Babysitter

By

For my daughter Stella’s first birthday, we got her a babysitter.

We decided to celebrate without her because we’d attended several first birthday parties and the format didn’t appeal. The one-year-old in question often awoke from a nap to serve as the lead actor in the smash cake spectacle. Or, just as stranger anxiety crested, dozens of strangers surrounded the baby, all wanting to hold it. For the adult attendees, the experience was infantilizing, endurable only if the hosting parents were transgressive enough to serve booze. In short, the first birthday party seemed to be less about the delight of the child and more about commemorating the parents’ achievement: a year survived.

In recognition of this, we planned a dinner party, no kids allowed. The babysitter would care for Stella while we cooked and cleaned. After her bedtime, we would welcome our guests for an evening of tame debauchery (strong margaritas! four-letter words!) and a triumphant revival of and return to our Old Selves, who did things like host parties and stay up past 9 p.m.

When the babysitter arrived, I was upstairs in our bedroom, tidying up life-crumbs (dingy socks, stray pubes), straining to hear the door, compulsively glancing at the clock every few seconds, already worried this young stranger would flake, despite the text message endorsement that had come from a teacher at Stella’s school: “She is very responsible!!” And indeed, she came to the side porch entrance right on time, at 4:02 p.m. It was the first time a babysitter had come to the door of my home since I was the one being babysat.

The realization was startling, an errant bird bashing into the bedroom window.

My husband, Sebastian, answered the door. Without catching the exact words of their perfunctory greetings, I heard the rising and falling of voices. My husband’s reserved, efficient baritone. The pitch and lilt of the young woman’s voice that, upon reaching me, served as an accelerant for my agitation.

I moved quickly downstairs to intervene, picking up Stella from the kitchen floor on my way to the living room, shifting her to a hip to free my hand for a handshake. “Hello! You must be Katie. I’m Susan. This is Stella. Come on in.”

“Thank you!” Katie put her purse down on the entryway console. “Oh, my gosh. She is so cute!”

I still hadn’t learned to respond to people calling my baby cute. Thank you! (It wasn’t me she called cute.) Yes, she is! (Could be misread as arrogance?) I guess, but her head is a little misshapen. (Corrects for arrogance, but… weird.)

I tried out a new line: “Yeah, she’s taken all my youth and beauty.”

Katie was all youth and beauty. Tall. Blonde. Slender. Tan. No makeup. She wore her shoulder-length hair straight. Pink short-short athletic shorts announced the beginning of her smooth, golden legs, and white anklets and sneakers defined the end. The caricature of a coed.

By contrast, I was suddenly, unequivocally middle-aged. Pregnancy, childbirth, and the first year postpartum had been something of a liminal space. The drama and pace of the changes my body underwent was so dizzying there was no question it was temporary. I couldn’t inflate and deflate at that clip forever. My body would have to settle. And the arrival of this nubile young woman made it clear on which side of the maiden/ma’am fence I had landed.

 

“The babysitter’s highly charged position as a youthful stranger overseeing children within the privacy of the American home made [her] a lightning rod for the expression of adults’ profound uncertainties.”1

 

My postpartum torso is transformed, the muscles atrophied. When I palpate my midsection, soft flesh gives way. My fingers find the licorice ropes of tendon and ligament that harness the pelvis, the hips, the lumbar spine. I have been delicate about exercising, worried I will aggravate my diastasis recti, an abnormal separation of the two sides of the six-pack formed by the abdominals. When I was pregnant, my ballooning uterus stretched the band of connective tissue joining the muscles together.

It’s shot now, like an old bathing suit.

The navel is deeper and wider. The skin of the torso ripples like the surface of water when a dry, brisk wind blows over it. Somehow, even the subcutaneous fat itself has gone softer. Before, it had the firmness of Jell-O. Now, it has the quality of a good bone broth chilled in the refrigerator—a jiggly, melting, gelatinous substance somewhere between liquid and solid.

Sometimes I scrutinize the fat with clinical objectivity. Sometimes I take handfuls and tug in exasperation. Sometimes I delight in how Stella loves to grab handfuls herself. Her love of my squish is an expression of innocence that, through her, I experience in flashes—drops of water sizzling on a hot griddle. These griddle drops are proof: There was a time before revulsion when all bare feet compelled me, those with calluses, bunions, and corns and those with straight toes, oval nails, and smooth soles. There was a time before discernment when I did not know that my wild voice in the dark would disturb someone’s sleep.

There was a time when I knew that my mother’s squish was just my mother, my mama, my ma ma ma ma maaaaa.

