Monday, June 03, 2013

Professor Babysitter

Earlier this year, I got a panicked call from a younger relative who was about to give birth to her second child. The baby was about 10 days early and everything was fine, but my relative and her husband had no real plan for a babysitter for their 2.5 year old in the event that the new baby came early. That is, no real plan other than calling me and asking me to take care of their daughter.

I must admit that my first thought was not "Of course! Just let me know what I can do to help!" It was more like "Me?? Are you serious?"

They were serious. They selected me because I fit the following criteria: (1) female, (2) relative, (3) parent, and (4) I could get to their location sooner than other female relatives who have kids. Never mind that my daughter is in high school and I have not taken care of a little kid in many many years..

These relatives are a bit traditional (hence their criteria), but what could I do? It didn't seem the right time to be annoyed that they would never ask a male relative to take a day off from work. My relative is a stay-at-home mom and has never had a career. To her, only another mom could take care of her daughter, and her preference was for that mom to be me.

My mind boggled at the number of people I was going to inconvenience at work by canceling or postponing meetings and other events -- undergrads, grads, staff, colleagues, a dean, an off-campus group with which I have been working -- but I sent off a raft of emails and raced off to babysit for an unknown amount of time.

I did make one quick stop on the way -- I ran into a store and acquired paper, crayons, stickers, crackers, juice.. just in case. Then I went to the hospital where my relative was in labor, her husband was freaking out, and their daughter was sitting strapped in a stroller that was soaking wet because her dad had not changed her diaper for many hours. Before leaving their apartment, he had grabbed exactly 2 books and one paisley-patterned stuffed animal of uncertain species. I was glad I had brought some supplies.

I asked my relative-in-law what his daughter might want to eat for lunch and he said, and I quote, "I don't know. Her mom always feeds her."

So my babysitting adventure began. Yikes it has been a while since I spent so much time taking care of a 2.5 years old. It was exhausting even though my little relative is an extremely cute, affectionate, and (mostly) well-behaved kid.

It turns out that my babysitting had to be confined to the hospital waiting room, lobby, and cafeteria, as my relatives wanted their daughter nearby. This was challenging, but fortunately there were things to see and discuss, such as a decorative pond that we agreed should have had fish in it (but didn't), some religious statuary that I found difficult to explain (so I just made stuff up), and waiting room brochures about some rather adult topics (I made up more stuff).

In fact, we had lots of fun playing weird little games with stickers, rhyming words, and the bizarre stuffed animal her dad had brought even though it is one she "hates". I felt that her hatred of this animal was justified, and that this allowed me to throw it in the air without fear of causing her emotional trauma. In fact, throwing this dog(?) around occupied us happily for at least 20 minutes of that very long day.

It turned out that the 2 books her dad had hurriedly packed were both bedtime books and she absolutely refused to read them during the day because it was not bedtime. This was reasonable. I had brought my iPad, so I started downloading books onto it: ones I remembered my daughter had liked. When my daughter was that age, we only read physical books, so this was new for me, reading e-books with a little kid. We spent quite a lot of time reading, then we enhanced the adult-topic brochures with stickers of frogs and ladybugs.

Taking care of this little girl definitely brought back memories. When we were playing by the fishless pool, she said "no fish" about 57 billion times, over and over and over. I tried to be very Zen about it but at some point I realized I was going to go mad, so the next time she said "no fish", I said "no whales". This is exactly what I used to do with my daughter lo those many years ago, but I didn't know how this particular little girl would respond. She stared at me, her eyes huge, her brain churning, and then carefully said "no seals". So I said "no dolphins". We worked our way through every sea creature we could think of, and then, miraculously, my relative-in-law texted me to say that the new baby had arrived! Yay!

But I was not done babysitting. I was not done because my relative-in-law would not yet tell us whether the baby was a boy or a girl because he first had to call his parents and tell them and then he had to call his parents-in-law and tell them and then he could tell his daughter and then he could tell me. He asked us to go back to the waiting room so we would not overhear the "gender reveal" in his phone conversations with the grandparents. Is this normal? Is this some tradition of which I have thus far been unaware? We went back to the waiting room and threw the paisley dog(?) around some more until it was our turns to hear the news (it was a boy).

Eventually the new family was united and even though I think they would not have minded if I continued to babysit for the next few hours or weeks, I decided my work there was done. My relative-in-law was very kind in thanking me for helping them out, but he also told me that he thought the experience had been very good for me. In some ways he was right, but when he said that I realized I needed to go back to my own planet as soon as possible.

