During my teenage years I babysat for several families. One family had a seven-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl, and I watched them four days a week, nine hours a day.
On the summer days when we played in their backyard, it was just a matter of time until it happened. Slowly, steadily, neighboring children wandered out of their houses to join us. Within a half hour, I'd find myself watching not only my two babysitting charges, but also the rest of the neighborhood kids -- enough to field a legitimate soccer team or stage a rousing game of tag.
Mothers in that Pittsburgh neighborhood must have loved that I was the neighbor's babysitter. Just like a pitbull smells fear and my husband can sniff out a golf course from miles away, these mothers sensed my teenage energy and capitalized on it -- sending Joey, Tommy, Brian, Billy, Bobby, and who-knows-else out their backdoors to play.
I had more energy as a babysitter then than I do as a mother now.
The reason is simple: As a babysitter, I could leave at the end of each day. There was a finish line in sight. (Being 16 didn't hurt, either.)
I thought of this the other day when Reese asked me to play outside as her sisters napped. She wanted nothing more than to rope me into a game she had concocted called Pizza and Joe. I wanted nothing more than to have a personal time-out (just a half hour of silence), preferably in air condition.
But there was something in her request that drew me outside as the afternoon sun pounded our backyard, scorched our grass, and caused beads of sweat to run down the nape of my neck. Reese seemed not to notice the heat. She was immersed in the world of Pizza and Joe.
We played hard for nearly two hours.
I must confess that I still don't grasp the rules. Rules in any game created by children are fluid, subject to change at any point without warning. She was Pizza; I was Joe. (Or was it the other way around?) She held a beach ball and I wielded a jump rope. She stood still while I had to run. She determined that base was the swing set, that is, until I arrived there -- safe! -- and the base had shifted to the fence post.
It made no sense. No sense at all.
We took three water breaks where we sat in the playset and pretended to catch fish with the jump rope. We cooked the fish. The backyard morphed into an ocean and, argghhh, we were pirates... two pirates named Pizza and Joe.
I acted like a babysitter that day, exerting more energy in pure, unadulterated play than I have in quite some time. By the time we finished we both were sweaty and grimy. My hair frizzed; her cheeks flushed. She had a brush burned knee; my legs itched from rolling in the grass. It felt really good.
Sure, I'm older and slower than I was at 16, but it probably wouldn't hurt to adopt the babysitter mentality a little more often. When we went inside, Reese gave me a sticky, tight hug, making me realize that the payoff is much better as a mother than it ever had been as a babysitter.