 

It was 4:30 and I’d sent Katie and Stella to the park. I traced their route in my mind, regretting how swiftly I’d dispatched them, micromanaging retroactively. I wished I’d told her to cross Avenue H in the middle of the 4500 block and walk along the curb to get to the crosswalk. The cars turning off 45th Street couldn’t see pedestrians walking south. I wished I’d told her not to trust the crosswalk. I’d seen too many cars blow through that light.

And I wished I’d told her to walk past the purple house. Stella loved seeing the goats and chickens there.

I missed her already.

I dismissed my manic regrets, reminding myself Katie was twenty-one and “very responsible!!” Her trip to the park was affording us two, delicious, uninterrupted hours.

Sebastian turned on the radio. We were serving a Mexican menu: chicken with green encacahuatado, sautéed spinach with mushrooms, and white rice; fresh margaritas and guacamole to start; ice cream for dessert.

We set to our respective tasks. I was on the encacahuatado, a roasted peanut sauce with tomatillo and cilantro. To focus my full attention on building up a sauce was an exquisite pleasure. I simmered fragrant broth I’d made earlier in the week and boiled tomatillos until they were soft, the skins delicate like egg membranes. They whirled in the food processor with roasted peanuts, onion, garlic, cumin, cilantro, and serranos until velvety, then were added to the broth.

Sebastian, the engineer, cooked the chicken sous vide. Chicken for nine did not fit in our stock pots, so he’d rigged a larger cooker using a red picnic cooler, binder clips, Ziploc bags, and an immersion circulator.

We hadn’t cooked a meal together since Stella was born, but found our way to our old rhythm, collaborating wordlessly like dance partners. He handed me the good knife. I refilled his water glass. He lowered the flame on my sauce. I sprinkled the chicken with salt as he turned the pieces.

Over the last year, our collaborations had been different, more distant. We were like event staff rotating through stations. He cooked dinner. I nursed. He took Stella on a walk. I washed breast pump parts. He installed the car seat. I gave her a sponge bath. He soothed her to sleep, swaddling, shushing, jiggling. On the other side of the house, I washed our bedsheet, a map of bodily fluid emissions: Lake Spit-Up. Lake Breastmilk. Twin Lakes Stella Pee and Mama Pee.

I had missed this. I had missed him.

He was focused, and all the more handsome for it. He wore a navy apron, one of mine, from my days waiting tables. It flattered, lending him the allure of a good-looking barista observed from across the coffee shop. From the back, the strings set off his narrow waist, which widened into the glutes and thighs of an avid cyclist.

He eased in beside me, sweeping my garlic skins and cilantro stems into the compost crock. “You know,” he said, “I could really go for a cooking dinner beer.”

“Yeah, me, too,” I said, accepting his invitation to celebrate, noticing that celebration felt feasible amid my deepening relaxation. “Let’s do it.”

Sebastian went to the refrigerator to take out a beer, pouring half of it in a glass for me. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” I said.

My desire for the simplicity of spending time alone in the house with my husband was a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

 

“In most families in America today a sitter must be called whenever the parents want to spend an evening out. In fact, the self-contained little family is only made possible by the sitter.”2

 

Katie and Stella were coming in the side porch door, returned from their visit to the park. It was 5:45 p.m., Stella’s dinner time.

“I hear them,” Sebastian said.

“Oh!” The interruption was jarring, a bird swooping too close my head.

“I can’t do anything with the chicken for another half hour. I’ll go help with Stella’s dinner.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. It made sense: My sauce was half-finished and I’d just put the rice on. One of us had to go. He should go. And yet, this prudish flash: Maybe the babysitter should have worn some pants to work! And yet, this bitter rind: Why does having a baby make men sexier and women sexless? I scanned through a half dozen reasons I should go instead, none of them plausible. “Are you sure? I’m happy to do it.”

“No, I’ve got it,” he said, smacking me on the rear before going to join them.

I turned my attention—at least, my eyes and body—back to the rice. I’d taken care to triple wash it, had added garlic, oil, cumin, and bay leaf. I was cooking it uncovered, stirring until most of the water was absorbed, before covering and letting it steam the rest of the way. This technique would ensure flavorful, fragrant rice with separate, intact grains.

Sebastian would never. Because that was what this unease was, right? Between the two of us, I was the one more likely to—had done before—in a previous marriage. I was capable. He wasn’t. He would never.

What, then, was this flicker of fear?

