I would not trust me with my own children. It amazes me that other people trust me with theirs, because even though I babysit quite often, I tend to assume the role of an indulgent grandparent more than that of a parental guardian. Together, my babysittees and I gorge on ice cream sundaes that we dribble with ketchup and caramel sauce, wrestle until one of us inevitably gets hurt, and stay up as late as we possibly can, until I hear a car in the driveway and the children make a mad dash up to their rooms and dive into their beds to feign sleep.
Every “job” is more like a haphazard adventure, frequently extending beyond the confines of the backyard and into neighboring towns, but once, when I was only 14, I was entrusted with Cleo, the six-year-old daughter of my mother’s boss, for an afternoon in New York City. While I was used to the hour long train ride into Grand Central, I was only just beginning to learn my way around the city on my own. In retrospect, Cleo’s parents must have been crazy to hire me.
It was a cold, rainy day, the kind of day that can only be beautiful in New York City, when the street lights blur with headlights and thousands of black umbrellas unfurl overhead. I picked up Cleo at her parents’ hotel as they headed out for a day-long conference, and, armed with her parents’ safety money, we embarked. We splashed down 5th Avenue, into F.A.O. Schwartz, where I chased her down aisle after aisle of Barbie dolls and stuffed animals. We took a bicycle-cab to 60th Street (four years later, I realize we could have easily walked) and, although we were already wet and shivering, demolished an enormous bowl of ice cream at Dylan’s Candy Bar and filled plastic bags with copious amounts of bulk candy. It was a day from a Norman Rockwell painting, a classic, a dream of a little girl. Two little girls, really, only eight years apart in age. It was my first experience playing the roles of both parent and child, as I orchestrated the day’s activities, yet felt giddy and overwhelmed by the big city. I still can’t believe, in all of our adventures that day, we didn’t get clipped by a bicycle messenger or throw up candy on the sidewalk.
As a babysitter, I watch kids grow in a way a parent’s eye can’t: in small, incremental steps and visible plateaus, that slide by unnoticed when you live with someone every day. Every loose tooth, every growth spurt, every new vocabulary word, is a heartbreaking harbinger of impending adulthood, both for the child and myself. Our relationship is a mutual one, a tacit agreement to make the fleeting moments of youth as savory and memorable as we possibly can, with all the reckless abandon, wide-eyed naiveté, and ice cream sundaes we can fit into one evening.