The teen in the house

How a 16-year-old babysitter conquered our domicile

Our babysitter J. is something of a knockout. The first time we met her, she came to our door in a green T-shirt with the word VEGETARIAN across the chest. Her hair was dyed black. When she turned, her bangles and earrings made the sound of a slot machine, and she talked like a 16-year-old – onegiantwordyaknow? – though she looked five years older. I liked her right away, and so did our son, then one and a half. Within minutes, they were sitting on the floor, J. talking to him like an adult and my son gazing up at her with a crushy expression I had never seen before, a look that totally excluded me. A look between friends.

Meeting the first babysitter is a rite of passage for mothers: There’s no hiding your grown-up status in the presence of a girl who represents the culture you’ve exchanged for babydom. Dubstep? Facebook? Leggings? Wha? Today, of course, the formerly simple transaction of babysitting collides with the anxiety of hyper-parenting. When we went out, I left copious notes on the proper operation of the sound machine and whom to contact in the event that the other three emergency contacts were devoured by meerkats. J. smiled. I casually scattered books outlining our parenting philosophy, Post-it marked to the pages on sleep training, just in case there was nothing good on TV.

All night, I felt distracted, thinking about the teenager in our house. I wasn’t worried about my son; something about J. made me trust her immediately. But I fixated on her the way I would have had I met her when I was 16. “J.’s cool, huh?” I said to my partner. “She would never have spoken to me in high school,” he said mournfully.

I, too, felt intimidated by her worldliness (she has backpacked alone in Russia), and intrigued by her smart insights (she loathes the idea of spring break in Cancun). When we returned – early, I’m sure – I had the sensation that J. and I needed to switch places, as if I should get paid and go home.

Her presence in our lives has this transporting effect, delivering me to my own babysitting days. I looked after a lot of kids, but only one really mattered to me. Her name was Alex, and we met when she was four weeks old and I was 14. At her house after school, I would hold her for a couple of hours while her mother slept off her deprivation. When she was older, we took long walks in the Vancouver rain, and I fed her dinner and sang her songs.

Our time together came to feel like a reprieve from the social labyrinth of high school, a safe place where I could be goofy and unscrutinized and love someone without complication. I now see that warm house as an important liminal zone: I wasn’t a peer of Alex’s parents – I had no idea what traumas a new mother faced – but I wasn’t a child, either. For the first time, I experienced another human being’s great need for me, and this was, in retrospect, my earliest sensation of adulthood. The fact that I – precociously independent yet less than cool – needed her, too, was another kind of revelation: a hint of my own far-off motherhood.

I marvel at the trust her parents showed me. They had no cellphone, no nanny cam, no GPS on Alex’s ankle. Today, babysitter faith is a relic. After we had our second child, I remember attending a party and explaining to a shocked mother that a teenager was taking care of our kids. “What agency did you get her from? Is she trained in baby CPR? Have you considered that she might have a blog?”

But I don’t want to search out J.’s MySpace page. As a parent, I have my share of modern neurotic indulgences, but I’m trying to be retro with respect to my babysitter. With J., I’ve chosen to take another of those leaps of faith that make parenting so exhilarating.

No matter how many notes I leave J. about sleep training, I often come home and find our baby daughter on her lap, wide awake, watching Saturday Night Live, and happy, happy, happy. She survives, and maybe even thrives on these brief encounters with a new way of being cared for, a break from the cautious ways of young parents.

Meanwhile, I thrive on J.’s perfume cloud of teenaged chaos, knowing she’ll soon be in university and out of our lives. There will be other babysitters, but I can’t imagine any will be as good at reminding me that hanging out with kids is actually fun. She is showing them how to be happy in the world without me – the one thing I can’t bring myself to teach them yet.