What, if anything, did I learn?

It is possible to miss a busy day of work and survive, although there are times when I have doubted this. I am sorry that others were inconvenienced, but I am glad I was able to help out my relative in her time of need.

I can't imagine wanting to live the way these relatives live (I am sure they feel the same about me). Mom takes care of kids; Dad works. Dad doesn't even now how to feed or change his daughter (and now his son). And yet, I like them. They are nice people. And their daughter is a happy, smart, busy little kid.

I am glad my daughter is a teenager. I have enjoyed every age that she has been; every age has been my favorite. I am not at all nostalgic for her baby-years.








44 comments:

Anonymous said...

I still remember the day 45 yrs ago that my parents left four-year-old me with my dad's older faculty colleague and his family while my brother was born -- that now-very-elderly babysitter and I were just reminiscing about it a couple of months ago. You might be surprised at how meaningful a simple kindness to a child can be at a moment of family stress (and excitement); you were good to step in.

Alex said...

Speaking as a proud uncle who considers his little nephews and nieces the most wonderful, adorable, interesting, and intelligent people in the world, I'm offended that somebody would think a male relative can't look after a little one. I would be happy to spend an afternoon looking at ponds and playing with stuffed animals and reading stories and talking about whales. Seriously.

Also, the big sister should be the first to know if she has a little brother or little sister. This is important. She's a big kid now and needs to get started ASAP on the Important Business of being a big sister.

Old MD Girl said...

Great post! I've been finding myself loving the current phase my daughter is in (toddler), and not really missing the baby phase from last year at all. Then I look at baby pictures and I feel guilty for not missing it. I know this is ridiculous. Thanks for your refreshing perspective!

Anonymous said...

Two months away from the birth of my second child. We have the in-laws booked to come ~4 days before my due date to take care of our 3.75 year old.

We have been talking about have a slew of people to call for Plan B/C/D/E/F (should the baby decide to come earlier), but haven't started moving on it. And your story here just gave me urgency! ;)

Although, my husband knows well what his son likes. And sadly, if you just give my son his iPad that we have loaded with Thomas the Tank Engine, it keeps him "drugged" for hours. All the reading and play you did sounds so much more constructive! However, not to burden the babysitter, I just tell them to let him watch tv.

It's crappy they didn't have a plan -- but it's really great for you to help them out. It would be so much nicer if birth didn't have Gaussian curve and was deterministic. ;)

olympiasepiriot said...

Well, in my experience, *especially* with so-called traditional stay-at-home mothers, the #1 requirement being female isn't so much a don't-bother-the-menfolk mentality as a men-can't-be-trusted mentality. It might be just that they can't be trusted to remember the diapers (as you saw); but, less frequently to be sure, it also can mean men can't be trusted with a little girl. I have lost count of the women I have listened to who lived in conservative, traditional environments who poured stuff into my ears 'cause I was an outsider and would be leaving soon. Total anecdotes, but I've had so many of them that if I were a sociologist, I'd be trying to do some stats.

Regarding Is this normal? Is this some tradition of which I have thus far been unaware? I would NOT consider it normal to hide the gender of the new baby sibling from your young charge in favor of telling all those assorted, not present grownups. That's messed up.

Regarding but he also told me that he thought the experience had been very good for me. Jezus on a Hockey Puck! If I had been in your shoes, I'd have replied "How the hell do you know?!" to that bit of condescension. Congratulations for not exploding (or, rather, for not being me...lol).

Meanwhile, I bet your great-niece (?) had a lovely time with you. I love your response to "no fish". Rock on.

Female Science Professor said...

There was a TV in the waiting room, but it was not much use because it was on some channel that we could not change and that showed a legislative hearing involving serious people droning. My little relative kept saying "Who dat?" and pointing at a droning person. I would say "That is Bob Smith". Then she would say "What he SAY?" and I would say something like "He is saying that he doesn't think banks should be regulated and he is hoping that all the puppies in the world are happy." That occupied only about 6 minutes, so the TV option was largely a bust. Many times I wished that we had discussed emergency-babysitting plans in advance, including an option for me to babysit somewhere other than the hospital.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are far more gracious than I. IMO, that's an impressively irresponsible lack of planning. 10 days is not all that early. And labor is not the sudden emergency you see on TV; almost always, there's plenty of time to pack an extensive go bag for the two-year-old, including under the direction if not the actual physical help of mom.

And why confine you to the hospital? This is where you say, FSP, here are the car keys, go to X, Y, and Z (or even home!) because she likes those places.

