by Leslie Morgan Steiner
When I was 11 I started my babysitting career. I earned 75 cents an hour. I was unusually responsible for my age and eager for business. Soon enough, I took care of kids at every house in the neighborhood, babysitting three or four nights a week. The kids were great. I loved the free ice cream snuck from every freezer on the block.
But there was one family I never forgot. I’d never met them before that night, but the mom got my number from a neighbor. They lived in a little house directly across from our small red brick elementary school. Three kids ages 4, 8 and 10. The mom was harried, the house messy. Mom looked at her wristwatch and left for an evening meeting almost as soon as I walked in the door, without giving instructions or showing me around the house.
Three hours of complete and utter chaos and high decibel panic followed.
The children were insane. They screamed and ran around the house. Pulled my hair. Hid. Farted in my face. Threw toys at me. Worst of all, the four-year-old repeatedly unlocked the front door and ran out into the night, shrieking and laughing. When I got angry and tried to discipline them, the two older kids laughed at my fear and frustration.
At first I felt like crying. Then I felt like calling the police. I never got them in pajamas, much less in bed. I was in pure lockdown survival mode the entire time. By the time Mom came home, I felt as harried as she looked. Then I did something I’ve never done before or since: I quit. I refused her money and told her I would never babysit for her children again. Ever. They were too much for me.
I now have that family.
This unpleasant revelation came recently when a company hired me to give a few speeches at a fancy resort in Mexico, all expenses paid for myself and my husband. Five days in Cabo in November. Alone. Woohoo!
The only problem: who could possible survive five days alone with our three children, ages 12, 11 and 7?
It was a daunting proposition. We wracked our brains for hours and came up with the only conceivable solution: importing my mother-in-law from New Jersey. She loves us, she loves our kids, and no matter what happened, she would not quit. She dutifully came, especially after we explained that this trip had the potential to extend our marriage five years. We hired a phalange of babysitters and housekeepers to help, and enlisted friends to drive our kids’ to soccer practice.
And still. Nothing could stop the infighting that plagues our family behind closed doors. My cell blessedly did not work in Mexico, but my husband’s phone rang fairly constantly. Invariably there was a screaming, crying child at the other end. The apex came on Saturday, which as usual was jam-packed with a disastrous mix of soccer games, play dates and birthday parties. Our middle child became a whirling dervish of hate because of some conflict over computer time. Our oldest, normally a quiet, sweet boy, exploded and called her the b-word and told her to f-off. At the top of his lungs. In front of my mother-in-law.
This is all my fault because problems like this are always the mother’s fault. I have somehow raised a brilliant crop of insane, rebellious, stubborn offspring who love to fight with each other like most kids love Tootsie Rolls. I have no idea how this happened. Admittedly I shout myself sometimes and I have a fondness for four-letter words. But I value manners; I have my own copy of Emily Post. I respect authority. I have screamed at disciplinarians three times in my lifetime (with impeccable justification, I must add). I almost always got along with my siblings, my parents, and all my babysitters.
So here is my cry: Help me! I do not want children like this. What can I do, more than halfway through my kids’ lives under my roof? I can civilize them. I can turn them into a babysitters’ dream. I just have no idea how.