Auntie Rachel

Why Breed When I Can Babysit?

Becoming a babysitter in my thirties, I discovered the heart-twisting joy of caring for kids — and the relief of giving them back.

The Aunties Issue

A little more than two years ago, I got a request for help from a stretched-thin family friend (relayed from her mom to my mom to me). She urgently needed someone in New York City to keep her sick 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter occupied for a day or two, until she was cleared to go back to day care. My first impulse was to demur, since I didn’t have the resume for the job. Well into my childless thirties, I had never changed a diaper. And I had never watched someone else’s kid for more than a few minutes, here and there at a picnic or a party, let alone been paid to do it. I thought of babysitting as simply one more traditional rite of American teen girlhood — alongside grinding at school dances and underage drinking — that I had (to my relief) never been invited or expected to participate in.

But, freshly unemployed at the time, I was undeniably available. And $30 an hour sounded great. The mom in question just needed someone to play with her small daughter in one room of their apartment while she took Zoom calls in the other: a perfect training-wheels scenario for an untested rookie.

The next day, I headed uptown to meet my snot-afflicted but spirited young charge — let’s call her Nora — and we hit it off right away. Her approach to playtime was, if authoritarian, straightforward: Fill cup with water; dump in sink; repeat. Take every item of clothing out of dresser; spread on floor; replace in drawer; repeat. Sprint around living room; jump on couch; repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat!!! I could get on her level; all I had to do was commit to the bit.

Over the next year, I sporadically pinch-hit when Nora couldn’t go to day care or both her parents went out for the evening. I gradually learned her routines — play, park, snack, nap, bath, bed — to the point where I was unfazed by a full day of toddler caretaking. At an unmoored moment in my own life, it turned out that spending time with a little person who couldn’t eat, pee, or walk around without my supervision was a great way to feel useful. But what snuck up on me, and took me by surprise with its glow, was the feeling of quickly becoming not just helpful or familiar to Nora but important to her.

After putting Nora to bed one night, I got a text from her mom the next day: “Her first words when she woke up this morning were ‘Rachel come back!’” (Hands down the best professional performance review I’ve ever received.) A few months later, as I was losing my patience during the darkest hour of Nora’s agonizingly slow progress through eating her dinner, she turned to me and melted me into goo with the four little words every babysitter yearns to hear: “Rachel, I love you.”

Is this the drug parents are high on all the time? As a frequent former babysittee myself, with sitters who ranged from memorable duds to saintlike Mary Poppins figures, I certainly knew that any caretaker can loom large for a small person. What I’ve finally discovered, from the other side, is how different a more sustained relationship feels from the kind of pleasant but glancing interactions I have with friends’ or family members’ children in social settings. As it turns out, the sweetness of being needed and trusted (even adored!) by a tiny guileless and vulnerable person is heart-twistingly delicious.

Over the past few years, as a baby boom that I have no plans to participate in has swept my friend group, I’ve often found myself an odd woman out in conversations that pivoted toward parental shoptalk. Until, suddenly, I was the person waving my phone around at the bar, forcing everyone to agree that Nora was unusually cute as I displayed a photo of her lovingly potty-training her teddy bear. I marveled at the developmental leaps she took over the weeks or months between my visits, giving me a kind of warp-speed flipbook perspective. One day, out of nowhere, she was forming full sentences; the next, she was careening down the sidewalk on a tiny bicycle. My little miracle!

My late-breaking babysitting side hustle has given me a way to defuse some of my anxious questions about motherhood and make my answers to them more concrete.

Successfully babysitting for Nora emboldened me to extend my services to a few other parents, too, when the odd occasion arose: taking a friend’s baby out for an afternoon stroll or chauffeuring a sweet and chatty 6-year-old home from school, by way of gymnastics class and (sue me!!) the candy store. Each time, it felt like a chance to try on a life that I had only previously peered at through the store window. It was so easy to soak up strangers’ smiles and glances, slipping into a parallel universe where I was just another stroller-pushing Brooklyn mom, out and about with my (adorable, remarkably well-behaved) child.

Like most women who find themselves staring down (and since crossing) the obstetric Rubicon of age 35, I have asked myself if I want children of my own, biological or otherwise. For a long time, I found the question oddly abstract, to the point that I couldn’t identify a clear feeling one way or the other. Parenthood seemed like something I perhaps should want, or might want at some unknown point in the future, but never something I actually did want.

I think that uncertainty always made me feel a little at sea with the babies and kids I encountered in my social universe, half-unconsciously keeping my distance — either because I didn’t feel sure about how to connect with them, or because I was on some level afraid of getting too close. What if I only imagined or claimed that I didn’t want to have kids because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be good at it? Or, worse, what if I started to understand what was actually fun and fulfilling about spending time with children, and then woke up one morning seized with envy and regret while all my friends basked in the bliss of family life?

What my late-breaking babysitting side hustle has given me, finally, is a way to defuse some of those anxious questions and make my answers to them more concrete. I won’t bury the lede: I don’t want kids now, and I don’t think I will in the future, although I’m not stupid enough to tempt fate by swearing to that.

I feel more certain now in part because babysitting has given me a much more visceral experience of how hard parenting really is. I do feel reassured to know that I can competently watch over a toddler for a day without anything disastrous happening to either of us. But even in brief stretches, it is exhausting to keep a young human alive and (ideally) entertained and (if possible) clean. You have not really confronted your own powerlessness until you’ve tried to convince a 6-year-old who does not want to go to bed to stop watching TV, and to brush her teeth, and to just. Put. On. Her. Pajamas. If I’m honest, the second-best part of every babysitting shift, right after the joy of a kid’s hot little hand in mine, is the moment I walk out the door knowing that they won’t be my responsibility tomorrow.

But I’ve experienced something else, too: my own capacity to love children who don’t “belong” to me, and their astonishing, heart-opening capacity to love me back. I’ve discovered how incredible it feels to make Nora scream with laughter, or catch a baby’s grin as he wraps his hand around my finger, or have a little girl declare me to be her BFF (and draw me a card to prove it) within the first two hours of our acquaintance. I’ve learned that I can be a kid person without being the kind of person who has kids.

Maybe that sounds painfully obvious to anyone who’s spent a lot of time caring for nieces or nephews or neighbors — or anyone who joined the Baby-Sitters Club before they turned 30 — but all of it has felt new and eye-opening to me. I’ve realized that I live in a world full of sweet, smart, curious, stubborn children, whether I decide to add to the population or not. And if I want them in my life, all I have to do is hold out my hand.

Rachel Sanders is an editor and writer who lives in Brooklyn and has worked at The NewsGuild of New York, BuzzFeed News and Bon Appétit.