make kids this pretty? That’s sick. Thanks, dude.” Finally, I’d land on ushering her out of there and remind her she was tough and strong, so she wouldn’t become like one of the many women in the world who are often (and exclusively) told they’re pretty pretty pretty until everything else they are (which is a lot) fades out of focus and doesn’t matter and so they lean into it with all they have. They’re the Pretty Girl. Don’t let your intelligence steal focus, don’t be too witty, don’t be too intimidating or have too much to say. Just be pretty forever. And by forever we mean like five to ten years, because then it ends and you better have gotten married by then, because otherwise you’re dead, it’s over. And I am fucking done with this happening to women. I am beyond done.


I took every chance I could get to remind her she wasn’t just, as she told me, “maybe kind of braver than the boys in my class, because I jump off that high beam all the time and they won’t even try! But I don’t know.” I’d tell her she did know, that she was braver and so strong and so smart and so kind. I hoped that for every “you’re so pretty” compliment she received, I could make up for it with twenty “you’re superstrong, dudes!” and a high five.


The other was an eight-year-old boy named Phoenix, who was described to me on the phone by his mom as “a very sensitive little boy, he’s small for his age, he has a lot of food allergies, and he loves art, especially the color pink.” If I could’ve jumped through the phone to start the job at the end of that sentence, I would’ve. When I met Phoenix, we were both a little cagey and acted different than we were. But what we were was so painfully similar. After a few months, once our walls had dropped, we’d spend hours hosting a fake TV show we created (and hosted) called Deadly Waters Deadly Waters was a show about the deadliest of deadly liquids that were super deadly. So we’d take ketchup and mustard and pickle juice and turmeric and sugar and honey and anything else we could find, and mix it in a glass and then tell our viewers why this liquid was the deadliest deadly liquid in the history of deadlies, and just how many people’s lives it had already claimed, which was always in the millions. He’d watch magic shows on his iPad and I’d try to find a way to remind him that it was super weird and dumb that women were always assistants in bikinis, with no lines, and he’d agree it was. One day he drew a photo where he was the magician and I was a magician too and we both wore our normal clothes and got the same lines and it made my whole day.


His parents had told me when I was hired that they liked to sing to Phoenix before he went to sleep and they had a book of songs they kept under his bed if you needed to look at lyrics and if I wouldn’t mind. Uh, OF COURSE I WOULDN’T MIND, SINGING IS MY LIFE. So five nights a week, I would head upstairs with him and read him stories and pick three songs out of the book, but after a while I’d rely on a few go-tos to sing to him: Fleetwood Mac’s “Storms,” Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the Beatles’s “All My Loving” and “Real Love,” and anything soft and soothing that I could also really fucking nail. One day, after I started singing to him every night, his mom said, “Phoenix says you have a beautiful voice!” to which he said, “Mooooom!!!!” like I wasn’t supposed to know that!!! And I told them I was, um, also a comedian and musician, so like, uh, yeah. Phoenix’s eyes got huge, and the more I showed him YouTube clips online or press pieces in the paper, the more he thought I was magic and would tell anyone who came by: “My babysitter is a comedian! And she’s in a band!” Even thinking of it now makes me cry.


His mom once told me his past babysitters had tried to hug him, but he didn’t like it when they did, so please do not be offended that he hates hugs. But every time I’d come to the door, he’d run to open it and jump into my arms. Kids know.


I babysat him for several wonderful, wonderful years that, once we hit a stride, made it hard to give up. So much so that when I got offered a job as sex and relationships editor at Cosmopolitan, I remember telling my roommate, “And I’d get out at like six, so if I wanted to still keep my babysitting job, I could!” and he looked at me like I was nuts. “You just got a job doing what you actually want to be doing, that pays more than the, like, hundred dollars a week you’ve been making and you’re worried how you’re going to keep both?” I shot him a look, like, “Uh, YEAH!”


Phoenix was Jewish and adorably proudly so, and he asked his parents if I could spend Hanukkah with them and watch him light the candles, and I think it started to feel like I had a family, because he made me part of his. One day, while walking home from school, I asked him if he’d ever baked Christmas cookies and he told me no and I said, “What???” and he said, “Lane, I’m Jewish!” and I said “Okay, then they’re Hanukkah cookies! They can be whatever you want, dude. Let’s do it! You want to?” and he said, “Okay!” I bought allergy-free cookie mix and then we swung by the toy store on the way home.


