December 3, 2020

America Needs an Emergency Meeting of the Baby-Sitters Club

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. — A few weeks back, our 9-year-old neighbor, Nealy, cornered me in the driveway. Since summer camp was canceled, she said, and because she is technically too young to babysit (though fully capable of doing so), she wanted to offer her services as a mother’s helper. She would come over and watch my children — ages 20 months and just-turned-3 — so that I could get things done around the house.

It was a pitch I myself had delivered, almost word for word, some 30 years earlier. I asked whether she was a fan of “The Baby-Sitters Club.” Her eyes lit up. Of course she was. I told her she was hired.

First published in 1986, “The Baby-Sitters Club,” by Ann M. Martin, is one of the most enduring and best-selling middle-grade series of all time. For a certain kind of girl, it has long made babysitting synonymous with power and independence.

At 8, my friends and I discovered the books and set about hanging fliers offering our services, desperate to babysit. I didn’t get hired until I was 11, and a mom across the street let me take care of her 6-year-old daughter while she and her husband went to dinner on Saturdays. We’d do crafts and watch movies. Then I would read her a bedtime story and we’d both fall asleep in her bed. Her mother would wake me when she returned, walk me to my front door and hand me a stack of bills. It was the first time I’d ever been paid for work, and I felt wildly sophisticated.

In the age of Covid-19, my generation’s fantasy has flipped. Instead of dreaming of becoming babysitters, we dream of having babysitters.

Most of my friends have been without child care for four months. Maybe this explains why so many of us are devouring the new “Baby-Sitters Club” series on Netflix after our children go to bed. It’s a warm bath of nostalgia, watching the gang gather for their weekly meetings around a landline in Claudia’s bedroom. But the show also conjures the sweet, more recent memory of being able to point toward the in-case-of-emergency numbers on our own refrigerators, pat our children on the heads and leave.

In the Before Times, I had 40 hours of child care a week. Now my husband and I switch off and work in short bursts. I wrote this from the passenger seat of my Honda CR-V as my children dug in a dirt pile a few feet from the open car door. It was a good day. I mostly only get work done in the middle of the night now. I comfort myself with the maybe-truth that day care will be open in the fall.

Meanwhile, there’s Nealy, right across the street, socially distancing with her family, as we are, and eager to help.

The hours she spends with us don’t provide me with time to do much more than water the plants or open the mail. It’s sort of like she’s babysitting my children and I’m babysitting her. But this is no small thing. Before Nealy came, I hadn’t gone to the bathroom alone in weeks.

My son and daughter worship Nealy, and she thinks they’re adorable, but I sense that they’re the extras in a play called “The Babysitter.” Nealy is the star. She blows bubbles or plays Play-Doh with them, but all the while, she is asking me questions, telling me about herself.

The first time she came over, I learned that her cousins are moving to Europe, that she is getting a shoulder-length bob soon, that she wants to be a doctor. When Nealy and her family went away over the Fourth of July, she texted to tell me they were having an awesome time.

From all my years of babysitting, I remember this part, too — how much I wanted the mothers to like me, how curious I was about the versions of adulthood they represented.

There was the gorgeous former preschool teacher from Ireland. She had three babies back to back and on date nights wore black leather pants and red lipstick.

There was the lawyer married to a politician, who had four children, maybe five — one girl, the rest all boys. Her kitchen often swarmed with campaign volunteers. But she was calm. She somehow made domestic chaos appealing.

At 20, I worked in London as a nanny for a family with three boys under 2. Their frazzled mother sometimes confided in me about her doubts, her homesickness, her husband. On the weekends, I worked for her friend, a theater director, whose marriage seemed joyful and fun. Once, I was summoned to babysit for another of their friends, who had just miscarried. She was stylish and kind and extremely wealthy. She sobbed in my arms.

I made note of how these women mothered, how they interacted with their spouses. People always say no one knows what goes on in anyone else’s marriage. But that’s not true. The babysitter knows.

For me, the last of the mothers was Catherine. We met in my senior year of college. She encouraged me to go to New York, put me on the path to my future. Ten years later, I ran into her in the street. She didn’t recognize me. She’d had two more children and many more babysitters by then. But when we knew each other, she made me feel like there was a spotlight shining on me.

The “Baby-Sitters Club” does something similar, centering the young girls who are so rarely central in real life. The grown-ups, dressed for a night out, are just there to get out of the way so the high jinks can begin.

Yesterday, my kids and I were sitting on the front steps with Nealy, and her aunt pulled up in a car. Nealy asked my permission to carry my daughter over to show her. I watched them cross the lawn, my baby on this child’s hip.

I heard Nealy say, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now. I’m babysitting.”

J. Courtney Sullivan is the author, most recently, of “Friends and Strangers.”

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