Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Good Babysitter is Hard to Find

On the last day Katherine was with us, she was putting Sophia down for a nap as I was on my way out the door for a run. I paused at the bottom of the staircase, caught by Katherine’s voice drifting down from the landing. She was singing a sweet, unfamiliar lullaby as she closed the door to Sophie’s room. Her voice was filled with affection and reassurance. I stood, transfixed, suddenly struck by the fact that she was singing to her for last time. That’s how Katherine found me, in spandex, rooted to the floor, wiping tears from my eyes.

It saddens me to know that Sophia will not remember Katherine. I am sure she left an impression on Sophia, the invisible imprint that all significant people leave on our lives. Impressions that live on as lessons, values, beliefs, schemas and ways of perceiving. Imprints that persist long after the memory of a face fades. But one day, should she run into her on the street, she will not know Katherine. Once so close, they will be strangers.

(Sighing) A good babysitter is difficult to find.

It is a leap of faith, putting your child into someone else’s hands. We do it regularly in our culture…babysitters, nursery schools, day care. But as evidenced by school web cams, nanny cams, and I-caught-your-nanny websites, we do it cautiously. We know that no one will ever care for our children exactly like we do…

…though perhaps that’s a good thing. Kids need exposure to a variety of different styles. They need to learn adaptability. And let’s face it…as parents, we get tired. We don’t always want to pull out the paints, play outside in the blaring sun, listen to the Elmo song 32 times in a row. Still, we hold the expectation that the babysitter will intuit our child’s needs; be loving but firm; engage them and protect them. It’s a tall order for barely a living wage (e.g. Philadelphia is $9.05 an hour).

(Matter-of-factly) A good babysitter is hard to find.

We had a string of loving, highly competent graduate students who worked for us for a summer or a semester, but wanting more stability I decided to look for a longer-term option on Craigslist. The first babysitter came for a time and was fine, but one day she didn’t show up. And then the next day she didn’t show up. No notice. No explanation. Didn’t return my calls. So I hired a replacement, perhaps a bit too quickly. She often came late or cancelled at the last minute. She asked a million questions, but never retained what I told her. I tried to be flexible and understanding, but the final straw came when I checked my facebook newsfeed and saw that she had just posted, “I’m SO bored,” WHILE SHE WAS WITH MY CHILD, ONE ROOM AWAY. Intolerable.

(Frustrated) A good babysitter is hard to find.

They say that the litmus test for goodness-of-babysitter is whether or not your child is happy to see them. But since Sophia is happy to see just about anyone who walks in the door, including the guy who checks the electric/gas meter, I had to rely on other evidence. Thus I put up with behavior I shouldn’t have, for longer than I should have.

When Katherine walked into our lives, I couldn’t believe our good fortune. She was playful, caring, and bright. She aspired to start schools in developing countries. She spoke fluent Spanish (and Chinese). She read with inflection and voices. She pulled out the paints. Played the Elmo song 32 times in a row. Went to the park in the blazing sun. And she loved Sophia like family. She let Sophie wear her jewelry. Built her lego thrones. Read her Jorge el Curioso en el hospital. Cooked her quinoa. Katherine was loving but firm, intuited Sophie’s needs, actively engaged her. Sophia was not simply safe in her care, she was loved and happy.

(Appreciatively) A babysitter like her is a rare find.

But, of course, someone of her caliber cannot remain a babysitter for long. She has more children to impact. More joy to spread. A greater calling in the world. And, similarly, Sophie is ready to be with her peers, exchange the quiet intimacy of her one-on-one relationship with Katherine for the boisterous, bustling energy of nursery school.

We had a farewell get together at the zoo. It was a bittersweet goodbye. After visiting the big cats, Sophia spontaneously turned to me and said, “I’m having a great day!” Though I felt weighted down by the sadness behind our excursion, she did not. Despite our attempts to prepare Sophie for this moment, she didn’t seem to grasp the finality of it. As we parted at the trolley, Sophia casually tossed off a “good-bye! See you soon.” I had to turn away: I was crying again.

I am grateful for the time we had with her. There will be other babysitters, good ones I hope, but there will never be another Katherine.

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