They turn their tiny noses up at most of what I eat.
I eat coconut chips and turmeric lattes, sautéed greens and tomatoes sprinkled with salt. I try to share. An experiment with some zucchini ends with the zucchini reappearing in the toddler’s mouth after an uncomfortable three seconds where she looks at me as if I have betrayed her. I fetch a napkin, wondering if there was a time I was so averse to anything green, anything strong, anything with…flavor.
My groceries reflect my time with the kids. After a day of serving macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, my bags don’t include dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks or flavored yogurt. If I shop after a day spent with them, invariably my cart includes black garlic hummus and punjabi eggplant and Gorgonzola piccante so sharp it nearly burns the tongue. I sneak up the stairs, “late,” 9 pm when everyone is sleeping, and I stir turmeric and ginger and honey into hot milk. I sprinkle bright goat cheese onto salads and whisk tahini with olive oil for a dressing. For a midnight snack I sometimes eat kimchi from the jar.
It’s a curious thing, to live in a house with the children that you care for. They depend on me: for a set number of hours each week. I experience moments of tenderness, gently rocking the toddler as she drifts into sleep, and moments of relief: they are not mine. I will now descend into my basement lair and leave the tears and tantrums to someone else.
Taking care of a five-year-old and a toddler, at times I feel impossibly old. No longer the child, I am charged with putting someone else’s needs first, all the time. Their problems are so easily solved, their worlds small. They don’t understand, not really, that I, too, am sometimes scared and confused. That I sometimes long for a hug from my mom. That popsicles and band-aids don’t fix everything.
It’s strange to realize that I am not quite a person for them, or not in the way that I have learned to see people. The complicated interior life. The hopes and dreams. They have seen me cry and their faces don’t change. I wonder what they’re thinking. Empathy, I guess, is something we teach, something we learn.
In some ways, spending time with children is like spending time with people from another culture who speak a language you haven’t quite mastered. They will not understand, or maybe care, about the specifics of your day or just exactly what you think about the book you’re reading. And you, despite trying, cannot express these things. You learn quickly that political debates are out. Quoting The Princess Bride is out. That great pun you thought of, you’ll have to keep to yourself.
So, here, language fails you.
It’s frustrating. It’s strange. If you are really language-oriented, like I am, you’ll wonder who you are without your words. You’ll feel like a paper doll.
And you’ll find that it’s kind of refreshing.
Maybe you kick a ball back and forth or splash in a pool or dance or help cut vegetables for a pizza or play a board game: all things I did with my host family before I attained fluency in French. What I thought about these activities didn’t matter so much. I just did them.
So many times I swallowed that witty comment and I missed the joke and I contributed nothing verbally. And robbed of my words, I found I still existed. I was still appreciated, and loved.
I suppose that it is similar with the children. They don’t know what I feel or think, not really, not usually. But in this case I am not a mute but I am a provider. Of love, of instruction, of fun. Of cheese sticks and open arms and coloring books. Of discipline and library visits and tiny tiny portions of zucchini.
I feel impossibly old sometimes. But I hand them over and head downstairs and I feel young again, the kind of young where I can still be selfish and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The change from my college years is that for the first time, I don’t take this for granted, my freedom.
I can spend an hour on my hair. I can buy new and extremely impractical shoes. I can take my hair and my shoes and a new book to a lounge at a high-rise hotel, and I can sit and watch the sun set, the city a backdrop to my cocktail. And I can do this on a Monday if I want to. I can make last-minute decisions and I can stay up all night. My friends can do the same.
Juxtaposed with the responsibility of caring for the children, though, this stage of life seems for the first time finite. And it’s all the sweeter for it.