By Melanie Chartoff
I was her first babysitter. She was twelve weeks old when filmmaker friends entrusted their most precious project to me. They had a meeting they had to make. They were torn at taking time away.
I poo poo’ed their concerns. I oozed faith as they fled out the door. Carmella had foisted emergency numbers, refrigerated breast milk, noisy toys and her new mother’s guilt on me. But she had not given me the most crucial thing.
I lacked motherly instincts.
In my mid-thirties, single all my life, I was stunned by feminist friends—turncoats surrendering to men’s seeds and needs. I never saw it coming. I’d not yet yearned to be a mother, although, as an actor, I played one often on television. This had to be in my range. I had a womb. I had breasts. I knew the adjectives. The outside could give me the inside. Many had been mothers. We all had one.
My mother was a lousy role model, shocked by others’ body functions, their weaknesses and needs. I watched her recoil when changing my sister’s diaper. I saw her repulsed when I had a rash. I felt her falsity when she visited my father in the hospital. Her squeamishness was larger than her love. I feared the mother thing had maybe skipped me. But I would not emulate her this day. I drew myself up to my fullest maturity, warmed up my most mellifluous voice. I reached deep for the right stuff. I took a slug of Carmella’s breast milk and nearly retched. I had no taste for mother’s milk.
I plopped down on the baby blanket so nothing Lulu did would escape me. I watched her like TV. Lulu looked like a new toy with a perfect surface. She looked very breakable. I was nervous. I last babysat when I was fourteen, and then just for the money. Sure, I liked that eight-year old kid and his trainset and his parents were lovely, and they had a nice house on the Ct. shore, but I was a kid myself. I’d not been trained to actually care for another in the heart sense of the word. I could care only in the physical sense of the word. My attentions wanted to be elsewhere. My affections were nowhere.
Just then, little Lulu’s sleeping brow frowned. A lot seemed to be happening now under the surface, in shudders and wiggles. I watched with timid fascination as she took a squinty eyelid taste of the morning light streaming through the apartment window, disliked it, spat it out. Then she peeked with two eyes, blinked a bit, moved her head, scrunched up her face as if smelling something unpleasant. Every move and noise was so darned cute, yet uncontrived for effect. I gave her a preemptive pat on her little leg, just below her pink onesie. It didn’t seem to register amidst all the other stimuli, but, undeterred, I lifted my face within range of hers and grinned her a goofy
I thought I detected a Borscht Belt double take from her little face but who would have taught her that, she was just two months old, she wasn’t yet in show biz, and she wasn’t even Jewish. Her activated little body wrinkled the little storks and bunnies on the baby blanket beneath her. Teeny nonsense sounds emitted from her throat. I don’t recall ever seeing something human so adorable. I prolonged another “Hiiiii!” and added a finger wave near her face.
She focused fully on my finger for a second, her eyes crossed. The next thing that came into her eyes was my involuntarily beaming face. Her eyes rounded. I could only describe her facial expression as amazed. And then, the international expression we’d all call joy ray-gunned into my shy eyes and warmed them welcome. I invited her further into my face with another “Hi, Lulu!” and a chortle erupted out of her.
Wow. This wasn’t even my A material. “Hiiiiiii!” I squealed like a maniac. A Pause. An inhalation. A subliminal decision. Then, she cracked up in an ongoing chuckle. I cracked up, too, in a deep, hysterical way. I never knew how ecstatic laughing into a baby’s eyes could be. And then we went through the whole routine again. “Hiiii!” Her ongoing chuckle, my hysteria now teary as my fear dissipated and pure joy arose.
I sucked an unfamiliar openness from her eyes. She didn’t avert, she had no time limit; she had no compunctions about staring, smiling at length into my face. And she never tired of the peek-a-boo either. No matter how many times I hid behind my hands, then revealed myself, she seemed amazed anew, she seemed not to know where I went or that I would return—it was a surefire crackup over and over.
I fed her with pleasure, I changed her with tenderness—connect Velcro tab A to part B—it was illustrated on the label, and she was better than paper dolls, better than stuffed animals ever were. I lay her down for a nap and watched her drop into asleep with a sappy silly love welling up in me.
I babysat her as much as they’d let me in months to come. Watching her transitions into sleep or wakefulness became favorite past times. Her face was my favorite film. I was there when she cut her first tooth. I was there when she had her first grand mal seizure while napping, her second when waking. I was in the hospital with her mother when she wore a headdress of electrodes for a terrifying supervised sleep. I watched with her father as the monitor graph grew black with squiggly lines as she seized and seized again.
Her sleep became a nightmare from the time she was twelve months old. The Picasso paintings of sleep watchers I had long loved took on a more sinister hue. I wanted to be there for the special diets, her reading lessons, all that they went through in the years as she grew, until they moved away, and I had to stand on all two’s and miss her like a big girl. I owe her so much. I sucked my first maternal instincts from her eyes. I nursed my aboriginal notion of selflessness from her arms. Because of her, there was hope for me to love.
