Sitting Still

It’s not as if I wasn’t expecting it. With tall genes scattered on both sides of the family, my kids were bound to surpass my (almost) 5’3” status eventually. But still it gave me a jolt to see my daughter Sophie’s shoulder edge above mine by a good inch when she sidled up to me before the full-length mirror. Sophie is also about my weight and build, and has been hearing every day of the 12 years since she was born that she looks just like her mother. But this has never been quite so striking as now.

The other day after school, exhausted and buzzing with the energy of the day, I walked into my classroom and was shocked to see myself sitting at my own desk. It was Sophie, of course, but with her hair piled loosely atop her head and her face angled against the muted northern light, I could have sworn she was my grown-up look-alike.

It’s the weirdest thing how the more she looks like me, the less I recognize her for herself. For example, Sophie flew to New York in August to visit my sister, and when I picked her up at the airport, her siblings Max and Lillie in tow, I stood at the gate perplexed as Max cried out, “Sophie!” “Where?” I asked, not realizing the lanky adolescent in the fur-lined vest and hoop earrings six feet in front of me was my daughter.

It wasn’t the fur or the hoops that threw me off, although they didn’t help (thank you, Auntie). It’s simply that when I’m looking for Sophie, I’m expecting to find a familiar little girl who I fail to believe exists only in memory. The girl my daughter has become is as much woman as child, and to further complicate things, she is utterly unlike the girl I was at her age. (Sophie: beautiful, smart, confident, conversant, and an ardent fan of the classics in literature and theater. Me at 12: awkward, smart, roiling pit of insecurity, perpetually tongue-tied, and an ardent fan of Gilligan’s Island and The People’s Court).

Despite our differences, I can keenly relate to many of Sophie’s experiences as she encounters and endures the rites of passage en route to womanhood. For example, Sophie has now reached the exciting age where she can earn some money of her own through babysitting. Having spent several of my own adolescent summers running from one babysitting job to the next, I appreciate the enormity of what Sophie is undertaking as she assumes responsibility for unrelated children and gains entree into the private lives of friends and neighbors. When Sophie told me that at one job she spent the evening singing the four children to sleep one by one, it made me love her fiercely and reminded me just how indelibly the babysitting experience impresses itself upon young girls.

I remember a powerful essay I read in an unassuming little newsletter for parents of girls. I felt a tingling chill of recognition as the writer spoke plainly about the age-old rituals of babysitting—gorging on potato chips and ice cream after the kids are in bed, watching too much TV, gabbing on the phone all evening, and, the guiltiest pleasure of all, snooping. I didn’t know back in my babysitting days, as I searched cupboards and rifled through a drawer here and there, that I was doing more than passing time and assuaging boredom. It took a sharp essayist to point out to me so many years later, when I was hiring babysitters of my own, that a babysitter’s stolen peeks are haphazard attempts to pry into the mysteries of her own future: marriage, motherhood, sex.

By the time a girl is of babysitting age she knows about as many of her parents’ secrets as she can tolerate. But the fresh material inherent in unfamiliar households—the food in the cupboards, the bills stuck to the refrigerator, the photographs on bureaus, and the contents of drawers—is the possible key to understanding what it might mean to grow up.

As for Sophie, she’s Red Cross certified and super competent, and since I’m generally only a few doors away if she needs me, I feel pretty good about her babysitting commitments. Of course, I hope she behaves herself when she’s out there, and I would certainly never condone her snooping around, although I’ll probably never know. And the truth is she hasn’t had much chance to slack on the job, since in her short career she’s navigated one real fire, one false alarm, and a short-circuited kitchen timer that caused the buzzer to blare for about three hours. The relentless noise drove the youngest child to melt down and the oldest child to predict Sophie’s likely firing. Ahh, Sophie. You’ve only just begun.

Jeannine Ouellette is associate editor of The Rake.