My 2-year-old, our seventh child, is not just fond of, not just smitten with, but utterly around the bend about our weekend babysitter Kari. This is especially droll considering the fact that Atticus is generally not a big fan of people, with the exception of his grandfather Larry, whom he has seen probably a dozen times in his life.
Then along came Kari. For the past year, she has worked for us on Friday evenings whether we go out or (given our end-of-week exhaustion) simply go to sleep. I make this point because she isn't here every day. But Kari has the gift with children. A dream of hers is to get a degree in child psychology — personally, I don't think she needs the shingle. She simply knows how to bring kids under control and make them believe not only that they are happy about it, but that they made it happen. Our children beg us to leave so that she can come over. "You look tired," Mia, 8, will tell me. "Maybe Kari should come over and watch us." Our 4-year-old, Will, calls her on his pretend telephone and has long conversations with her, including his opinions about what kind of car she should buy. He's leaning toward a dump truck.
I admit it. Kari is better with them than we harried parents are. But even given that, shouldn't Atticus, who's not yet in training pants, at least love us best?
Recently, we went off alone — for the first time in our nine-year marriage — for 10 days. We suffered mightily beforehand. Francie, 11, could call us if she needed to. Will and Mia have an exceptionally close relationship with each other that would partly make up for our absence. The bigger kids would be fine. But what about poor darling little baby Atticus?
We called home every day. When we could get Atticus to come to the phone, he said,
"Kari funny! Kari take me! Bye!"
"We love you and miss you, Atty!" we bleated.
"Kari!" we heard him shout joyously.
Atty was obviously coping with this separation. And I remembered another son's middle-school essay on "The Most Special Person." Eagerly, I'd begun reading: "She has strong beliefs, but she never judges me. She tries to guide me, but by listening rather than lectures. I could trust her with any problem I had for the rest of my life." I expected the next paragraph to start: "That's my mom!" Instead, it said, "Jill took care of us when I was little. But she's still the best friend a guy ever had." Tears welled up unbidden then, and I got the same wistful feeling: happy that Atticus was happy, but sad he wasn't pining for me.
I know from experience and parenting literature that having a crush on a camp counselor, teacher, or other really cool adult is a normal part of child development. So by around age 7, your swimming coach seems like she'd make a far more interesting parent than your real parents. Of course, that's usually when kids have come to know their parents, flaws and all. But Atticus is 2, for Pete's sake; he should idolize us. On two nights while we were gone, however, after Kari had left and my mother-in-law was filling in, she heard Atticus wandering about singing to himself, "Kari! Kari! I love yoooouuuu!"
I don't think Kari has given Atticus illicit drugs or Benadryl or even M&M cookies. I think she just may be "funner" than his weary parents. She can jump up and down on the trampoline for 60 minutes. She brings bags of messy crafts she cheerfully cleans up later. Kari sings karaoke so that it really sounds like the radio. On Sundays, she doesn't want to catch up on the wash (although she does), she wants to go to the zoo or the aquarium or the lake — things I probably did for my first four children before I ran out of gas. When Atty fusses, my husband and I read to him. Kari dances. She really dances, as in hip hop.
Is it fair to Atticus to expect him to be content with our wisdom instead of her vim? Not really.
Every time Kari comes in the door, we watch in mingled delight and dismay as he runs madly to her and throws himself into her arms. We aren't jealous. Well, we aren't very jealous. The truth is, he has found the girl of his dreams. Too bad she's 21 years older than he is.
One day Atticus will be not 2, but 20. And on that day, while Chris and I, zesty empty nesters, are bopping around in our motorized chairs to the 2025 equivalent of Justin Timberlake, Atticus will come home with the kind of bonk we can't kiss away, the kind only a grown-up crush can inßict. That's when your first loves (as in the ones who loved you first, the ones you take for granted, who adore you no matter how miserably you behave) are the ones you need. Crushes come and go. But we knew him when. Parents are like old dogs. We might not have new tricks, but we only have eyes for you.
About the Author
Jacquelyn Mitchard, novelist and mother of seven, had her first crush on Eddie. He beat her by five votes in the seventh grade student council election. Their love endured. Until eighth grade.