Then, I fell in love with a great guy. I turned thirty-eight and, with the softened new butter of my being, my biological alarm started clanging with a lust to nest, to cook, to care. I needed to make a decision. Would I or wouldn’t I? Would he or wouldn’t we? He had not yet been pollinated by a paternal instinct at fifty-two. It was up to me, and I needed a sign. I always thought I would, or at least wanted to think I would, but got distracted by my acting, and my adventures with my new love. I got stalled by series deals. I got waylaid in loving and living with this fancy-free filmmaker. I assessed.
The call to find father material for breeding had seemed less urgent in me than the call to love this man and the call to be on camera, sometimes his camera. I thought parental desire might overcome ambition as we grew more successful, but so far, our projects were our babies, our careers our pride and joy, our movies our immortality. We felt too transient to stay still and till our lives for a real-life family.
Yet, I loved babysitting Alex, his sister Anne’s infant. The first time we were alone, I watched undaunted this new bundle of nothing but needs napping on his baby blanket like I watched Lulu. I knew much more about babies now, having held and smelled so many in recent years. I was now especially focused on that tenuous moment when they’d first awaken.
At one half year, Alex showed no signs of abnormal sleep patterns. Whew. It seemed he was a balanced baby, and his waking could go either way—glad or mad, regardless of who was at the helm. But we had a special ritual. As Alex surfaced, I’d come closer and hum “Blackbird.” He would erupt awake, teeter like a silent movie, flickering amidst every emotion known to humankind, recognize me, then break into a smile that mainlined delight into me. I would get goofy and giggly, and I noticed that now I got some longing, too. A tender seed of possibility started incubating in me.
As months passed, Alex liked me to tuck him in when I was there. We deemed me his favorite Auntie. We bonded. I read him bedtime stories. I played all the parts. He chortled and mimicked me. His appreciation was worth major face making, and physical distortions. I made a fool of myself for him like for no other man. He trusted me; he took my hand so confidently as a toddler on some first swaggers and his trust enlarged me.
One day Anne called me freaked from work. Alex had fallen into the coffee table and split his lip open. The nanny was unable to calm him. Could I get there until she could?
I dropped everything. I rocketed to her house a mile away. The bloodied nanny let me in. We ran to his side on the kitchen floor. His screams were splitting his lip wider and wider toward his nose. Blood and tears were pouring all over. Oh, God came to my mind and I don’t even believe in God. I took him kicking and inconsolable into my arms, as the nanny grabbed ice cubes from the freezer in a cloth to hold to his mouth, He shoved her hand away. He didn’t recognize my funny voices or Auntie face. I hummed and held him to my heart. He flailed; he kicked. He scratched at my face. His eyes grew wild like an animal in captivity; his primitive shrieks grew shrill. I feared that his wound might worsen on my watch.
Then, suddenly, he stopped.
I thought my care had calmed him. I thought my arms were comforting him. I was only semi aware of his baby blood dripping down his “Toy Story” t-shirt onto my shaky arms, and onto the yellow linoleum floor in the too sunny suburban kitchen. I noticed the little forty-year old Guatemalan nanny had dropped the ice cubes onto the kitchen throw rug. She seemed to be in a trance gazing over my shoulder, maybe longing for her own children too many countries, too many dollars away. I felt the pain of her orphaned motherhood. I could hear the dog barking and whining in the attached garage.
Then I felt her, and I turned.
Thirty-year old Anne had come into the kitchen, car keys clenched in her fist, and behind me she was reaching her arms out for him. Tears of remorse were streaming down her face. I’d driven fast, but I knew, racing here from Hollywood, she had driven far faster.
I was transfixed. I was humbled by the look that passed between them. I surrendered Alex to her arms, the strength and faith in her face. He subsided. He knew everything would be all right now. As the nanny gathered a blanket to him, I was flooded with relief, tenderness, helplessness, plus an acid drip of shame and envy. What the hell was that about? “Drive us to the hospital.” Anne said, throwing me the keys.
I held his foot as they butterfly bandaged up his mouth, as Anne held him, as the doctor reassured her that, if there were a scar, it would give his baby face character. Anne and I were giddy at the diagnosis. Alex was quiet, needed to stay still so he wouldn’t open his wound. He seemed in a state of grace gazing at Anne. Alex never shed a tear the whole time.
But I did, because now I knew for sure—that close as I might come as the sitter, the helper, the auntie, the third lap from the source, I could never be the necessary, the integral point person. I would never be the portal through which a life could be born. I would never be the one a baby knew would make everything all right—the heroine, who’d sacrifice her white business suit, her job, her dignity, her safety, her career, her art, her life to make him safe like all good mothers do.
I would never choose to be fully responsible—it was too late for me to find that courage, that certainty. For me, too much could go wrong to risk the right. I would never be a mother.