Colleen said...

The repeating thing kids do interests me from a research perspective. From observation, it seems like kids get into "loops" sometimes of repeating things, similar to how someone with OCD will have obsessive, repetitive thought patterns. I wonder what function this serves - given that the hippocampus is developing rapidly prior to age 3-4, maybe all the repeating is a memorization strategy? Maybe they are literally reinforcing the circuit that is "memory of a pond with no fish" or "the idea of a pond with no fish" or something. If you asked the kid about the pond a few months later, would she remember it, or would the only thing that stuck with her be the idea that some ponds have fish and some don't?

Sorry for the empirical/philosophical aside. But my logical brain is convinced children's repeating must serve some purpose or they wouldn't all do it.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Sir John would agree completely with Alex. Of course, no one in their right mind would ask me to babysit, and he has often looked after his nieces, so we live on your planet.

Comrade Physioprof said...

You say they are "nice people", but the husband/father sounds like a lazy entitled fucken dicke who expects women to take care of everything for him and they both sound like self-absorbed aggrandizing douches with the "gender reveal" crapola and entitled boundary-violaters with their assumption that it was acceptable for them to ask you to take care of their daughter with essentially no advance notice.

Heide Estes said...

My mind kind of boggles at your relatives' expectation that you drop everything to compensate for their lack of planning. And I'm completely impressed at how good-natured your account of the whole experience is.

nicoleandmaggie said...

I still can't get over that the dad didn't know when or how to change a diaper. I would have given any relative of mine (including in-laws) what-for on that. Guessing he's not going to be much help during the baby boot camp either. (Actually, I'm kind of a bitch about that to my colleagues with expectant SAHW as well.)

mathgirl said...

Argh! I'm due in 25 days and, like Anonymous 09:10:00 AM, my mother-in-law is coming 4 days in advance to look after our 4.17 year old. I have several friends (working couples with young kids) who said "don't hesitate to call us if you need us to look after 4.17", so hopefully we're OK. Also, 4.17 can communicate very well what he wants, and we don't really care what they feed him as long as it's something eatable. But I wonder if we should have a more concrete plan...

Female Science Professor said...

Another decision by the new-dad-in- panic-mode was that he didn't want me to leave the hospital with his daughter in part because I have a "small" car (4D hatchback) and he didn't think his daughter would be safe, especially since the weather was not so good. It was just one more weird thing in a weird day and by that point I was in "whatever" mode.

Anonymous said...

This was such a good read to brighten my Monday morning / giggle into my coffee. Thanks! I'm still giggling, actually, and would love to see the adult topic brochures covered in stickers!

Anonymous said...

I love your response to 'no fish'. will have to start doing that with my son and his repeated phrases.. drives me mad but like another commenter I'm sure it serves some developmental purpose.

I think this speaks a lot about your character that you bit your tongue and did your best to respect the wishes of the new parents, who were understandably stressed and preoccupied. Hoping that dad's lack of awareness is more due to the 'freakout' of new baby early than being a slacker. Of course, 10 days is hardly early for a 2nd child.

Yael said...

I agree with CPP. I also have such family (who would totally say the "it's good for you" condescending thing), which is why I keep them as far away from me as possible. I don't want to deal with their kids either if they are going to be like their parents.

Anonymous said...

I love the "no fish" - "no whales" interaction. You probably did more to boost the cognitive development of the little girl than you would have contributed to colleagues and students in the same time period.

darchole said...

My mother was a SAHM, but my father still knew how to change diapers and what I liked at that age, so the father really has no excuse.

Lisa Buckley said...

Excellent read! There were three parts of your experience that rankle me. First, the father who had no apparent idea of how to care for his child. My husband is a researcher, and he has never shirked childcare. Little sisters, a daughter, young cousins: he is no stranger to the dirty diaper and had never gone out of his way to avoid changing, bathing, playing, etc. It's an abdication of responsibility rather than capability that keeps a parent ignorant of basic childcare duties.

Second, the whole "the experience is good for you" comment is one I get any time there is a gathering of people (many who occupy the "man works, woman rears" roles) and there is a baby present. I can't tell you how many times I've had a squalling child with a full diaper shoved in my direction (there are always plenty of other people around) with the comment "Here, it will be good practice for you", since I don't have children. My response has always been "You made her/him, you clean her/him." It's the patronizing tone of the comment that I find irksome, not the task.

