I sat on a plaid flannel picnic blanket in the park, my legs long in front of me, watching the sunlight dance through newly budding trees. There was still a bite in the air, and we were the only picnickers on the grass that afternoon, but I felt I could sit there for hours, resting my cheek on the little blonde head leaning against my chest, smelling her baby shampoo.
Emma (names have been changed – Ed.), then five, wanted to dress like me on that day off from school, so after breakfast I helped her shimmy out of her Little Mermaid flannel nightgown and into a striped long sleeved shirt that matched my top, baby skinny jeans that mimicked the cut of mine, and saddle shoes, which she called “tip-a-tap shoes,” to mirror my brown-and-white oxfords. Now in the park, she sat in my lap, her denim-clad legs atop mine, and for a few moments, at least, all was still.But then Emma clambered to her feet. She ran over to a tree in the distance, spun around, and came running at me at full five-year-old speed, throwing herself on top of me, planting kisses all over my face. “I LOVE YOU!” she yelled, her big blue eyes with their long little girl eyelashes smooshing up against my thick-framed glasses. I sat us both upright and kissed her cheek. “I love you too, bunny,” I said, and she was off again, running to the tree, running back, crashing into me, kissing me, telling me she loved me. She did this at least a dozen times, as if making a game of emotions. I wasn’t playing, but when I said “I love you too,” I was taken aback by how much it rang true, how much I had come to love Emma, how I felt that I needed nothing else to be happy.
Eventually, the April chill got to us both and I packed up the picnic blanket and the lunch debris and the toys, and Emma took my hand, and we walked to the luxury high-rise building where she lived. It was the sort of building I couldn’t imagine myself ever living in, but it became my second home the year after I graduated from college. I was 22 and working part-time at a literary non-profit, and in order to make rent, I had decided to take up the kind of work that provided me with pocket money when I was in high school: babysitting. I thought that yuppy parents would find me to be an ideal candidate—I had just graduated from an Ivy League school, I had ambitions beyond childcare, I was middle-class—in short, I could pass as their kids’ parent. So, a few weeks after graduating, I signed up for Care.com, an online dating-like website where parents look for childcare, and played up my penchants for arts and crafts and reading aloud.
Soon I received a message from Emma’s mom. She and her husband needed an after-school sitter. When I arrived at their apartment one summer afternoon for an interview, Emma was hiding behind a light blue armchair in the living room, her tiny pink-polished toes peeking out from underneath. Emma wasn’t used to sitters and she wasn’t sure what to make of me. But over pizza, while her parents quizzed me about my graduate school goals and whether or not I was certified to perform CPR, Emma smiled at me from across the table. After making it halfway through her half-slice of pizza, she scrambled off her chair and ran into her room, coming back with a Peter Rabbit-emblazoned photo album. She plopped down on the cream carpet, patted the space next to her, and started narrating her baby pictures to me. That move won me the job—showing off her baby book was Emma’s stamp of approval. Starting in September, I was to pick her up every day at 3:00 PM and stay until one parent got home from work.
With Emma, I toed the line between best friend and disciplinarian. I had predicted this when I took the job: as a 22-year-old, I was closer to her age than her late-thirties parents were, which I had a more recent memory of what it was to be a five-year-old girl, of the trials and tribulations of being forced to eat something you thought was gross, of being made to go home and do homework just when the schoolyard game of tag was getting good, of having to get your knotty hair brushed and pulled into pigtails. But, as a young adult, I could also appreciate Emma’s parents’ point-of-view: she needed to eat vegetables, learn the alphabet, and not look like a ragamuffin.
What I didn’t expect was that I would come to feel a motherly love towards Emma so intense that I began to hear my biological clock ticking a decade early. Caring for her made me feel whole in a way that scared me—I was too young to feel that all I needed to be happy was a child. Looking back, I realize that I felt whole when I was with Emma because I straddled a bizarre line: I saw myself as a child in Emma, and my mother in me. My exhaustion after my afternoons with Emma wasn’t just the result of the physical and mental work of taking care of a little girl. It was also from the emotional work of simultaneously reliving my childhood and seeing into my parenting future, of feeling as if I was carrying my mother with me when I was with Emma.
“Why does everyone think you’re my mom?” Emma asked me on one fall walk home, her fingers laced through mine.
“Well, bunny, it’s because I pick you up from school every day, and a lot of moms pick their kids up from school,” I said.
“But you’re not a mom, you’re a babysitter,” Emma shot back, ever literal.
“Exactly. And there are a lot of babysitters who pick up kids in your class too, right? But you look a lot like me,” I said.
