The four year old I babysit tests my patience. She’s a beautiful little girl, stocky with platinum blond hair and pale blue eyes in a pixie’s face. When she smiles you remember why the human race continues to procreate. Articulate for her age, she has a sense of humor, an oldest child’s bossiness I can easily relate to, and a fondness for high heels, fairies and ripping rhodies off the bush to stuff them into cupfuls of sand.
But, there once was a girl who had a little curl. Remember her? When she was good, she was very very good, and that’s not often the case. Her crimes are small but near-constant. She runs from the table with her food into the living room, shrieking and giggling, though you have told her countless times she should eat with her bum on her chair. She refuses to take off her pj’s to get dressed for school, kicks her feet when it’s time to put her shoes on, shakes her head when the comb approaches her knotted hair, screams and sobs when I try to buckle her into her car seat. She puts on an outfit of her own design the minute she comes home from school, usually involving a dress that requires ironing. She ignores my friendly overtures, lectures me on how to lead the dog, runs off with the phone when someone calls.
When she is bad, she is horrid.
Last week, after a particularly trying morning, I asked her mom, my boss, if there was anything I could to to improve the situation. “I think she’s just testing you,” she said. “It’s best if you can ignore it, and put your foot down when you have to.” I heard that as, keep doing what you’re doing. But that was last week, and a lot can happen in four days. Saturday I babysat while my boss went on a rare fancy night out, and when the four year old discovered mum had finally and truly driven off in her car, she began to scream and cry. My soothing noises only made her yell louder, so I left her in the foyer and took the twins off to bed. Tucking them in before returning to her, I assured her brother that, yes, I would give her a kiss and a cuddle. I found her standing out in the front lawn, screaming for mummy and sobbing, tears pooling on her cheeks.
To be blunt, her emotions had taken the piss out of her. I was able to carry her into the house without a struggle, upstairs to the kitchen for some special chocolate milk and the promised hug. She went to sleep quickly, though still a bit tearfully. Monday, my boss left her with me while running her friend home after a playdate at our house. Again, the four year old was beside herself that mummy wasn’t bringing her along. I carried the sobbing girl to the plastic slide, the kids’ perch when helping me with the washing line, and handed her clothes pegs and limp wet socks for her to sniffle over. I told her I had bought a jewelry box and needed a special helper to paint it with me, would she do it?
Clipping a sock onto the line, she pulled the toe straight, and nodded.
After painting, we sat down for biscuits and tea, her with a cup of redbush she dipped into but never actually drank. Sitting opposite her, I realized this might be the first time in the five weeks I’ve lived here that I’ve spent any time with her alone. I asked her about her teacher and attempted conversation, mostly about squirrels, something I always bring up when nervous, as they are my favorite subject in the entire universe. She answered with a barely-audible whisper and rare eye contact. I was amazed to find her so shy. Where was the cocksure little tyrant who had only that morning hollered at me when I brought the wrong kind of toast for breakfast?
When I brought it up later, her mom agreed that the tyranny sprang from insecurity, and suggested we look for ways to arrange regular time she and I could spend without the twins.
I struggle to treat the twins and their older, louder, more troublesome sister with the same affection, time, and interest, but it takes conscious effort. After drawing a mermaid for one of the twins a few weeks ago, I took all three of them down to my room last night to show them the ballerina I had drawn for the four year old. They all leaned on my chair, staring at the drawings, and I thought, does it do any good? Do I get brownie points for this? And, more interestingly, why do I care?
Today, during supper, one of the twins launched into a typically random joke about my being a “Poo poo girl” and to my astonishment, who should pipe up but his older sister. “No!” she yelled. “That’s not true, Palmer is LOVELY.” I could do nothing but thank her. The other twin began asking me a question and the four year old said, “Don’t pay attention to them, listen to ME.”
Ah-ha, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere.
I’m not good at the whole selfless thing. I tend to think in terms of, “What’s in it for me?” Scrooge that I am, I miss my life in New York, where promptness, a polished phone manner, and a pair of high heels was all it took to increase my power over my world. I’m good at being efficient, easy to work with, organized, innovative, fast-moving. I’m good at being an employee. But last winter I realized that my professionalism did little to improve my actual world, and that realization eventually took me out of New York and brought me here. I kept thinking, when I come home, what do I come home to?
I don’t increase my power, income, or professional reputation by earning the affections of someone who’s barely learned to wipe her own bottom. And earning those affections won’t be easy- I don’t expect her to sing my praises very often. The kid is insecure, wants attention, and lots of it. If I can’t give it, I’ll pay the price for those insecurities.
But I can’t help but wonder about last Saturday night, after she’d had that bazillionth tantrum, shed her bazillionth tear, and sat silently on my lap while I talked to her about how much she loved her mum, and her mum loved her, but that it was still okay for them to be apart now and then. My words held no magic and little wisdom, but I volunteered them as honestly as I could. After weeks of cajoling, negotiating, pleading, threatening and admonishing, they were perhaps the first sincere and non-disciplinarian words I had said to her.
I don’t know what made her defend me today. I don’t know if she suddenly realized that befriending me would win her attention, or if she had finally listened to her mother’s lectures about being nice to nanny, or if she just wanted to shut up her brother. I don’t know if my drawing and talking and making chocolate milk made any difference. I probably never will.
I’m not a professional living in a city anymore. There is no analysis of performance, no company meetings, no tracking of dates and amounts. Clients do not thank me for finding them talented web designers.
I am the girl who wipes poopy bottoms, carries small people on her back, and argues about seat belts. I am the girl who makes silly faces, sings while cleaning the dishes until the kids beg me to stop, and begs not to read those damn boring Thomas the Train books again… couldn’t we read Princess Smartypants instead?
I’m a babysitter, and babysitting does not guarantee my livelihood, provide me with medical insurance, or keep me within walking distance of major cultural institutions. Who knows how long I’ll be able to do it or how it will all wind up. But I know the first item on my to-do list: to listen well, speak honestly, and breathe patiently around these kids. It’s what they deserve, and since I’m the one wiping the bottoms right now, I’m the one to give them what they deserve.