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I’ve been thinking a lot about “caring for the other,” and not just according to the biblical mandate to “love thy neighbor,” but something more nuanced. I’ve been considering the concept of “caring for the other who belongs to someone else,” a.k.a. babysitting.
I’ve done a lot of babysitting in my lifetime. During Middle and High School it was my main, and quite significant, source of income. “Caring for the other who does not belong to me,” has become a theme of sorts in my life, and I’ve been enriched by the way these unique relationships both challenge and bless me.
Babysitting at bedtime was probably the most instructive part of caring for children who were not actually mine, and was sometimes a very steep learning curve. I’ll never forget when I finally figured out that the three children whom I regularly shepherded to bed as a high schooler needed to be sort of shouted-at to actually get moving, brush their teeth, and get to bed. That felt weird. Other children came with elaborate bedtime rituals and needs, most of which I found to be endearing. Some children simply couldn’t get to sleep until they had escaped the room and been shuttled back to bed at least twice. The majority of these procedures and expectations were not communicated by parents, but demonstrated by the babies with whom I sat.
In very obvious ways, these children did not belong to me, leaving with cash at the end of the night being a primary example. However, I cared for these children nonetheless; some of them very deeply. They were mine for a time, for a moment, and I did everything I could to love, and direct, and help them be well despite the obvious distinction I felt as babysitter instead of parent.
Having recently cared for a friend’s son while she and her husband were out of town has me thinking once again about “caring for the other who belongs to someone else.” This boy is one of my son’s best buddies, and lives just down the street. We see him all the time; our families have much in common. But, still, he is not mine.
Having Johnny* stay with us involved the wonderful novelty, for each of the boys, of having a brother. Overall, it was very clear that having a brother for the first time was much more fun than not having a brother. They lived fully into the richness of constant, creative playmates, a new bedtime ritual of mischief-making, and the hum of never-ending conversation partners. It was a delight to witness.
And, it was awkward. I had to act like a parent to a child who was not my own. Both Johnny and my son were not accustomed to me using that voice of authority and direction in their life together, as playdates generally seem more flexible and easy-going than, say, bedtime on a school night.
“Caring for the other who does not belong to us,” is a mixed blessing. Over the summer we cared for our friends’ dog while they traveled in Italy for a few weeks. We had to learn Peppy’s* unique patterns and quirks even as we fell in love with her puppy eyes and funny antics. We had to figure out how to communicate with her in ways that she understood. Sometimes we had to guess at the rules or rhythms of her family’s home based on the behaviors we witnessed at ours.
During the times that we were together with the extra dog or extra boy, the relationships grew. Relationships like these grow because of the fondness for the new and novel experience and affections shared together, but they also grow because of the awkward difficulties you overcome together.
The doggy we cared for this summer belongs to our violin teacher, and when we arrive for lessons every single week, dear Peppy does the special dance we learned to love when she lived with us. Her little black eyes beg for us to come give her a special greeting in return. (And, we do.) On Wednesday, when Johnny was packing up to go home, the two boys pleaded with me to allow them to have a sleepover this weekend. (That’s a maybe.) Despite the awkwardness of caring for the other (who belongs to someone else) we just cannot seem to get enough of the other.
Lately, I spend a lot of time in these brief, sweet and challenging relationships. Currently, my main employment is an interim position. A large part of my job involves working with college students and their mentors who are spread all across the United States. I develop and carry out special programs for this unique and quirky group, and in order to do that, I stepped into shoes that had recently been filled by three different people. There were many rhythms and ‘rules’ to figure out by mistake, and expectations I learned about on the fly. Yet, in the Fall, when we finally met up together for the annual retreat, one of the very first comments I offered to my boss was a very genuine, “Oh, I love these guys!” It was a clunky start, but as we roughed along together and had plenty of fun, affection for one another grew in abundance.
I also recently joined a new committee at church, the Interim Pastor Search Committee. If you cannot tell, I have plenty of thoughts, hopes and dreams, and probably a surprising amount of ingrained and subconscious rhythms and expectations for what we can and should look for in this Interim Pastor. Still, I know that we will grow to love and learn from any pastor who comes to care for us, even for a time, and even if we do not belong to them.
People are built for relationship, for loving our neighbor. It takes a lot of kinds of relationships to plumb the bottom of that biblical mandate, and we have much to garner from trying our best. I believe it. Now, please, pray for my parents who will babysit my children for ten days while I travel with my husband. (Thank you.)
* Names changed for privacy