In some ways, asking a childless woman to babysit is a really smart move. She will be so terrified of breaking your only infant that she’ll stay vigilant; she’ll tend to every creak and murmur out of turgid-knickered fear. But in a lot of other ways it’s also pretty stupid. Because she hasn’t got a bloody clue what she’s doing. She has no skills and no instinct. If she’s lucky she has a large bar of Fruit & Nut and a bottle of red.
Take now for instance. I’m babysitting as I type. If I wasn’t I’d probably be writing my column about the environment or how to fix Africa. But I’m not. I’m babysitting. Last time I babysat I got poo under my fingernails. I hope I’ve improved.
Things got off to a bad start when I tried and failed to work the telly. First mistake – opting for ambient noise when you should really be listening for signs of colic, hunger, choking, pooping, general melancholia, or dying. It’s like the television knew keeping me entertained was a bad idea. “Just focus on keeping the kid alive for god’s sake, Hasler, yeah?”
Naturally I turned to social media for comfort. I flung a couple of emergency flares out onto Facebook and Twitter, just so that people knew I was in a vulnerable situation. I was glad to observe that some of the responders were friendly types that could potentially be relied upon to be character witnesses. “Sadie? Oh yes, normally she’s absolutely fiiine with kids. Except for that ‘head-in-bannisters’ incident. But the kid was a wriggler; what can you do?”
I wasn’t looking for any answers, really. I just wanted to feel like I wasn’t alone. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a new parent alone at home with a baby with nowhere for all that fear and fierceness to go but into bottles and kisses.
I decided, as the child seemed perfectly alive, to get on with my work.
But all I could think of was the little boy upstairs, just turned one – his eyelids fluttering with the pull of dreams and his breathing so low and steady it’s like his lungs were conserving themselves for later life, when stuff gets harder. I felt strangely honoured to be there for a few hours of his contented silence. His unmarked newness.
I thought of my dog and how responsible I feel for him. For his health and happiness. For his provision and continued safety. How I want to vomit if he even hurts a paw. I allowed myself to wonder if I might not be an abysmal mother, after all. One day. If the urge ever kicks in.
I visualised my boyfriend holding a little bundle and smiling at me. He has a very fatherly beard. He could be trusted to do the sensible bits of parenthood in a beard while I charge around being a disco-dancing dinosaur.
Part of me wants to have a baby just to see if I can bring it up without breaking it.
Part of me wants to have my greying head ruffled by a giant son thanking me for dinner.
And part of me shudders and thinks “That would be so inconvenient – loving something that needs you so much.”
Is it just cowardice that makes me feel this, or a more fundamental reluctance that I should listen to? How can you tell? Is it like when you need a wee; you just know; you feel it?
Deciding to not have children is just as brave as having them, but I suspect parents have fewer regrets than those who opted to keep their fingernails clean.