A childless watcher's experience of babysitting a toddler and an infant: Column
My brother came home after having not visited West Virginia in almost two years. So if you find yourself still asking what COVID really did, it really kept some people from getting to visit other people for a stupid amount of time. But Colton came home at the right time, because there’s nothing better than a West Virginia autumn, especially because its currently Gauley season.
What’s Gauley season? Well it’s the peak time of the year for whitewater rafting down the Gauley River in West Virginia. My mother has become a whitewater rafting junkie in the last three years: She’s rafted each part of the river except the Upper Gauley, so she was eager to take Colton and my very easy-going sister-in-law, Melanie, out on the river. So even though neither of them had ever rafted, they, and a few other family and friends, agreed to go. Which meant someone needed to watch Lilly, age 3, and Bridger, age 9 months. And that’s where I came in.
I don’t want you to think that I have never watched a child before. I have done some babysitting, and I’ve watched Lilly for a few hours on my own. But I’ve never watched an actual baby, and I certainly have never watched a baby and toddler together. So I was understandably a little apprehensive when my mom told me I needed to take a day off work to be Aunt Ceazy — the childless watcher for the day. And I responded by lining up every person I knew to be part of my phone tree in case I needed help, because hello, no phone service on the river. Once the responsible adults left for the day, it was just going to be the kids and a person who we’ve already found out didn’t even want to take responsibility for a goldfish as an adult.
So at 6 in the morning, I was in my stretchy pants and oldest T-shirt, ready to go (only to find out later I didn’t actually need to be there until like 7 —thanks Mom). I got my instructions, which I can sum up in one go: Make sure the baby eats. That was it: Just make sure the baby eats. Sounds totally simple, and made even easier because Mel is a wonderfully organized mommy, who had a “Bridger” food shelf with all the foods he could eat, chopped up in handy serving sizes. It was “Feed the Baby for Dummies”-level sitting. And yet ...
So Lilly got up, and she’s just precious when she wakes up. She has this honey-blonde hair that’s long and hangs over her face, and she wears the cutest little nightgowns, and when she gets up, she likes to wake up with her blankie in mouth. For a little while, it was just her and me: I put on a movie for her, and we chatted a bit before Bridger got up about setting out a line of toy cars and flinging them across the room (an activity we perfected earlier in her visit — I’ll be finding toy cars under furniture for years). But that’s a loud activity, which would have to wait until Bridger woke up. Which he did, not long afterward.
Bridger is the sweetest baby. He’s got really light blonde hair, and he’s smiley and chill. He’s really good at playing independently, even at 9 months, and is on the verge of both crawling and talking, but in no hurry to do either. He’s just a really good baby who unfortunately got hit with a triple threat of not-great things in a short amount of time: cutting teeth, getting a cold and learning to wear a head-shaping helmet. So understandably, he wasn’t feeling his best when he got up, having spent his first whole night with his helmet on.
I’m going to stop here now and tell you that I am now on to you parents. You really try and sell your children to us childless watchers by making them sound totally easy to deal with, by telling us that we won’t have to deal with any gross bodily functions the entire time the childless watcher is there. My brother point-blank told me “Bridger pooped yesterday, so he won’t poop on your watch.” And yet what was in his diaper when I changed him right after he woke up? And what was there again at his next diaper change? If you said “sugar lumps,” you must be trying to lie to some childless watcher.
But he’s my nephew and I love him, and I lived in a dorm all through college with communal bathrooms, so I was not thrown by poopy diapers or a snotty nose. But poor Bridger would not take his bottle — wanted no part of it. And that concerned me, because seriously, the big takeaway from all my instructions was to “Feed the baby.” So I switched to yogurt drops and strawberries, which Bridger worked on while I made peanut butter and jelly Eggos for Lilly, a treat that only aunts can get away with serving for breakfast. And that just set the tone for the whole day.
I had such grand plans, y’all. Lilly and I were going to play cars and color, and Bridger was going to roll around and smile and nap for three hours at a time, and everyone was going to come away from the day happy as a clam. Which are the kind of plans only people who don’t raise small children make. People with small children hear those plans and laugh themselves sick.