Maybe it was my anxiety about the cliché we’d become: the contemporary, overwhelmed, dual-career-with-a-kid circus act, performing daily feats of strategic time management and death-defying logistical stunts, all while serving nutritious food—and recycling! Collapsing into bed nightly, sexless.

Or maybe it was my fear that my new body had rendered us sexless. My poor body. It could do so much more and so much less.

And maybe it was the memory of the time we’d gone to a strip club together—once—for a friend’s fortieth birthday. We had two lap dances. I solicited the first, he the second. The woman he asked on our behalf was nothing like me. Slender—waiflike, even—with long, brown hair, very small breasts, lots of perfume.

 

“Sitting at the end of the kitchen table there with his children, [the babysitter] had seemed to be self-consciously arching her back, jutting her pert breasts, twitching her thighs: and for whom if not for him?”3

 

My vagina tears during childbirth. These things happen.

It’s minor, as they go—a second-degree tear on a four-degree scale. The tear is at five o’clock, if twelve is the clitoris and six is the anus. The medical professionals stitch it. The labor and delivery nurses tutor me in the care of my flayed undercarriage:

1. Irrigate with a perineal squirt bottle filled with warm water after each visit to the toilet.
2. Pat dry, gently, gently, gently.
3. Spray with numbing lidocaine aerosol.
4. Step into a fresh pair of disposable underwear.
5. Place a diaper stuffed with ice into the crotch.
6. Shimmy the underwear up, gently, gently, gently.
7. Adjust the diaper ice pack, gently, gently, gently.
8. Ahhhhhh.
9. Waddle back to bed.

I look at my fresh tear with a mirror only once in the days after we come home from the hospital. The inflamed wound strains at the black stitches. My tender Franken-twat.

At seven weeks postpartum, sex hurts. The opening of my vagina is small, tight, dry—a knotted drawstring instead of an elastic waistband. I wonder (but don’t ask) what it feels like to him. Isn’t the tight vagina the porny, sexy hallmark of youth—an erection-coaxing quality even the most polite men can’t resist? I wonder (but don’t ask) if the tightness around the opening quickly gives way to a floppy, cavernous mess beyond. If that’s the case, the sensation might be more like fucking a waterbed.

I’m sure I should be doing more Kegels. We are always supposed to be doing more Kegels.

 

At 6:45 p.m., we finished cooking, and Sebastian started juicing limes for margaritas. I rejoined Katie and Stella, so Stella could nurse before bed. I sat down in the nursing glider with her. Katie sat on the ottoman about eighteen inches away, crossing her legs, then propping her chin in one hand. The gesture was both friendly and flirtatious, as if she’d asked her friends to scoot over in the booth at a restaurant, then squeezed herself onto the end.

I was never shy about nursing in public and yet I wanted her to go away. My mind flitted, birdlike, to the dinner scene in which she figured without me: Was she friendly? Flirtatious? Did he see the curve of a taut buttock as she bent to offer Stella a morsel? A glimpse of groin skin as she straddled a dining chair?

I made conversation to cover my unease. “So what sort of work or school do you do when you aren’t babysitting?”

“I actually go to Texas State,” she told me. “I’m a junior. In public relations/communications.” She said “public relations communications,” but I heard the slash.

“Oh, so you’ll graduate soon, then,” I said.

“Yep!”

Stella made the sign for “milk” (a gesture that mimes milking a cow) and started tugging on my collar. I reached into my shirt to pull my breast out.

“I’m going to go clean up the toys,” Katie said, recusing herself. I was surprised by her sensitivity—and grateful the living room would be clean.

Very responsible.

Stella grabbed a breast with both hands, dove toward it, and latched on with a big open mouth and sudden suction, breathing noisily. I thought of the dental hygienist’s instructions to breathe through the nose during a cleaning. Or the circular breathing cultivated by Tuvan throat singers.

When she took a break, I squirted little lasers of milk into her mouth. It was an intimate joke at a cozy bar, and it landed: She giggled. Pride swelled. She was too young to laugh out of obligation, or to please me. I had to be really funny.

 

Before I got pregnant, my breasts were accessories, easygoing participants in whatever I decided we were doing, like a pair of earrings or shoes. I was four weeks pregnant the day that changed. I got up in the morning, put on a bra, got dressed, and went to work. Twelve hours later, I undressed and took off my bra. Over the course of the day, in broad daylight, my nipples had self-actualized. In the morning, they had been the size of pencil erasers. By evening, they were the size of the ends of my thumbs.

Alchemy!

