As a teenager, I had no great ambitions for my future. All I really looked forward to was getting married and making babies. I took every opportunity to spend time with small children, and people seemed to think I did a good job caring for them. Somewhere in my young adulthood, this passion faded and instead I became the person who couldn’t stand the presence of children and was determined never to have any.
Maybe it started when I became convinced no one would ever love me and that I’d never get the opportunity, so I took the “sour grapes” approach. Maybe it was when I started suspecting I had bipolar disorder, and couldn’t fathom the idea of ever feeling stable enough to have children, let alone being willing to put them at the increased risk of inheriting it. Maybe it was a little of both of these, but mostly started when my levels of anxiety began soaring and children were one of the biggest triggers.
Last month I had a vacation planned to go visit my best friend. I would be staying in her home with her, her husband, their 3.5-year-old daughter we’ll call “Emily”, and another of their friends who I’ve casually known for years. I went over and over my list of vacation-related anxieties with not one but two counselors. One of my biggest concerns was over my ability to handle that much time spent with a small child. Actually, two small children, as I learned after planning the trip that my best friend would be babysitting a 2.5-year-old boy we’ll call “Miles” on a couple of the days.
I developed a plan for each of my anxieties. Unsurprisingly, I also developed new anxieties once those were under control. The only thing I truly needed to worry about was the idea of spending time with children. Everything else fell into place easily. The children, however? I was still filled with dread, increased somewhat by a traumatic experience at Easter, in which 5 other adults left me to supervise my cousin’s own 3.5-year-old, “Elliott”, at the same time that I was trying to cook a huge dinner single-handedly. In short, I nearly stuck my hand on a hot burner as a way to escape the situation, because going to the ER with severe burns sounded less painful than where I was.
So I showed up in my friend’s city feeling anxious. The first evening seemed to go well, and I relaxed a little. Then in the morning I awoke, poured a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and was barely done with the last bite when my friend announced she was going out for a run for 20 minutes and that I’d be watching Emily. She disappeared out the door before I even had a moment to process what she had said.
Those 20 minutes went okay, with me feeling awkward and embarrassed at playing on a toddler’s level, but nothing terrible happened. Then my friend returned from her run and Emily wandered outside. She was with their other guest, but I sensed he wasn’t really supervising her and also she needed to be corralled into the house to get ready for an outing. I went out to fetch her, and she ran from me. Halfway around the block I chased her before she finally seemed to sense that she was in deep trouble and stopped so I could scoop her up and carry her home.
Mere hours later, we went to the park across the intersection from their house. Emily was playing with her friend “Maggie”, climbing up the slides instead of slipping down them. All of a sudden, Maggie reached the top of a large climbing wall, and Emily pushed her off. Maggie managed to hang on and regain her footing, then Emily pushed her again. Both their mothers were standing at the foot of the climbing wall in a panic, with Maggie’s mom reaching high above her head to try getting a grip on her daughter and pull her down from the wall safely. Emily’s mother raced to the top of the playground to stop Emily from pushing Maggie again. I stood in horror, feeling that I was seeing the end of a friendship that would never recover.
Both mothers rushed to take their children home. My friend made Emily write an apology card, and I stared in awe at her ability to not be having a total meltdown over this incident. I was certainly melting down on the inside. I was convinced that if all this could happen within the first day of my visit there was no way I could survive the whole week, and it took every last ounce of my willpower to not buy a bus ticket to return home that day.
Emily is, to put it mildly, strong-willed. She wants things how she wants them, exactly when she wants them, and can go from smiling to screaming in an instant when she’s displeased by something. I couldn’t even fathom what it would be like adding another child to the mix, despite my friend’s insistence that Miles is exactly the opposite. Plus, even when things seemed to calm down and we were just playing, it was agonizing trying to summon the energy to keep up with Emily, wondering how long I’d be responsible for keeping her occupied.
Two things got me through the week. First, I made a great effort to focus on mindfulness. I kept prompting myself to stay in the current moment of dining or picking vegetables or playing hide and seek, rather than dwelling on the previous moments or worrying about how many more of them I needed to survive through. Second, I came to realize that I am 34 years old and have trouble managing my emotions, so I certainly can’t expect a toddler to do better at it than I can. I was downright jealous when she threw herself face down on the floor and wailed, wishing it was socially acceptable for me to do the same.
It was lucky I found these two coping mechanisms, because my friend’s days of babysitting turned into outings with the children, and by default I became responsible for Miles when she couldn’t possibly wrangle them both at once. She was right that he was completely opposite from Emily – even if he was unhappy about something, he was so quiet in his complaints and patient in awaiting their resolution. So it wasn’t so bad taking them out to a 50s-style diner for lunch, with the children contained in their highchairs and me spoon-feeding Miles when he lost the motivation to feed himself.
The next day was more challenging, as their other guest accompanied us to a pioneer village and then to a small farm with an interactive museum. I did a lot of stooping to hold Miles’ hand as we wandered around, and carrying him when he started getting gravel inside his shoes. I was tired by then, and having a little more trouble maintaining mindfulness, when my friend apologized for dragging two people who don’t want kids on an outing with kids, but said, “You’re both being such good sports about it.” That’s what I need to be focusing on in all of my life right now…being a good sport even when the universe seems to be ganging up on me.