When I reached out to a photographer friend to book our family portrait, I had just one request. We needed to schedule an appointment for sometime before the babysitter leaves for college. We didn't need our babysitter to occupy our child or encourage her to smile with funny faces. As a family portrait photographer myself, I've seen it happen, but our daughter is 9 and quite capable of following directions. Instead, we were booking a pre-college shoot because our babysitter needed to be in our family portrait.
In as in standing in line with my husband, my daughter, and me, smiling at the birdie.
He made it happen, and the photos are everything I wanted them to be. But as soon as I uploaded them to Facebook, the comments flooded in.
"Is that M. in your family photo?"
"Love that you have the babysitter in the photo!"
"Did you really have your babysitter in your family portrait?"
It's not your typical family portrait make-up, I'll give you that. But then, ours is not a typical family.
My husband and I long ago settled on having just one child (for myriad reasons -- but that's another essay entirely). And then a second "child" found us.
It happened when my daughter was 5. After working part-time and then freelancing, I'd decided to return to full-time work, and I needed a mother's helper to keep my daughter occupied in the summer between pre-school and kindergarten. I asked around and ended up hiring a teenager named M.
Each day, she would come in the morning, spend the day playing with my daughter, and leave in the late afternoon. My daughter was having the time of her life, and I was happy with the playmate/caretaker who was making my life easier.
But when summer ended, the relationship between my daughter and M. did not. M. began joining us on family outings, tagging along to my daughter's soccer games to cheer her on, showing up at the town's holiday festivities to help her make gingerbread houses and ornaments. But here's the thing -- she didn't ask to be paid. In fact, she volunteered to come hang out at our house just because ...
Soon she was jokingly calling my husband Poppa and me Jommy (Mommy with a "J" for Jeanne). Our daughter she dubbed her "Jister" (sister with a "J" for my daughter's name).
By the time summer rolled back around, there was no question that she'd return to once again act as a mother's helper. I paid her that summer -- as I have each summer since -- but she would regularly hang around after work was over, and as the years have passed, she's spent more and more time with our family. If we were going to a hockey game or even just shopping, the first question my daughter would ask was, "Is M. coming?"
Usually she did.
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This busy teenager made sure to carve out time for my kid. And if she couldn't be there in physical form, she was FaceTiming with my daughter or making funny comments on my Facebook wall, texting my husband photos of her cat, or calling us up just to say, "Hey gurl, hey!"
In the past four years, she has earned a key to our house and a sign on the guest room door that reads "M.'s room" (she did help me paint it, after all).
To not have her in our family portrait would have been odder to me than it was to folks who were surprised to see her there.
If I were to walk outside of the situation, I could see their confusion. Why is this teenager this important to our family? And who am I kidding thinking the teenage sitter will be a constant in our lives, even as she goes off to college?
The worry has crossed my mind.
But that old lyric from the Broadway show Wicked always plays through my mind when I think about M., chasing away the worry:
I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you ...
My little girl is who she is today because of M. My family is the family it is today because of M.
Because as much influence we, the parents, have over our kids, we also have to admit that the babysitters we hire are shaping our kids' lives. That's why it's so important to choose a good one.
I think I did ... and I want a photograph of my family to reflect that.
How does your babysitter fit into your family dynamic?
Image via Kevin Ferguson Weddings