In the fall of 2016, I spent three months living in Haarlem, a town about twenty minutes outside of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. I was on a gap year, and though I got to this location by plane, I had been idiomatically shipped off to relatives for the fall so that my parents could enjoy a three-month trip during my professor mother’s sabbatical.
I was to take care of my second cousin, a nine-month-old named Eloise, who was as precocious as a nine-month-old could be. Eloise was in day care three days a week, and on these days, I walked or took the bus to her daycare on the other side of the town, sometimes bringing along the fifteen-pound miniature pinscher when I felt like making my life more complicated.
On these walks, I played pretend at young motherhood, not bothering to correct the well-intentioned stranger(s) who asked, “it goes by so fast, doesn’t it?” I wore yoga pants and chunky Asics sneakers, imagining that I was recovering from birth myself, or perhaps pregnant with another little one.
The thing about taking care of babies is that they don’t seem like babies. It always surprises me retrospectively when I realize that Eloise couldn’t talk. It surprises me because her opinions were so clear, as was her personality. Even without the power of speech, Eloise could debate and ignore and laugh and cry and trick and surprise and be surprised. She was learning all the time; the same trick to get her to nap one day did not work the next.
I babysat for other families as well—one with a four-month old baby with colic, another a family with four kids. I met all four kids the first time I babysat, and they happened to have two kid friends also staying the night. This finished the count at six kids: one three-year-old girl, and five boys, ranging in age from eight to fourteen. One girl, five boys, and me. Upon my arrival, the three-year-old burst into tears, wailing that she hated me. (Turns out this is really common among toddlers as a tactic to try to get their parents to stay. It doesn’t work, but it does test the sensitivity of the babysitter.)
My pride can’t allow this to pass without informing you that they were all in bed asleep—all six—when the parents came home. Even, especially, the previously howling three-year-old who asked me sleepily as I sang her to sleep if I had the most beautiful voice in the world. Everything balances out.
Before this, I had spent the last four years in a private school in Massachusetts, grinding and panicking my way through high school. When I did think of others, it was how they thought of me, how I could manipulate that understanding. Taking care of Eloise and the other kids was the first time I dedicated a substantial amount of time to thinking about someone else’s needs before my own.
There were a few weeks in which Eloise fell sick and was sleepy and a bit feverish. This meant she was home all day: exhausted and low-energy, sleeping on my chest while I watched the Good Wife with closed captions. The days consisted of this and not much else.
Now, I babysit several times a month, squeezing in gigs after rehearsals and before nights out. I bike or Uber over, often entering houses flushed, and I drop my backpack at the door. In the hours that I spend changing diapers, playing Stratego, singing You Are My Sunshine, I can feel my heart rate steady, my cholesterol levels drop, and my oxytocin levels rise.
I am reminded of a version of myself outside of accomplishment as I wash a cheese-covered plate and soothe a three-month-old to sleep. It is a version of myself my peers don’t get to see, a version outside of time. In sixty years, then as a grandmother, I will be doing the same thing I am doing now—bouncing and cooing and cleaning spit-up. And in both versions, I get to hand the kid back.
Back on campus where I get wrapped up my own endless fascination with myself, my eyes often graze one of the photos stuck with masking tape to my dorm room wall. Eloise is in the baby Bjorn strapped to my chest as we sit on a bus seat. She leans back to look at the photographer, my red circle scarf blanketing her and serving as one more thing to keep us looped together.
And I see myself, almost three years ago, eighteen and in a foreign country, smiling—my gaze and my focus on her.