I am hiding in the bedroom upstairs. Downstairs I can hear my children enjoying a dinner of pizza, juice, and carrots, under the watchful eye of a pair of polite young ladies we know from church. They are tween sisters, #1 and #2 of five. My kids, especially MJ, like them. I do too. I overheard them leading my children in grace before meals when they sat down to the pizza. Good for them.
The girls who are paying us a visit this evening -- sorry, the girls that I am paying to visit us this evening -- have something in common with our family. We are just getting started with babysitting.
This evening, I have hired them to play with the kids (technically just the younger two -- Oscar is 9 and old enough not to be babysat, but not old enough to be in charge of his siblings) while I am busy hunting through the attic for baby clothes and newborn-size diaper covers. Mainly, though, the evening is a dry run for "real" babysitting later on. You know. The kind where Mark and I leave the house. Without (some of) the children. And we pay someone to make sure they, and the house, survive for a couple of hours.
Odd as it may seem, we have literally never done this before. Oh, we've had dates from time to time, but we've always left the children with someone that we know and love enough, um, not to pay. Grandma and Grandpa have taken the kids for an evening, of course. And we've relied on dear friends, "we'll watch your kids this weekend if you'll watch ours next weekend," that sort of thing -- always people the children know and love and feel very safe with. This means that we haven't gone out without the children very often over the course of our marriage. Grandma and Grandpa live far away, and though we trust the goodwill of our friends and are happy to return favors any time we can, it's sort of self-limiting because nobody wants to exploit that kind of generosity. We know they're there when we really NEED a date night; that means saving it for those times.
Which makes it kind of an interesting case study. Why didn't we cultivate babysitters sooner? Why have I been a mother for 9 years and tonight will pay a babysitter for the very first time ever? Or, conversely, if I'm not the type to pay a babysitter, why am I doing it now? Is there some principle I've renounced?
Yes and no. I think it's more a case of the family dynamics being different now that there are three children, the ages we have.
I believe pretty strongly in maintaining strong attachments with and among the children, and limiting separations. I have always done the sorts of things you'd expect -- lots of babywearing, nursing past age three or four, that sort of thing -- and one of the things we've done is kept the kids with us quite a lot, not using institutional day care or babysitters, which took some juggling when I was in grad school and Mark was working, let me tell you. We were never willing to leave Oscar with someone he didn't know very well, back when he was our first and only, and it wasn't much different for Milo either. At the YMCA we would take turns playing with our little guy(s) in the childcare facility, rather than leave them while we both exercised, until they were so comfortable with the staff there that they weren't upset at all to be left -- I think not till well after they were two or three years old. We weren't willing to teach them the hard, tearful way that we would come back to them, we wanted to steer clear of the discontinuity, of that first shock of abandonment. And Mark and I really and truly preferred to keep our "date nights" rare, or to take the children along with us, rather than get used to leaving the children with someone else. We really didn't feel we needed to get away from the kids and be just a "couple," at least not very much.
After all, we're not just a couple. We're a mom and dad. We have sought to find our romance, and our selves, within those roles, and it's generally worked for us.
(Pausing here to acknowledge that not everyone feels the same way, and really, that's fine. If parents truly need to get away by themselves more often than we have needed to, to nurture their marriage and each other, then by all means they should do it.)
But since MJ came along we've been more cavalier about the kid-care. Take the YMCA for example. We worked pretty hard to get MJ to stay in the YMCA child care from a young age -- she was somewhere between one and two when we started leaving her there with her brothers. We are hoping to get the new baby comfortable with the place at an even younger age, obviously not until he is content to go without nursing for the block of time and is comfortable with the staff. And here I am paying a babysitter. Have I abandoned my principles?
With the caveat that I am probably good at fooling myself -- I do not think I have. What I think has happened is that I have seen the development of the dynamic among my children -- the sibling relationships. Remember, these are kids who spend a lot of time together, constant playmates, since they're not separated daily for age-segregated schooling. Here's the thing -- when Oscar was my only little person, to leave him in the YMCA childcare for 40 minutes was to leave him totally unmoored from every anchor of safety he'd ever known. Until he could really understand that he was safe there in that environment, it felt so very wrong to force him into it. But now, my children are a package. Mary Jane, at age three, doesn't enter alone. She enters with her six-year-old and nine-year-old big brothers. She calls Oscar her "protector." She believes she is safe and loved in their presence. And from what I have seen, she is right. I see that she is comfortable and unafraid. (No, she's not always really HAPPY about going into the childcare while I work out, but I can see she is not terrified or disturbed.)
Anyway -- Mark and I talked it over and decided that it's time to branch out a bit. We still like to take our kids with us when we go to restaurants and gatherings (heck, the kids joined us for our anniversary dinner date last Saturday night, and it was a blast.) But as time passes, as we have a little bit more money to spend and a little bit more burnout sometimes at the end of the week, the truth is that we would like to have a chance to concentrate on each other just a bit more often. More often, I think, than we are willing to exploit the good will of our friends. The new baby will be coming along for quite some time, of course, but that's fine. New babies have their challenges, but it is not hard to give a new baby everything he needs while still carrying on a continuous conversation. And I think that's what we're after.
I have about 45 minutes left of my babysitters. I am resisting the urge to eavesdrop some more, but I am wondering whether I could possibly sneak downstairs to find out if there is any pizza left. Should have packed myself a sandwich before sequestering myself up here! How funny that on this, my first night in 9 years in which I have literally bought myself a few hours of freedom, I am somewhat imprisoned in my own bedroom. Hurray for the wireless internet connection.