Other people's kids

Photo via Wilmette Library History

I didn’t particularly like other people’s kids before I became a mother. That might sound odd considering I worked as a babysitter for many years.

Thirty years’ perspective has taught me that my own miserable childhood colored my view of children and childhood. I’d like to think I was a capable babysitter. If you paid me, I’d keep your child safe and entertained, fed and bathed. But on my own time? Shrieking babies and troublesome tots sent me over the edge. Once on a trans-Atlantic flight, I asked to have my seat changed because I could not bear six hours of a baby fussing and kicking at me while the oblivious parents thumbed through magazines and stared out the window.

Once I had my own shrieking baby who became a fussy toddler who became a quirky kid who then morphed into a mouthy tween, I understood. I changed. When you need milk and eggs and diapers, you need them, regardless of baby’s mood that day. You can’t always wait until you have a babysitter to take care of daily business.

While I may be deaf to the hounds of hell in Home Depot, I am not blind to the actions of other people’s children. Just yesterday I was at IKEA and had to speak up because the family seated in front of us in the food court thought putting two toddlers in a shopping cart and parking it behind them constituted child care.

At one point the drooling, whining little girl leaned so far out of the shopping cart she almost toppled onto my crepes. After I protested loudly but politely to the family, the father apologized and guided the baby cage on wheels to another table. Momma Mia, Mea Culpa’s post about an unruly school-aged boy reminded me of one of the most upsetting incidents I’ve ever had involving someone else’s child.

I was in college. My boyfriend and I lived in off-campus housing. It was a rectangular complex with a huge courtyard that held a swimming pool, lots of trees, gardens, and picnic tables. I loved to haul my books, some spiked lemonade, and my blanket down to the pool and study.

During one such poolside study session, I was joined by a 10-year-old boy. Despite posted rules against children swimming alone,  it was just the two of us. I think I may have inquired about his parents, noted the posted rules, and commented on his refusal to leave. Several times I looked around for a nearby adult, but none was present. I felt anger brewing inside of me toward whomever was in charge of this boy. How dare they assume I’d play lifeguard.

I tried to study. I sipped on my drink to soothe my nerves. I tried to ignore his splashing and shouting. Something tugged at my conscience and I looked up from my notes.  I saw one hand reaching out of the deep end of the pool, fingers curled into a claw.

I tossed my book and stood up. The boy surfaced, let out a little yelp, and went under again. Thinking back to the time when we were camping and my brother nearly drowned had my father not been nearby to leap into the murky depths and pull him to the surface and how my brother must have vomited a gallon of pond water before we declared him OK, I began to panic with the certainty that this boy was dying.

I let out a half-hearted, “Hey. You OK?”

I looked around for some reinforcement but the courtyard was deserted. I ran across the deck and jumped in the water. When I touched his back he surfaced,  smiled,  wiped the snot from his face, and started laughing.

He was faking.

I think.

I wanted to strangle him.

I grabbed his arm and pulled him to the edge of the pool. I made him get out.

I marched him over to his chair, told him to get his towel,  and then asked him where he lived.

Silence. Dripping water. Sniffling.

Where do you live? Which apartment is yours? Who are you visiting?

Drip. Drip. Sniff. Sniff.

I looked around the complex, scanning the balconies and walkways.

What the hell? Hadn’t anyone noticed this?

Like I said. I was not the nurturing sort. I needed him to go somewhere safe so I could get back to my homework. I coaxed him out of the pool area and toward the building manager’s office.  Just then a door opened somewhere above us. A voice shrilled from inside the threshold. Responding, the boy bolted from my grasp, flip-flops slapping, water drops marking a trail.

I never saw that boy again or ever found out to whom he belonged. I followed the quickly evaporating droplets to the second floor, but no one answered my knocks of inquiry.

What was I after anyway? An apology? A chance to rant?

Did that kid really fake drowning to get attention?

Did he have a medical condition/behavioral problem?

Did he speak English?

Was he lonely and bored? Did he have an inept caregiver?

I’ll never know.