I can’t blame them. Anyone who has spent five minutes with me can see that I’m not the motherly type. I routinely walk out of my apartment with toothpaste on my chin and sleeves, and I’m the only person over twelve who thinks yelling “Not it!” irreversibly absolves me from all duties I find distasteful. I spent my tax return turning my loft into a fort and am still saving up for a ball pit. Nurturer I am not.
But it doesn’t take a degree in psychology to see how I ended up taking care of other people’s kids. My father disappeared when I was an infant, leaving my mother and me in the hands of a vast Southern family who self-consciously scrambled to fill his void. Countless adults adoringly petted me while lamenting my fatherlessness. My earliest memories are backlit by both an absence and glut of love.
Then, when I was nine, my mother married a military man who made her happy, had another baby, and moved the entire family five hundred miles away. In this freshly nuclear-ized family, I starved for my old life. Suddenly, I was the shy standout among three extroverts, the sulky bookworm jealous of her photogenic sister. We all hoped the disconnection was an adolescent phase, but my college departure didn’t help. I spent most of my vacations with friends. When asked about the rift, I claimed I just wasn’t a family person, but of course I desperately was. I just preferred other people’s families.
Most kids begin babysitting around twelve, but I started years earlier, when I was hardly an inch taller than some of my charges. By fourteen, I had earned a pile of money for college. At sixteen, when my parents demanded that I get a real job to prove my maturity to selective schools, I flat-out refused.
“Why is changing diapers so much better than steaming lattes?” my mother demanded after finding the Starbucks application she had brought home crumpled in the trash.
I didn’t know what to tell her. The truth was that I lived for the fifteen minutes before the parents left, when they wrote out emergency numbers while their kids climbed up my legs, a time most parents and babysitters find awkward but obligatory, the suburban changing of the guards. I loved standing on the threshold of another family’s existence, enmeshed in a domesticity different than the complicated one waiting for me at home. While I stood there, nodding at the list of allergies and bedtimes, it was all I could do to restrain myself from throwing my arms around the mother and father like a waif, begging that they take me in.
Yet despite the years I’ve logged telling ghost stories and building pillow forts, of recounting the evening’s antics with parents at the end of their date night, I never found a family who wanted me as badly as I wanted them. I could only pretend to belong in this living room, with this family, until the mother started rummaging through her purse for cash, and I was again relegated to an employed interloper. The night always concluded with a solitary trip home and a wad of money that – like a father referring to me as “the help” or finding a nanny cam lodged on a child’s bookshelf – said I wasn’t part of the family after all.