Y’all would have laughed at me Monday. Bless his heart, Bridger just was not happy. He’d eat, then he’d want to nap. He’d nap for an hour, and then he’d want back up. He’d eat some, then want held and rocked, and then back for a nap, and the cycle just repeated. Lilly, she was such a trooper through all that, and I rewarded her patience by renting two different movies for her and letting her eat pretty much whatever she wanted (and because Mel is a good mommy, she mostly wanted yogurt and fruit). And my Aunt Betsy saved the day right when Lilly was finally getting bored by bringing down her mini-horse and letting Lilly dress it up and paint on it (and Betsy), followed by Lilly stomping through a bunch of mud puddles (the highlight of her whole West Virginia trip, I’m sure).
So after I got Lilly un-muddied and settled in for another movie (I rented the 1980s “My Little Pony” movie — well worth $3.99), we all waited for the real adults in my family to come home. But poor Bridger, who had eaten solid foods pretty well all day, was missing his daily milk something awful. I tried again to do the bottle, and he wouldn’t take it. At one point, he got so desperate he tried to root around my chest, and I had to remind him that he wouldn’t find anything of use there, but he’s 9 months old, so explaining how human biology works was pretty useless.
Suffice to say, when my brother and Mel got home, looking great after a day in the sun and on the water, they came home to one happy child, one annoyed child and one childless watcher who could only base her success on the fact that both children were alive and still had all the limbs they had when mom and dad left in the morning. Bridger practically flung himself at Mel and her milk ducts, and Lilly got to tell everyone about meeting Scout the Mini-Horse. And they brought me a New River Gorge hoodie, which I don’t know if I deserved, but it's really cute, so I happily took it.
So what did I learn from my day of baby watching? First off, parents will lie to childless watchers about their children’s bodily functions so they won’t be frightened off, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you won’t get a poopy diaper. You will, so suck it up buttercup. And parents, just FYI, your childless watchers are less worried about poopy diapers and more worried something truly serious will happen to your kids on their watch. I must have checked Bridger five times during his naps because I was so worried he’d smush his face too hard into his blanket and not be able to breath. That scared me way more than what would be in his diaper.
Second, plans with kids are “suggestions” at best. Kids have bad days, and young kids mostly don’t have any way of telling you they’re having a bad day besides crying. When they get older, they can send you an emoji and an internet meme that tells you what the problem is, but until then, all you can do is try and comfort them. And you may not be able to do that, either because they just want to cry, or because you lack the milk-making equipment they want. So make your “plans” but be prepared with a back-up system. Or in my case, an Amazon Prime Video account and the “Bee Movie” available for rent.
Third, and this is the most important: When parents with young kids tell you they are tired, they mean it. In fact, if they actually tell you they are tired, they actually passed “tired” and are well into “exhausted.” Parenting children under 5 is no joke, whether it's one or 10. On a good day, they have the attention spans of goldfish mixed with the energy of Tasmanian devils. On a bad day, they need every bit of your love and comfort. On either day, you’re doing it with not enough sleep, probably no shower, and from what I’ve experienced, all you’re eating is whatever food your kids left on their plates after picking through a meal (I myself ate an eighth of a cold, congealed peanut butter and jelly Eggo).
So parents of young children, especially my brother and sister-in-law, I take my hat off to you, because I did it for 12 hours and came out at the end feeling like a big old, tired failure because I literally had one task and I only managed to really accomplish it about three-quarters of the way. You watch these children every day, and you actually have to, like, mold them into good little functioning people, not just keep them alive. Anyone can keep them alive — I did that, and I have the pictures to prove it. But turning them into good little people? Well that’s a true calling, and I’m just glad I can occasionally give y’all a day of rest and you’ll know that at the very least, your children will come back to you with all their limbs still attached, but with a little more sugar in them than usual.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sleep for a week and then soak in a tub. I may not have gotten to color with Lilly while I was cuddling Bridger, but she found my right leg to be an excellent canvas for her “Green marker and stickers” art period. Good thing we’re out of the shorts season.