Third, that it could be assumed you could just drop everything and go. It sounded like you had a great deal of juggling to do to accommodate the "unexpected" birth. You would have been completely justified in saying "Sorry, I have this meeting and that meeting and the other meeting today. I'm a last-gasp option at best."

You were very, very patient with these relatives. The little girl likely benefited.

Elizabeth Henning said...

Not the most charitable way to have put it, but I'm afraid I have to agree.

GMP said...

We have no relatives within a tens-of-thousands-of-miles radius and no friends whom we would be comfortable inconveniencing like this. When I was delivering babies 2 and 3, it was happening overnight or very early morning, husband dropped me off at the hospital and made sure I was OK, then went to take care of the kids (with No 2, he got our eldest to school then joined me in the hospital, after all was done; with No 3, it was weekend, so they all came after the baby was born). I appreciated having hubby around the first time around, but was just fine with him taking care of our kids with subsequent deliveries so I could labor in peace and not have to worry about the kid(s) being scared or bored. There is something to be said for being left alone while in pain.

FSP, those relatives have major boundary issues and are very disrespectful. I am betting they don't consider your work anything actually worth considering because, you know, you are a woman, end of story; how important can what you do actually be? You are a much better person than me for even keeping them in your life close enough that they would think of calling you for this favor. And I bet they don't even think it is a big favor or a big inconvenience for many people.

Female Science Professor said...

I disagree that my relatives don't consider my work important. They were profuse in their thanks to me for helping them. They might not consider my work as important as, say, my brother's work, but that's not the same thing as saying they don't respect my work/career at all or didn't realize it was a major inconvenience for me to drop everything and help them.

Anonymous said...

Wow, FSP, it sounds like your relatives, especially the husband of your relative, are:
(a) selfish
(b) inconsiderate
(c) self-absorbed drama queens

I mean, seriously? they feel entitled that their lack of planning should constitute an emergency on your part? how inconsiderate of them. The fact that they saw nothing wrong with inconveniencing you, just because you're female, gets on my nerves.

and the father not knowing or even caring to know how to change his own kid's diaper yet expecting YOU to drop everything to do just that for him? I'm speechless.

and then the father going "this experience was good for you" ..if I were in your shoes, I would have responded, "yeah, you really should try it yourself some time, it will be even better for you"

and the whole "gender reveal" drama...seriously?? Do these people think they are the stars of a reality TV show or something?? the fact that they feel the need to engineer something like this shows how they think everyone is watching them. Get over yourselves, people, you are not the center of the universe and neither are your kids.

And then saying your car is 'not safe enough' for his kid...wow....

you were more gracious than I would have been. If I were in that position I don't think I would even have responded to their summons to babysit for them. I would probably have just recommended to them the name of a local babysitter.

New Prof said...

This reminds me of the only occasion when I was asked to babysit. My friends (both academics) had a five year old son and both needed to be away for some urgent work at the time that his school bus dropped him home. They did not have any family nearby. So, they requested me to receive their child and take care of him for an hour before one of them could return home. But, they made very thorough preparations for the same. The previous weekend, they invited me over to their house so that the child could become familiar with me. They gave me detailed instructions about what to feed him after he comes and what games to play with him :) Since I had to teach a class that finished just half an hour before the arrival of the school bus, they also walked me through a short cut between the university and their house. On the morning of the D-day, they informed the bus driver that someone else will be there to receive their son. The whole thing went very smoothly, thanks to proper planning by them. We also became very good friends after that and I still appreciate their thoroughness and thoughtfulness.

Anonymous said...

One can only hope that having FSP in these kids' lives as a role model will balance out the gendered effects of having relative-in-law for a father.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

Your baby days are not over - at some point you will suddenly turn into a grandmother. I'm "due" in August, and am expecting emergency "can you pleeeeeeze take the kid-she's your granddaughter-after-all" calls. Enjoy just having a teenager, even if that is a bit difficult, having the words "enjoy" and "teenager" in the same sentence.

Shay said...

One of my nieces-in-law is a SAHM (not much choice, she's a military spouse in rural Texas).

But my he-man pilot nephew most certainly can feed and change his daughter.

