Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Adventures in Babysitting

I was a teenage babysitter. Since then, I have been many things to many people: a waitress working for tips one bloody nickel at a time, a starving student, an underpaid & undervalued salesperson, an office scapegoat, a reluctant ambassador to my country, a perfectionist confectionarist, a tired wife, a wordless writer, an unwanted daughter, a counsellor who takes it personally, a wary advocate, a friend who tries her best and often fails, and after all of this, I can tell you only two things for certain:

1. babysitting is the hardest job on earth
2. see #1

There is no glory in babysitting, no fortune to be made, no resume-building, no lunch-breaks, even. In fact, when you are tired and need a break, you have to make lunch for other people, convince bratty kids to sit and eat it, then clean up after them. These may be the joys of motherhood, but they are the bane of every babysitter. Babysitters have lower tolerances for snot and other bodily fluids; those things are only cute to the person who pushed this kid out into exitence. You may wipe his various orifices with nary a second thought, but trust me: I do not. Three New Year's Eves in a row, I cleaned the puke of 3 different boys (and this was before I was a drinker!). Did I get a big cash bonus? No. An employee of the month award? Nada. Not even a preferred parking space.

The real kicker is when the parent asks you to do something that they know very well they've never been able to do. One mother would always remind of the 8:30 bedtime, and when that time rolled around, the kids would invariably kick and scream and raise holy hell, but I would get them to bed for better or worse. That's what a babysitter does, even if it doesn't win you any favours with the kids. But the parents are the boss, and like any boss, they have no qualms about delegating all their dirty work down to you. On the drive home, this mother would ask at what time they had gone to bed, and when I told her 8:30, she would always say "Well, they never do that for me!" Gee I'm shocked. I think she just wanted someone else to fail at parenting her kids for once, so every week she set me up for failure, and every week I showed her that at age 13 I was a more competent caregiver than she was. But impossible bedtimes are the least of your worries when you're babysitting because parents have no shame. They'll ask you to do anything:

-"Oh, did I mention the kids are having a sleepover? You don't mind 3 or 4 extra, do you?"

-"Billy's going to need your help studying for his math test. It's tomorrow and he hasn't started yet."

-"Can you bring over some of your own movies? I didn't have time to rent one. Oh, and no hooters."

-"I need 4 dozen cookies for tomorrow's bake sale, but can you do them after Kaitlyn's gone to bed? I think she's got chicken pox or something."

-"Do you know papier mache? I kind of told the kids you'd help them recreate the first Thanksgiving."

-"Can you give the twins a bath? By the smell of them, it's been 3-4 days and they're starting to crust over."

-"Here's a list of 30 Scout Moms - can you see if one of them will switch Den Mother nights with me this week?"

-"If Chris doesn't eat all his broccoli, make him clean his room and his brother's."

Babysitting can be quite hellacious, you never know what's going to come up. But once you're there, you're committed. Parents try to rush out the door before you can even ask too many questions, and then you're left with over-tired, sugar-high kids (because parents are always generous when the babysitter's coming over!) who start trying to take advantage of you the minute parents are gone("Didn't Mom tell you? We're always allowed chocolate for supper on Saturdays AND we can stay up as late as we want AND we can say swears!").

One of the regular gigs I had when I was 13 was for 2 brothers just a year apart in age, but just a couple years younger than myself and both already much taller and broader than I. We all went to the same elementary school so we would walk to their house together when the bell rang. They lived just down the hill from the school, beside a big fenced-in building we used to call the ______ Institute, a very politically- incorrect term for their cultural/religious sect. During recess, we were terrified of that end of the school yard. If you accidentally kicked a ball over the fence, it was a goner. I don't know that these people were all that bad (probably just misunderstood - remember, we were a bunch of white Catholic kids), but they did sacrifice rabbits in front of our young eyes, and that was enough to keep us scared from pre-k through the 8th grade. The worst offense was to have your shoes stolen and thrown over that fence. You would be walking home barefoot that evening because not even the teachers would go near the fencse.

So, it was enough that this house sat beside the dreaded fence, but it had a second thing going against it too: it was an almost-exact replica of the Bates Motel. It was a big, old house, and the later it got, the louder it got. The floorboards creaked for no reason. Huge elm trees tap-tap-tapped against the windows. Some rooms sat empty, echoey, and dark. I sat up long nights, fully spooked, counting down the hours. I had to work 8 hours to earn $20, and in those days, you couldn't buy anything for less than $20.

Back in the day, I operated under the principle that my mother had taught me: always leave the house as clean or cleaner than you found it. To that end, I spent many nights chasing kids around, picking up after them. When they went to bed, I would do up the dishes. Often, there were already plenty of dirty dishes piled precariously in the sink, and I would do them all. And I did it for $2.50 an hour.

You know what's ridiculous? Making $2.50 an hour, that's what. Oh, we like to make a big fuss about the poor children in other countries toiling away in sweatshops for peanuts, but we look the other way when we're the ones opening up our wallets to the little 12 year old girl who watches our children. We acknowledge that the teenagers wrapping up our sandwiches should make minimum wage, but how about the person who cares for our children? Apparently not. And what does that say about our priorities? Your children's safety and well-being should be worth more to you than $2.50. At any rate, I have always said that if you can't afford the tip, then don't go out to dinner. Similarly, if you can't afford a fair wage for a babysitter, then either stay home, or suck up to the in-laws.

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