Now, as a lactating mother, my breasts are more like persnickety small appliances with sophisticated but unreliable artificial intelligence. Some lanolin is included as a lubricant. Cotton breast pads as an optional accessory. The manual is written in a language I don’t know well, with a WARNING section enumerating the consequences of improper use: cracked nipples. Thrush. Mastitis. Abscess. If not adequately maintained, they become engorged, spring a leak, soaking through the cotton breast pads, then my nursing bra, then my shirt, reducing me to a stock image of a new mother gone haywire, error lights flashing.

My breasts operate as independent entities, filling with and emptying of milk as part of an intricate demand response system. When they’re full, they’re firm, even hard, the translucent skin showing a lattice of blue veins, the nipples erect, the texture pimpled where ducts are poised to let down milk. When Stella has emptied them, the nipples grow long, stretchy, pliable like a wad of fresh bubble gum, the breasts slack against my ribcage.

 

I dismissed Katie at 7 p.m., a little earlier than planned, and put Stella to bed myself. It seemed simpler than risking a tantrum when a relative stranger botched the nighttime routine.

I changed Stella on our bed, singing a made-up diaper change song to the tune of “I’m a Lumberjack.” I undid the Velcro at her waist, then grabbed both of her ankles in one hand to lift her up, reflexively opening the trash can with my foot to toss the soiled diaper. I took out a fresh wipe and focused on gently cleaning her.

Her poor bottom. It was bright red, angry with a rash so raw that the skin was broken in some places. We had just been to the doctor, who diagnosed it not as garden variety diaper rash, but as yeast.

Yeast!

It wasn’t a vaginal yeast infection, but a yeast infection nevertheless. One of the many hazards of owning a female body, and there she was, a year old, afflicted already.

Before dressing her in pajamas, I blew raspberries on her tummy, relishing the softness of her squish on my muzzle. She squealed with joy, pushing my face away. I retreated, then advanced again, closing in for a kiss. She seized her opportunity, grabbing my nose, wrenching it side to side, digging her thumb into a nostril. She sought to know my nose: the oiliness of the skin, the depth of the nostrils, the flexibility of the cartilage, the hardness of the bone.

When she was satisfied, she yielded to our now-familiar bedtime routine, on which I depended as much as she did. Pajamas. Two books. A trip around her small sleeping nook, saying goodnight to its sparse furnishings and objects. Goodnight chair. Goodnight diapers. Goodnight parenting books. Goodnight stars on the curtains, the blue one, the purple one, the green one, and the tiny one.

“And goodnight, Stella.”

I laid her down in her crib. She rolled onto her stomach, with her knees under her and her butt in the air. I turned off the light.

Our guests would arrive at 7:30 p.m. I went to our room to dress, selecting the first new outfit I’d bought since Stella was born: a pair of high-waisted jeans and a ruffled navy blouse with white polka dots. I chose earrings my sister bought me in New Orleans in the shape of blue-and-yellow shotgun houses.

I looked good. Enough. Good enough. Pretty good. All things considered. Or maybe even not considering all things.

I went downstairs to welcome our guests.

 

Amid the relative disappointments of my torso, my vagina and my breasts, there are my shoulders.

I notice them in the mirror one day, standing under the skylight in the bedroom, where I’ve caught sight of a new let-down: a pinch of crepe-y skin running from chin to throat. Wattle.

But then, the sunlight shifts, flattering the ivory sandbar of my collarbone. Tracing it with my gaze, I encounter my shoulder, where I’m surprised by the roundness, the firmness, the suggestion of a well-developed muscle. I roll the shoulder in its socket—observing the movement of skin, muscle, tendon, and bone—mesmerized by the striations of the deltoid.

I haven’t suffered pushups or soup can lifts or the humiliations of Pilates. To what do I owe this beautiful shoulder?

Ah.

I remember.

I have carried my daughter in my arms every day of her life.

***

Rumpus original art by Lisa Lee Herrick.

***

1. Forman-Brunell, Miriam. Babysitter: An American History. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2009, p. 3.

2. Mead, Margaret. “Family Life is Changing.” In The Encyclopedia of Child Care and Guidance, edited by Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg, 619-626. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954, p. 623.

3. [1] Coover, Robert. “The Babysitter.” Pricksongs and Descants: Fictions. New York, NY: Grove Press, 1969.


Susan Scott Peterson writes intimate essays and memoir about culture and race; poverty and privilege; environmental degradation; and women, families, and parenthood. She draws material from her experiences as an environmentalist, as an American working in West Africa, and, most recently, as a new mother. Susan lives with her partner, Sebastian, and her daughter, Stella, in Austin, Texas. More from this author →