Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In loco parentis

"In loco parentis" is Latin for "in place of a parent" and as a legal doctrine it provides the authority for schools to tell kids how to dress, provide discipline, restrict their movement, determine their diets, etc, but it also applies to the legal status of a babysitter or other parentally-appointed surrogate-guardian while on the job.

Richard DeWald here, parentally-appointed surrogate-guardian.  This has been one of the most formative and thoroughly transformative experiences of my adult life.  Yes, I am talking about babysitting.

But, I'm not talking about a spare couple of bucks I am making here and there watching some neighbor's (TV with their) kids.   I have been babysitting the young children (roughly 1 and 3 years old) of a very close friend.   I'm convinced that there's some reptilian part of my hind-brain that doesn't know these aren't my children, because I feel pretty strongly about them for just being kids of a close friend.

My theory is that since their mother is my close friend and it wasn't too long ago, evolutionarily speaking, that humans lived together in such a way that made the identity of a particular child's father somewhat ambiguous, that there's something lurking somewhere that triggers a response in me for her kids in a way that the children of relative strangers do not.

From 50,000 to about 8,000 years ago, more or less, many humans, particularly my genetic ancestors, travelled in tribes as hunter-gatherers.  They didn't know of the relationship between coitus and pregnancy.  Coitus was something shared between emotionally close opposite sex adults and pregnancy was something that happened to young women once they reached a certain age.  The adult men in the tribe acted as fathers for all the children of the tribe, being closer to the children of the women to whom they were emotionally close.

So, in a way, I am set up to respond in the way that I do to my friend's children, even though everyone knows for certain these days that they are not mine.  That's my theory, and it does illuminate some things for me.  Most importantly, it casts my internal reactions to caring for them in a way that is similar to actual parenting, although very different because the stakes are not as high for me.  At the end of the day, I go home to a childless existence.

But, it's my internal reactions that have been the most interesting.  The one year old is simply open and loving, she's very honest about what she's feeling, and I didn't have to spend long with her before her cries and babbles became kind of an emotional language for us.  I can tell when she's angry, frustrated, happy, throwing a tantrum for the hell of it, and genuinely alarmed or hurt.  It's fascinating to me that on the emotional level she is so much more clear and direct than most adults.

The three year old is a boy, and because of that our relationship is more nuanced and complex, yet he is still young enough to drop into blunt emotion when more complex cognition fails him.  Right now, as he moves from 3 into 4 years, it is really fascinating to watch him take steps in becoming a social being, becoming aware of his impact on others, and learning the logic of deception and subterfuge.

But, more important to me, I now understand how a little person like this can trigger rage, fear, devotion, disgust, jealousy, loving compassion, etc. in me in really powerful ways.  I can look back on confusing and chaotic parts of my childhood with a new awareness now of what was going on in the hearts and minds of the adults who were around when I was growing up.

I remember being genuinely confused as a youth how it was that simple and seemingly unimportant things like touching the TV can send an adult over the emotional edge.  Now I know.  There's a sense of exhaustion that builds up over time after time of saying "Don't do that!" simply to keep a little uninformed being from getting hurt.

It is almost as if there's an innate drive to be suicidal that they have to un-learn as they get older.  I almost want to say to him "Do you want to live?  Because, if you don't, I will totally back off here.  You can stand balanced precariously on the beach-ball by the edge of the deck all you want if you're just looking for a rather spectacular way to do yourself in."

Of course, as an emotionally mature adult, I just take in these emotions, process quietly, pick him up and return him to safety.  It seems like a small thing, and it is, the first 35 times it happens.  After I have snatched him away from near-certain pain and injury for the 36th time my mind starts to turn to fantasies of more forceful ways to express my disapproval.

Conversely, my heart can melt into a warm puddle of goo when he looks at me and says "I love you, Uncle Richard." even if I suspect it's partially a ploy to soften me up for more cookies.  Sometimes the way the 1 year old just rests her arm on mine while sitting reading a book is incredibly precious, moving me to actual tears of joy.  She will subtly shift her weight and lean into me when sitting close, this can literally change my day in an instant.

So, I both can now relate to how parents can think their little bundle of joy is the most fascinating subject in the world, and I can relate to what happens to parents who snap somehow and do something they never thought they would do, like strike a child, shame a child, scream obscenities, or any other variety of over-reaction.

I am also comforted to know that I can notice these urges arise within me and keep them to myself.  Not all parents do, and understanding the road doesn't justify taking a wrong turn, but at least I get it, now.  I see why people put so much energy and resources into parenting.  I see where the "they grow up so fast!" thing comes from.  I have the kids' pictures around me at home and at work, on my phone, etc.  If they were my kids I would post pictures to Facebook, just like parents do.  I miss them when I don't see them.  I get it,  I get it.

"Getting it" has been a huge help.  My childhood makes a lot more sense to me now, and I can see why people my age and older joke about grandchildren being the best revenge for what their kids did to them.  There is a sense of completion about the cycle of life that raising kids, even as a babysitter, can give you.  There's a reason why this works.