Joshua is several months past his fourth birthday, and from the moment he was born to the time I write this, all of his babysitters contributed one-quarter of his DNA, or were close enough to being family to be called family. We recently told this to a friend of ours who replied, incredulously, “Really?”
It isn’t so much that we lack faith in the braces-wearing crowd’s ability to wrangle precociousness incarnate for an hour or so before his bedtime. Jen was a babysitter back in the day; we don’t discriminate based on age. Rather, it’s a lack of social ambition on our part, coupled with a deep and pervading cheapness. Oh, and guilt. Lots of guilt. Whenever one of us has to miss putting a child to bed, it’s the same psychological weight we’d carry if we missed his birthday or Crimbo or the Rapture or something. It’s irrational, I know, but no parent is rational when it comes to his children. The thing is, we know on some level that he’s not going to be scarred by our absence, nor is he even likely to remember it in a day or two. But it’s about us, you see. `Cause, you know, everything always is.
There are two sides to the coin, of course. Yes, the guilt side is prominent, featuring Joshua as the head of state struck on the metal’s gleaming surface, we, his peons, harvesting wheat beneath his twiggy chicken legs. There might also be some wise, if vague, Latin phrase, and maybe a rising sun or something. You know, typical coin stuff. The other side is also guilt, guilt of another nature. We know our child. We love our child. We know him to be a sweet, smart, soul-sucking psychic leach. His need for attention is preternatural and bottomless, as if he’d been deprived of human contact for the whole of his life. This condition existed in a more muted form prior to his brother arriving, but after that personal D-Day for him, he metabolizes ministration like it’s cheap cookies and juice. After staying with my mom for a week, the strain on her psyche was visible, her will to live observably depleted. For his twelve-ish hours of consciousness each day, he is a black hole that absorbs all the love, conversation, and activity you can conjure, and then he still seeks more. To ask a stranger to saddle that pony for even an hour or two seems like something we couldn’t afford. Combat pay isn’t in our babysitting budget.
And so, like prisoners, we sit here, night after night, watching the evenings of our youth evaporate. There will be a time when we reclaim our social life, when in cosmic, karmic penance Joshua must babysit his brother Because We Said So while we go out and pretend to be in our 20s until, like, ten o’clock! That time is still many years in the future. For now, it’s 10:00 pm and I have assumed my usual position on the couch, less than ten feet away from a baby monitor.
My sister-in-law and her then-fiance lived with us for a short time. They had no children, and my brother-in-law-to-be was less-than-versed in Kids. After Joshua had gone to bed, he wanted to know if we could all go out for ice cream or something. We declined, citing our pre-schooler in bed. With genuine and earnest sincerity, he asked if that wasn’t old enough for him to be left alone (he was a few months shy of his third birthday). My brother-in-law is a sharp tack, he really is, but people without kids can’t appreciate the anxiety and hyperactive imaginations of parents. In considering his invitation, our minds traveled first to the emotional trauma of Joshua waking up from a nightmare to find the house empty and himself alone. Keep in mind that he has never really woken up from one and come out to look for us. There would be years of therapy bills, innumerable trips to the toy store to buy our Hasbro-branded indulgences for this Grave Sin, and a lifetime of being The Worst Parents Ever. This is just where our minds go. Then, we move on to the increasingly unrealistic doomsday scenarios of us all being killed in a plane crash* that maims us beyond recognition and Joshua starves to death in the time it takes the authorities to ID our mangled corpses and search their records to find out we have a kid at home who’s probably run out of Goldfish crackers. Now, in all likelihood, we could go out, grab a few scoops of cake batter ice cream**, and come back without him waking up or ever even knowing it had happened. But the guilt if something should happen, the fear of something happening, the horrific tales spun by frenzied, sleep-deprived minds of what could happen, all cripple our ability to leave the house together.
Thus, Jen and I are a babysitters club of two, taking turns while the other samples the night air en route to pick up milkshakes, or incidentals, or to drive to the engagements we have learned to schedule as unaccompanied outings. We are paid only in clean consciences and the tiniest joys that come from once-again sampling the out of doors without Dead Weight and the Barnacle hanging on. These are the moments we live for. So, thank you, late-night convenience store worker, for talking to me like an adult and not demanding that I tell you for the 8,000th time about letters and numbers. You have no idea that you made my night by just not caring about me at all.
*I don’t know why we’d take a plane to get ice cream. I mean, if they won’t let you take a bottle of shampoo with you, there’s no way an ice cream cone gets through security.
**A gift from God, if e’er there were one, and well worth trying to get it through airport security.