The rewards of spending your early twenties as a child caregiver

August 5 2011 | Guest post by ekb
Cate's 1st Snowplay!
Photo by Kris and Fred, used with Creative Commons license.
There's something about helping raise other people's children in your early twenties that gives you a sense of love you didn't have before these kids entered your life. In my four years as a child caregiver I've worked closely with four children. The first two, now three-and-a-half and five-and-a-half, were the first children I cared for during an extended period of time. I've since moved, and have been with both of my current families for nearly a year. Both of those children will be two years old in the fall.

The kids I work with are constantly teaching me love — their wordless dependence on me reminds me of a life I knew years ago. My relationship with each of them reminds me of the one I had with my oldest sister. Though the situation was certainly different, her yearning to fulfill me is much like the way I feel for these children whose lives are so intertwined with mine.

I left the first family I worked with after two-and-a-half years of being there. Right before I left, my sleep was filled with nightmares. I would soon be moving away and was anticipating the loss of a bond that had been unlike any other. There's something about the way a toddler clings to you that makes you feel more deeply than you could possibly imagine.

The toddler in question didn't have any concept of my departure — for all he knew, I would come back the next day. When I returned two months later to visit, he was so bewildered by my return that he wouldn't look me in the eye. After around thirty minutes he handed me a toy to play with and let me slip him a kiss, and all was back to normal.

Leaving his four-year-old brother was entirely different. We had long conversations about my move to a different city. These discussions always began by him asking why I was moving and ended with both of us in tears. During our last conversation about it, he laid his head on my lap, playing with my necklace as usual, and started to cry. I asked him why he was crying, and he just shook his head and looked me in the eyes. "I'm sad, too," I told him.

Now that I've been with another family for a year, seeing my first family is bittersweet. I feel this intense magnetism not only to the kids but to the parents. I am fortunate to have had the parents as my friends and mentors for a long time and now I am spending my life without them — and without their children who provided me with hugs, weekly, for two-and-a-half years.

It's a cycle that I know has already begun with my current families. I will be with them for another year and then I'll leave to my next phase in life, but it'll be just as devastating a departure as I felt before. Nightmares will ensue, along with weeping and loneliness and a general feeling that I won't know what to do with myself. But it's nothing I haven't felt before, and it's nothing that hasn't already reminded me that the depth of a child's love is permeating and endless.

Even hundreds of miles away, I receive letters and Skype greetings from my last family that show me why I love being a part of their lives. I know that despite the goodbyes, the lessons they teach me will sustain me for life.

  1. I worked in several day cares and substitute taught for about 2. Now that Im pregnant with my first child, I feel much more confident in myself thanks to those experiences. I got to see how I handle taking care of not just one but several children at once. I worked with various age groups up from 12 months to age 13. Im sure things are different when its your own baby, but still when your venturing into the unknown world of parenthood, its nice to have somewhere to draw some confidence in yourself. Working with kids did that.

    1 agrees
  2. I've always been interested in longer term childcare like what you describe, but never did it because of the feedback from my family and friends when I was entering college (ie, you'll be stuck doing that forever, you need a real job that translates to your career, etc). I really wish I had ignored it now, because I would have loved it and because being a mother was always part of my future.

    I did spend two summers working at a girl scout camp right before and after my first year of college. I wasn't even 18 the first summer, but having the experience of being responsible for other girls' well-being, both emotionally and physically, confirmed for me how important children were in my life.

    The hardest part for me was sending each group home after two weeks of amazing adventure, knowing I couldn't fix or help them with whatever was going on there. It was a lesson I hope I can remember when my own children go out into the world.

  3. Yes! I've been a caregiver for two kids for the past year, but I'm moving to another country in September. I'm just trying not to think about how much I'll miss spending times with my buds. They really have been the bright spot in an otherwise pretty cruddy year, and I'll always be grateful to the kids and their family for that. It's such an honor to be a part of a child's life in that capacity – you're not only a caregiver, but also a friend, and pretty much part of the family. I love them both to bits.

    1 agrees
  4. I spent several years taking care of two small girls and the experiences that they, along with their parents, taught me have definitely proved useful in caring for my own newborn baby. I believe you work even harder when the child isn't your own, because you have to answer to someone and because they are your only focus at the time. Sadly, when it's your own child you may have a house, a husband, a job, a pet to look after as well.

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