While we walked down the aisles, I wandered into aisle four, which was like a pink explosion with dolls and pink pink pink everywhere. I’d forgotten how gendered toy stores are: pink pink pink and sparkles and glitter, and then blue and gray and metal and plastic. Phoenix had not forgotten. I watched him pass the aisles looking for me, seeing I was in the pink toy aisle, thought about walking down, and then, as if a trip wire would strangle him if he walked any farther, walked past the aisle and onto the next.


I went to the next aisle to find him and said, “Hey. What’s up? Did you wanna look down there?” and he said, tightly, fists clenched, jaw tight, “Noooo!” “Why not?” “That’s the . . . pink toy aisle.” As though “pink toy” was street slang and I knew what he meant, everyone knew! I did know, but I pressed anyway. “So? You like pink. We color with pink all the time.” “I know, but it’s different!” he said, jaw still tight, voice still hushed. “How is it different?” “It just is!!!!” he said, seeming like he might cry. I took him over to the aisle and said, “Look, there’s a cash register. You love playing store, right?” He wouldn’t even look at it and said, “Can we go, please?”


He was eight, and he’d already been taught that there was nearly nothing as shameful or disgusting, or whisper-quiet-inappropriate, as liking something feminine. And it broke my heart—for him, and for all the boys I know as adults who were softer, more sensitive, more expressive, more open when they were little and then were told to shut all that down. And we wonder why we have grown men at odds with their female partners who are begging them to be more open, to share their feelings, to be softer, to be sweeter, to be gentler, and they just can’t do it. They’d spent their childhoods having people tell them to be the opposite of all of those things, to kill that part of them until there was nothing left—and they did that, just like everyone asked, but now the world wants them to be like that again, and they just can’t. It’s a heartbreaking loss for everyone. I wanted, more than anything, to help Phoenix keep the things he would need, the things we all need, later in life.


On the way home, I struggled with what to say. We turned onto his block and I just said, “You can like anything you want, okay? If you like princess stuff, that’s so cool, dude. If you like pink, pink is a great color and you’d look awesome in it. If you wanna put glitter on your cheeks, I do it all the time! I could give you some of mine.” He just looked at the ground. I got on the ground and just said, “You don’t have to do anything, ever. But you can also do everything, if you want to.” And we went inside to bake cookies.


While we folded the dough together and sang along to sixties music on the radio, he turned to me and said, “Lane, can we do this every year together?” and I just thought, “Aww, you think things last.” I knew I probably wouldn’t work there in a year, let alone every year. I had a hunch that this was a stopping point before the big show, the last job I’d have that was just to pay my rent while I did what I loved on the side. And it was.


When I gave my notice, I told them they should still let me know if they ever needed anyone on weekends or something, but as I got busier and busier, they called less, probably assuming I was too busy and wouldn’t want to. But I always wanted to. Will always want to.


In the last few months of my time with Pheonix, our time together got shorter. His parents’ schedules were different and they didn’t need me as much, so I had maybe only three hours with him two days a week, and it wasn’t enough. On those days, Phoenix would, without fail, let me in the door, hug me with everything he had, and we’d eat snacks and watch TV on opposite sides of the couch for about two hours. Also without fail, about ten minutes before it was time to go upstairs to bed, Phoenix would scoot over to my side of the couch to put his head in my lap and I’d brush his hair back while we watched TV. And then it was time to go to bed. And every time he’d be so sad we had to go to bed already, but really, sad that he’d just gotten the courage to reach out, to get closer, to lie in my lap like he’d wanted to, to dare to be needy, and I’d gladly accepted, and it was already over. And it was the most relatable thing to witness.


How many times I’ve sat with people, even as an adult, wishing I could hold their hand, or lie in their lap, or cry in front of them, or tell them how I really felt about them, or ask them how they really felt about me, and how many hours I wasted thinking of how I would do it, when I should do it, begging myself to “just do it now! Who cares!” Then once I did it, I’d wish I’d done it so much sooner because it was fine, it was safe, I was safe.


So one night when his mom came home I told her, “I noticed Phoenix is doing this thing where we’ll sit apart for hours and then he’ll finally get up the courage to come lie in my lap, when time is almost up. And I would just offer to have him come cuddle with me, but I don’t want him to feel like he has to. Is there a way I could come over a little earlier so maybe he can have more time to get up the courage to ask?” She looked at me sweetly and said, “Of course.”


The next night, right on schedule, he got up the courage to come lie in my lap and I brushed his hair back while we watched Myth Busters, and magically, it wasn’t time to go to bed just yet, and I think he noticed. Because he looked up at me and smiled. Like he knew.






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