I never did much babysitting as a teenager. I too quickly tired of taking care of other people's children for such little compensation and always ended up in some stew of righteous indignation when the kids even brushed the edge of disobedience. I remember writing off one family down the street because their kids once hid my shoes. What little babysitting I did was mostly for my cousins, who are close enough to my own age that they were more like friends. We would spend the evening being royally silly and then I'd first sing "How Much is that Doggie in the Window" to put April, the younger, to bed, then make up a story to tell Ashley before tucking her in as well--the switch on her bedside lamp looked like the head to some ornate key, unlocking the dark into her room. Then I'd slip down the stairs, relishing the grown-up feeling of the quiet house and "the kids" in bed--that combination of responsibility and independence. After sneaking some sweet snack from the pantry, I'd park myself on the couch and turn on Letterman. Practically joined the ranks of adulthood, I thought, here at the age of fourteen. And on the really late nights, when Uncle David and Aunt Linda stayed out past Letterman, with nothing left to do, I'd let the clacky rhythm of their grandfather clock punctuate my sleepy thoughts. Then of course came the awkward drive home with my uncle, after which I always promised myself that when I had kids of my own, I'd always take the babysitter home myself.
Babysitting in college was also a one-gig affair. My junior year, looking for extra cash for my trip to Germany, I responded to an ad at the career center for nannying one day a week for a six-year-old and a two-year-old. At the time, I thought it awfully odd that the mother didn't actually want to leave her house while I was there. She lingered in the basement, doing I never knew what, or ferreted herself away in her bedroom. The only time she left the house was to pick up the first-grader from school, which meant that I felt perpetually watched, worrying about what she thought of my babysitting skills while she listened from another room. I can remember having a conversation about this situation with my mom in which she said, "There's something wrong with a woman who can't handle taking care of her two kids on her own." As the weeks went by, however, her children began to wear on me, too. Claire, the two-year-old, was as stubborn as they come and a screamer to boot. Once, when I felt too tired to play with Jonah, the six-year-old, and told him I would just watch him play robot dinosaur airplanes, he wheeled around and snapped, "But that's what my mom PAYS you for! You HAVE to play with me." So eventually, when this woman left to pick up her son and the two-year-old was napping, I would daily lie down on the floor in their formal living room and scrawl into a spiral notebook these words: "I AM NOT A MOTHER. THESE CHILDREN ARE NOT MY PROBLEM. THIS IS NOT MY LIFE." I have a real life, I thought. I am not beholden to anyone. I am free.
And so I was. Free to spend my summer in Germany, free to stay up all hours laughing with my roommate. Free to make each and every minute decision of my day and my life for myself and no one else. Free to walk away at the end of the day from those two children who made me crazy.
Interesting how time and experience change everything.
If you know me, you probably know that I now stay at home full-time with my two little boys, Gabriel (3) and Elliot (1). The difference between babysitting and mothering is a bit like the difference between being a substitute teacher and being the real teacher. I would know because I've done both. I cringe at the thought of ever substitute teaching again, whereas I would readily consider teaching my own class again. It really is different when they're "your own." Your ultimate adoration for your own children is the fuel for the Supermom Jet-Pack. So as a mother, I am far more able to handle the tantrums, the constant clean-up, the poop (and so very, very much more I never encountered in babysitting), BUT...I still have that resistance, that gut-level desire to say sometimes, "THIS IS NOT MY PROBLEM. THIS IS NOT MY LIFE. I AM FREE."
There was a time when I kept on my desk a framed photograph I took in Flagstaff. It was a three-step stoop to a little shop somewhere downtown. The steps were painted wildly in neon colors with whimsical designs, and the top step proclaimed simply: "FREEDOM." I loved the idea of being daily reminded of that beautiful ideal. Freedom. But then I found that the more I looked at it, the less I saw it. It seemed commonplace. It lost its grandeur. Then it began to seem a little ironic, caging that word in a frame as though I could catch it, pin it down, force it into my everyday life. I can't. In the course of my life, and especially since becoming a parent, the feeling of freedom seems to come and go. Sometimes I feel it when I run listening to Todd Rundgren and every step feels like it leaves a footprint, my mark on the earth. Sometimes I feel it when I make contact with creativity through making a necklace or writing a poem. And frankly, I don't feel it when I'm losing my self to another day of did-you-hear-what-I-just-said-listen-to-me-stop-that-you're-okay-shhhh! But I'm looking for it. I know that I am more than the sum of any given day's parts. Especially if that given day is comprised of peanut butter in the carpet and more Bob the Builder than I should have let Gabriel watch. I wonder about whether I can be a mother of young children and still feel some measure of freedom. Is it possible? Is it ridiculous to hope for? What does it mean? The search for feeling free would never mean abandoning my children, but I am beginning to open myself to new possibilities. After a lot of consideration, I think freedom means having some time away from them in the form of a part-time job. Freedom means allowing myself to create--even forcing myself to create when I think I don't have the time or energy because I know it returns me to the unique self God has placed inside of me. Freedom means letting go of unnecessary guilt for doing these things.
So, dear reader, what does freedom mean to you? When do you feel free?