Happiness is a big loud garbage truck, and other tales
Given a choice between spending time with a kid or a grownup, I'll take the child every time. Children are more interesting than adults. They'll tell you exactly what they're thinking. The world still fascinates them; it's still full of magic. And children are full of surprises. You never know what a 3-year-old will say next.
I'm particularly mad about babies. If I hold a baby for 10 minutes, I'm high for the rest of the day. I'm the rare person on the airplane who hopes the exhausted single mom struggling down the aisle with the fretful infant in her arms is going to sit next to me.
When my own son was born, 24 years ago, I left the practice of law to stay home with him. Although trading legal briefs for bath toys wouldn't work for every 34-year-old professional, I was exactly where I wanted to be — on the floor, singing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" to my kid.
"You may not be getting quality time," I often told him as I hunkered down beside him in the sandbox, "but God knows you're getting quantity time."
The sad truth about motherhood, though, is that if you do your job well and raise a happy, secure, and confident individual — you put yourself out of a job.
At 15, Tom no longer needed active mothering. He needed space and independence. I had to let go. And I did. But it hurt!
I was proud of my accomplished, confident teenager. But I missed the little boy who had wanted nothing more than to read books, paint pictures, make his stuffed animals come to life, and explore the neighborhood with me.
Taking on new clients
I could have returned to the practice of law. But I'm really good with kids. And I realized that I needed them in my life. So I did something unusual for a 50-year-old woman with a law degree.
I started babysitting.
I took a part-time job at my local library and put up a notice: "Wise, fun, mature library worker, great with kids, seeks occasional babysitting in your home."
I was a little nervous on my first job. I hadn't taken care of a toddler in over a decade. But I needn't have worried. Moments after I met happy, bright-eyed Olivia, we were building towers with her blocks, acting out goofy stories with her stuffed bears, and reading board books.
I was back where I belonged: on the floor, with a child.
In the decade since, I've cared for dozens of neighborhood kids. I have only two rules. I won't drive. And I don't watch television.
I'll often find a new charge in front of the screen, expecting that I'll spend the next few hours watching along.
"It's beautiful outside," I'll suggest. "Let's go for a walk and explore."
That's usually all it takes. But if not, I don't give up.
"Want to read a story?" I'll ask. "Play hide and seek?"
The Disney Channel can be very compelling. But I persist.
"Let's walk the dog. You haven't got a dog? Let's borrow a neighbor's dog and take him for a walk."
There isn't a kid who wouldn't rather play than watch "Hannah Montana." Cable is great, but I'm from a generation that went out to play, roaming the neighborhood till it was too dark to see.
I take care of 21st-century kids as if it's still the '50s.
Milo, formerly addicted to Elmo, now adores the playground. Zoey makes up songs on the piano for her sister (and their hamster) to dance to. Sam writes picture books to sell to his parents when they get home.
One of the best times I've ever had was a morning I spent with 2-year-old Suzi, a little girl who is fascinated by heavy machinery, following a compellingly noisy garbage truck around the neighborhood. She was totally blissed out.
I, too, was perfectly contented.
"It doesn't get better than this," I said to her.
Its own reward
Babysitting is so cool that I often wonder why more empty-nesters don't try it.
I've taken care of 5-year-old Hanina every week since he was a baby. I'm such an integral part of his life that, for a while, he insisted I was actually a member of his family. (A pretty neat trick, given that he's an Orthodox Jew and I'm an atheist.)
"You love Roz," his folks told him. "And she loves you too. But she's not family."
"Yes she is," he insisted.
So he asked me. "We're family, aren't we?"
"You can't choose your family," I told him. "But you can choose your friends."
"I choose you!" he said.
None of my legal clients ever felt like that about me.
I look forward to caring for Hanina as he grows, to attending his Bar Mitzvah, and to dancing at his wedding as joyfully as I recently danced at my own son's wedding.
When Hanina is too old to need a babysitter, letting go will be hard.
But by then there could be grandchildren.
This essay originally ran on Women's Voices for Change.
Roz Warren's work appears in The New York Times and The Funny Times.