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I remember being about ten years old when I first dipped my toe in the puddle of babysitting. For those who don’t know, babysitting is a big deal for young girls. It’s a rite of passage. We are Santiago, babysitting is our very own giant marlin. And in that Gulf Stream of suburban New Jersey, I reeled that marlin in with skill and ease.

I was a natural. I love kids, they love me. It got me away from my crazy siblings who ruthlessly made fun of my uncontrollable penchant for nose picking. (Bullies!) And on top of all that, it paid. In actual cash. I think I started at three dollars per hour, raking it in to save up for a new slap bracelet. My business grew and the clients kept on coming. Family after family, kid after kid. At age 12, I was walking over to a neighboring development to watch a pile of six kids under the age of 10. How was I qualified to do this? How did those parents trust me? Who knows? All I knew is I was rich.

Babysitting followed me for much of my life. Like I said, I love kids. The pay grew, the responsibilities grew. During a transition period between high school and college, I even became a full-time nanny, caring for a spunky three-year-old girl and a six-week-old infant boy. A year passed before I realized I should probably go to college, if for nothing else than to challenge my brain beyond the complexities of how to get a diaper to actually stay on or how to properly fold a onesie.

Through my college years and beyond, I continued to watch those kids, along with nieces, nephews and random children of all ages. At some point, something changed. I still enjoyed watching children, but I suddenly felt weird accepting money for it. It was right about the time when I realized, “I should (or could) have children of my own right now.” So I stopped charging and began accepting only the joy received from playing Chutes and Ladders 17 times in a row, trying with all my might to insert actual skill into a game of sheer chance.

In recent years, babysitting jobs have come during times of relational depression, times when other people had things to celebrate with their significant others. You know what I mean — those times. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s Eve. Valentine’s Day. Wedding anniversaries. Summer vacations. The routine is the same, the voice mail messages are the same:

“Hey Ruth! I know you’re probably busy or on a hot date. You go, girl! But just in case, wanted to see if you could watch the kids on Valentine’s Day. It’s been so long since (insert apparently game-less husband’s name here) and I have gone out. We’re in desperate need of some adult time! Let me know!”

They know I’m single. They know I don’t have any plans because, well, they read my blog. They know I’ll be sitting at home, alone, searching desperately for the bottom of the ice cream container. They know.

And the sad part is, they’re right. I’m not currently in a relationship. Why should I deprive them of a fun night out just because I want to prove a point? So I usually oblige — trudging over with a fake smile on my face and half-listening as a six-year-old reads the 24 Valentines she received from her classmates, and then closes with, “Ruthie, did you get any Valentines today?”

This past Saturday night it happened again. I’m not complaining, just stating the facts. A friend and colleague’s (15-year-old) babysitter canceled and my friend was desperate. I offered to watch her kids. She fought it for a few minutes: “I couldn’t possibly!”; “My kids are too crazy for you!”; “What if you get a hot, last-minute date?”

I sighed, completely aware of the fact that she knew.

It turned out to be a fun night. Like I said, I love kids! We watched three episodes of the Batman cartoon, made popcorn and read books. Once they were in bed, I chose to ignore the book I brought to read, and instead perused their DVD collection. Would you believe it? Even after the eighth time, Harry still ends up with Sally!

When my friend and her husband returned, she was stunned that I’d washed the dishes and picked up the kids’ toys. “It’s because I’m 32, not 15,” I replied, stone-faced. And then she — knowing full well that I would refuse any sort of payment — brought out a gift bag.

Here we go again.

She bought me a frying pan.

A special frying pan like the one she has.

Because she knows I’ve been trying some new recipes.

And I just have to try this new frying pan.

It’s great for eggs and sausage and really anything.

The way the heat is evenly dispersed across the whole pan is great.

And it’s so easy to clean!

(Really? Can I change my mind and just take the cash?)

So here I am, alone again. Just me and my frying pan. Waiting for the phone to ring — perhaps from a guy that actually wants to hang out with me because I’m sweet and funny and pretty and smart and clearly the whole package… but most likely from a friend whose babysitter canceled because at 15 years old she has a more robust social life than me.

Any other perpetual babysitters out there who feel my joy and pain?

~Ruth

P.S. I feel obligated to admit that I actually love my new frying pan. It has revolutionized my kitchen routine. I hate how married people are right all the time!

P.P.S. Hey WordPressers: I tagged this post as part of this week’s DPChallenge! (Thanks WanderingVoiceless!)