His mother would knock him into the middle of next month if she learned he tried to pull something like that.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with families in this day and age having traditional gender assigned roles for husband and wife : stay at home wife and sole breadwinner husband. I have lots of friends from college and grad school who have chosen this path. Is it their own personal business what lifestyle they want to lead? Sure but as your relatives and my friends show, living -and promoting - traditional gender roles can and does lead to a systematic filter through which the person views and treats OTHER people of the opposite gender around them. Now THAT is no longer their private business on the grounds they aren't hurting anyone else. I read a study that said male bosses who had stay at home wives tended to treat female employees "worse " than male bosses who had wives with equal status jobs/careers.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else besides me think it makes no sense that this father has no clue or interest in taking care of his daughter yet wanted a second child nonetheless...? I am curious how such traditional gender defined men view the purpose of children in their lives. Do they see them as objects for entertainment or what? Why do they want children if they have no interest in taking care of them? (The whole "working my job /career to provide for them is taking care of them" doesn't fly because the man would be working his job or career whether he had kids or not.)

I guess I don't understand why any person - regardless of gender - could be uninterested in taking care of their own kids unless they didn't actually want kids.

Anonymous said...

I like the part where the parents of the father were called first over those of the mother. I guess the all-important news of a boy to carry on the family line was all-important.

EliRabett said...

2/3 lessons on the good side is much better than normal

Anonymous said...

This was hilarious. And you were a great babysitter.

I was willing to excuse a lot of Dad's behavior in the name of "OMG we're having a baby, quick, what do we do?" until I got to the part where Dad felt the experience was good for you. What a bizarre (and funny) thing to say.

Anonymous said...

Yawn, you conveyed the monotony distress so well that I could only skim this post.

@GMP: the radius of the earth is only 4000 miles...

Anonymous said...

This totally reminded me why I am sad you no longer poster most every day......

Mark P

Aaron Claeys said...

Sometimes we work so hard that work kinda becomes like the sun which we revolve around and it seems like it gets harder and harder to take a day off... and then you do and it puts everything into perspective. We're the sun and work revolves around us.

Anonymous said...

HA! We and many of my colleagues also have no family in town (or on the continent in my case), so our plan B for these sort of things involve friends/colleagues who know the child well, and hopefully have similar age kids (it's easier to take care of two friends than of a single child).
As for the dad, he does not know what he's missing in terms of bonding with his own child/children, and in forming a truly close relationship. My hubby shares childcare about 50-50 (meaning i'm the one who figures out daycares camps pediatricians etc, but he does everything else) and he has a much closer relationship with our girls, 8 and 3 yrs old, than my brother who has a more traditional split of duties with wife (reminiscent of your relative's).
Sadly, this traditional role split is very common even nowadays in academic families. Many of my male colleagues boast of having no clue on how to take care of children-- their wives do everything, often putting their own careers on hold. Even more sadly, these are some of the most prominent young scientists in my field. They ask me who watches my kids when I travel, and they marvel that a man (hubby) might be able to take care of his own children ....

Anonymous said...

I'm anonymous 11:34, I forgot to say that my hubby has his own career... so yes, it is possible to have a two-career couple, share childcare, and survive ;-)

fyogs said...

At first I thought "this was good for you" sounded condescending and sexist, as if you needed to get in touch with your femininity and remember what joy a woman's role is. But then I thought of another interpretation. Maybe the new father only meant that it was nice for you to be able to take a day off work and play with a toddler, sort of like a snow day. ??

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny (or sad) that this father doesn't know what to feed his own child. Maybe his brain stopped working due to the excitement of the birth?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it is actually considered among men to be a status symbol to have no clue how to take care of your own child? In this day and age of supposed progressive thinking and gender equality and dual-income marriages, maybe it is a status symbol for a man to show that HE still has a traditional gender-roled family, because such a household model centers around the man's career aspirations and puts everyone else in the family in the position of his support staff. it's like saying "see how I am such a good provider (the traditional masculine role) that my wife is only too happy to give up her career to take care of the kids for me and be my maid/secretary so I can focus exclusively on my career"...sort of like a modern more insiduous version of (a) devaluing women (despite paying lip service to how 'noble' it is that his wife would give up her career to stay home with the kids...if it's so noble why didn't he do it?) and (b) classifying childcare as "women's work" rather than gender-neutral work.

jfwlucy said...

Late comment -- you asked about the delayed "sex reveal," "Is this normal? Is this some tradition of which I have thus far been unaware?"

No, that is not normal and verging on the bizarre.

Anonymous said...

I find it completely understandable why your relative would think that only another mother could take care of her daughter. It looks like she really "knew her man" and based on her experience it was a safe decision for the welfare of her 2.5 yr old.

I feel sorry for the Dad, though, and what he is missing.

Anonymous said...

I love the part at the end where you say every age is your favorite. My daughter is only 10 months old and I feel that way about her little (big!) life.