My first babysitting job when I was 12 years old was as a mother’s helper to a family in my hometown. The mom needed someone to watch her baby, who was maybe a year old or less, while she worked from home. I was more than happy to oblige. I loved kids. Being paid to hang out with a baby? Heaven.
The baby had a severe disability – at a few months old, he was diagnosed with Angelman syndrome. He was a beautiful baby. Red-haired and blue-eyed. Sweet-smelling and soft-skinned. The mother was patient and kind, and showed me how to change him and feed him, calmly, not critically. Like most kids my age, I was focused on myself and my role, and thought little about the baby’s mom. It never occurred to me that she might feel scared or angry or depressed about her son’s diagnosis. It never occurred to me that she might worry about his future and their finances and any children they might have later on.
I think of this now, all these years later, because I am a mom myself, and I can’t help but put myself in her shoes. How would I feel if that were my baby? What would I do in her situation? But at the time, none of that crossed my mind. I noticed only the love in that house, the laughter. The parents had pet names for their son and inside jokes. A sunny house and a sense of humor. I read books to the baby and played with him on the floor, then pawed through their Ramones albums and their pantry when he was asleep. It was a happy house, a great gig.
As I got older, I babysat for more families, each one different from the rest and from my own. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I suppose I was taking notes, planting seeds, getting an idea of what parenthood was really like, in all its different forms. My own family was too close for me to observe objectively. It was only in infiltrating these other homes, these other families, that I could truly form a full picture.
I didn’t learn any do’s and don’ts, no wills and won’ts. But I wasn’t looking for that. I was a preteen, then a teen, then a young adult when I finally stopped babysitting. Marriage and motherhood were still far on the horizon. But now that I am a wife and mother, I can see how these early experiences may have informed my own, subtly, subconsciously.
Life doesn’t always go as planned. Humor can help you cope. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, to hire help to lighten the load. There are many kinds of mothers, many kinds of kids. There is no one “right” way to do things.
Babies will pee in their own faces. Little boys will want to paint their nails like their older sisters. Kids will have tantrums. Parents will fight. Your house will get messy.
But with love and a sense of humor, we will all not only survive but thrive. And isn’t that a great lesson for all of us, moms and non-moms alike? I’m so grateful I learned it early on.