WHEN the half-gnawed bagel covered with plum Gerber baby food dropped to the floor for the third time, I knew it would be a battle of wills, so I put the bagel back on the tray I can't believe I could take my struggles with a toothless, plum-splotched seven-month-old baby seriously. But it was seven in the morning, the baby had been up for an hour and was hungry; five minutes earlier I had been sleeping soundly, and I had six more hours of "babysitting" until I had to go to work.
And of course it always got worse, the two-and-a-half-year-old toddler scurried into the kitchen, demanding her breakfast. Cereal wouldn't do; no, she only wanted waffles with peanut butter on top. The baby couldn't talk back: she didn't even know how to say dada. The two-year-old responded with no's, now's, and why not's and as usual she had forgotten to put on her underwear.
She persisted until I relented, put her waffles in the toaster, lifted her up on her chair, and gave her a glass of cranberry-orange juice. Soon thereafter, the baby started to wail from lack of attention. It was then that I knew I could never be a mother.
At least 20 hours a week of my summer were spent caring for these two little girls, usually early in the morning and on weekends. The salary from my summer job in Cambridge wasn't enought to pay rent for an apartment, so I cleverly--or so I thought at the beginning of the summer--made plans to live with a family, getting free room and board for weekly house-related duties.
I got a lot of exercise during the summer since my house was a mile away from the Square, and I "commuted" on foot at least twice a day. My living arrangement gave me little to complain about--I had two rooms to myself and a half a phone, since another girl also shared my surrogate mother duties.
But the minute I moved into the house, I was intimidated. As a teenager, I had earned money babysitting; but I usually let the kids watch television until they dozed off. In this case, the baby spent her time eating, crawling aound the floor, chewing on various things, wetting her diaper, and sleeping. The two-and-a-half-year old never sat still. She either wanted to go to the playground, draw pictures, or play on the computer. At the playground, I slid down the slide with her, and told her not to cry when her doll got dizzy.
It was especially when she wanted to draw that I remembered that she was two and not 10. Colors were simply colors, and she always got mad when my pictures--best described as surrealist blotches--looked better than hers, so she made me give my picture to her which she promptly wrote her name on. She also liked to roller-skate--her only problem was that she liked putting on the skates but was scared to move afterwards.
Caring for both girls taught me how important a virtue like patience is. I was forced to control my reactions, and to simply wait until they took naps, so I too could run upstairs and doze until I heard cries from below. The girls' parents both worked; while the father left the house every day, the mother stayed home and worked on her projects. I envied their pseudo-detachment from the daily minute-to-minute necessities for childcare.
The main problem with taking, care of the children was its effect on my work at The Crimson, where I was a member of the summer staff. I usually went into the building after the mile walk having been up for six hours already. I had to spend 12 hours reporting, writing and pasting up stories. I begged out of staying late, pleading that if I didn't get some sleep, I would probably forget to take the baby out of the bathtub.
I didn't make many friends that way, acting aloof and punchy when at work, and telling the toddler to be quiet when page 1yChildren came on. But all the same I made It through the first four weeks of the summer, lacking only a tan. Then the family packed up and went to France for a month trading houses with a Parisian family with three children. Before I met the family, I pictured myself juggling three little kids instead of two at once, and they wouldn't even know English.
But luckily the family was charming, especially because the children were nine, 13, and 15 years old respectively, and usually spent their time traveling around Boston and the East Coast with their parents. All I had to do was play caretaker and answer questions about American schools, movie stars and sports events. We spoke in English, because I was ashamed that my six years of French had taught me only to ask for directions and order food at restaurants. Once day the 13 year-old went out shopping with his father and came back, with a football, baseball bat, frisbee; and pair of new sneakers--all the coordinates dinates for Americans, apparently. Soon, he always wanted to go outside to "heet boll."
My other duties included caring for the lawn, especially the mother's Japanese garden parts of which had been imported Before their departure, the family had rigorously instructed me on how to care for the yard, watering every night, mowing every week, and weeding whenever I saw weeds. During the month they they were away, the grass turned from a lush green to a dried brown, the weeds grew as big as the plants, and the Japanese garden looked like the bottom of a fishtank.
Making money was the key to my summer. So when the family was in France, I spent an hour a day washing dishes and making beds for an elderly couple next door. They asked me if I planned on getting married soon. I pleasantly answered their questions, thinking that I didn't want to have kids, nor get old.
For only one week in the summer did I have to live in the house alone. And there was no way I was going to stay there alone, even with a burglar alarm, because the thought of returning alone to a dark, empty, three-story house, aggravated my anxiety attacks from spending the summer in Cambridge. So I recruited a friend to stay with me, and the two of us religiously put on the burglar alarm, every night before going to bed.
Our first trauma occurred one evening towards midnight when we heard a thump from upstairs. I knew it wasn't the cat because he was outside (Indiana Jones was another one of my charges; I had the honor of feeding him every morning and of forgetting to empty his litter box, until he began to find other locales for his affairs). Maggie and I ran next door where one of my former babysitting comrades was house sitting. While looking through her windows at my house, I thought I saw shadows in the window and immediately called the police. Before the police came, I realized the thump had been a shade from the master bedroom which had fallen.