Emma’s baby-fine shoulder-length blonde hair curled at the ends, just like mine had when I was a little girl. She could be very shy, pressing her face into my thigh when an adult she didn’t know well tried to talk to her, or when a new kid on the playground wanted her to join in a game of hide-and-go-seek; when I was little, my mom had to prod me to even say hello to my aunts and uncles at family get-togethers. Emma was also an emotional little girl, always quick to cry if she fell on the playground or if I told her she had to do something she didn’t want to do, like eat sliced cucumbers and carrots with her hummus instead of pretzels; when I was Emma’s age, my father once tried to reason me out of such silly tears by telling me that I would use up all my tears over nothing and not have any left to cry when I needed them, which of course made me cry harder.
But there were times when I was forced to fully see Emma as her own little person. Our differences started dawning on me one evening right before Thanksgiving. I was putting my shoes on at the dining room table, getting ready to leave, Emma’s dad asked her to put away the toys in her room. Once we were alone, he said to me, “You’ve probably figured this out already, but things between Emma’s mom and me aren’t going well.” I hadn’t noticed—I hadn’t seen them together since they interviewed me in June—but I tried to give him an understanding look instead of a blank stare. “We’re getting separated.” I had one shoe laced and felt cemented to my chair. I managed to say, “Of course I’ll do whatever I can to keep things normal for Emma.”
“We’re trying to do what’s best for her,” he said.
When I got home that night, I fell back on my futon and wept. I spent an entire session of therapy hashing out the separation, and why I was so upset about it. I knew I wasn’t just crying for Emma and the dissolution of the world she knew—I was also crying for myself. “Are you angry at Emma’s parents?” my therapist asked me. I nodded. My family fell apart when I was young because of two cases of metastasizing cancer and the deaths of my parents. Part of me felt that keeping a marriage together, unlike death, was in human control, and I wanted Emma’s parents to try harder, to keep it together so that she could keep having the happy childhood that I remembered having, so that I could keep reliving vicariously through her.
At first, Emma took the news with her usual self-assured air. One day as we were scribbling together on a Hello Kitty coloring book, Emma broke the news to me: “Daddy sleeps somewhere else now. Wednesdays are Daddy days.”
Then one afternoon in early December, Emma stopped in her tracks steps from the schoolyard. “I’m too tired to walk,” she said, reaching her arms up to me. I was used to her shtick by this point—she always wanted to be carried home—and normally I would have played my part in the shtick, trying to reason with her about being a big girl, being too big to be carried. But Emma and I both knew that I always gave in, so I scooped her up without protest. I had made a science of it: I’d swing my purse to my left shoulder and pull her onto my right hip. It was as though the knowledge of how to carry a child was in my bones and muscles and had been waiting to be awakened, as though I had my mom’s arms.
With Emma riding on my hip, her parka-hooded head on my shoulder, I trudged forward. But when I tried to set her down at the entrance to the building, she started crying. I felt her nails digging into my neck through her mittens, and her tears formed little beads on my wool coat. “I. MISS. DADDY.,” she heaved out in between sobs. “I know, bunny, I know you do,” I murmured in her ear. “It’s OK to miss Daddy. But you’ll see him tomorrow, remember?”
Emma wailed. Her cries were primal, like those of a newborn. I held her closer and kissed away the tears on her cheeks. I didn’t know what to do—I could call her dad, have him talk to her, reassure her, but that wouldn’t change the fact that he wasn’t coming home that night. Emma didn’t loosen her grip on me until I set her down on her bed. Still sobbing, she let me take off her coat, her scarf, her mittens, her boots. She sobbed into her pink gingham pillow. I rubbed her back and let her cry it out, knowing that she wouldn’t run out of tears, and that though I didn’t understand what it was like to have a parent simultaneously torn from my life and still there, I could give her extra love.
That tantrum was the first of many. Emma was just barely old enough to understand what she had lost, and she was riding waves of anger and sorrow on size K12 feet. When I was hired as her babysitter, I had implicitly signed on to help shield Emma from any waves that broke on her shore. I would be just as present for tear-stained walks home from school as I was for the endless afternoons of Barbies, and the sun-dappled picnics.
That summer, Emma’s mom invited me out for a goodbye dinner—I was leaving for graduate school. We sat in the garden of a farm-to-table restaurant, the one with the pretty strings of lights that Emma always pointed out on our walks home. Emma’s mom and dad sat across from one another, putting on a good face for her and for me. Emma handed me a gift bag and climbed into my lap. I pulled out a sterling silver heart necklace. “I picked it out! Look what’s written on it,” Emma said. “I can read it! It says I-LOVE-YOU.” I kissed her cheek. “I love you too.”
Kristen Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is a candidate for an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter @kwistent.