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My Weekend as a Surrogate Parent

Several months ago, my brother-in-law in Orlando called me and asked if I'd be available in December to watch his daughters, my two nieces E (three yrs.) and T (one yr.). He was planning a surprise trip to New York City for my sister, and he wanted to have childcare plans in place. The girls would stay with my mom, in Mount Dora, and I would help watch them. I agreed with enthusiasm, as I was excited to get to spend an extended amount of time with these two particular nieces, whom I usually only see for holidays and birthdays. Here is what I learned from the experience:
  1. Snot flows regularly from little children. Like a faucet that won't shut off. Sometimes, tears and drool flow along with the snot, usually onto an adult's shoulder/neck/chest/hand. And if you do manage to control the drainage up top, you'll inevitably have an overflow of stuff coming out the other end to deal with. 
  2. At one point before the weekend, I remember thinking that the care-taking shouldn't be too physically taxing, because both girls can walk and like to be independent. But T doesn't just walk; she takes off at turbo speed the second she thinks she can escape from a room. So she must regularly be chased. E usually stays where she's allowed, but at times she likes to be picked up and held, which is endearing, so how can I resist? But when I carried her three blocks from the car to meet up with the others at a park, I felt like the biggest hero in the land for getting her there without dropping her.
  3. Eating and sleeping are two of my favorite activities; however, babies and toddlers seem not to agree with me on this. Oh, how they fight sleep--especially the three-year-old, who just wants to soak up every waking moment of life. The one-year-old is still young enough to go down with a bottle and some rhythmic bouncing and patting, although even this can require great patience and dedication. And god forbid you stop the ritual too soon to put her down, for then you must start all over again.
  4. Sharing is a hard lesson to learn. I get that. I still have trouble with it myself sometimes. I kept trying to think of ways to explain sharing, to rationalize it. My mom and her boyfriend had bought a tea party set for E, with the understanding that she would share it with her sister and cousin, E2, who would be coming over later. Somehow this "understanding" went out the door, and E wanted to open the set and play with every single piece (we're talking like 23 pieces) by herself, and right away. I told E there were plenty of pieces to go around; the set was meant for sharing; she could pick her favorites first; didn't she want to play with her sister and cousin? But these lines of rationale weren't very effective. I'm still learning how to talk to little kids in a relatable way, and without getting frustrated. I could see her frustration, and I felt for her, but I didn't know how to get her through it.
  5. If E is having a difficult time with something, she can be very strong-willed, and it's difficult to know what the problem is or how to address it. But if her sister is having a difficult time, she becomes calm and either plays independently or tries to help. It's very endearing. I remember one instance when E was putting either T's or E2's shoes on, and she was having a little bit of trouble. Rather than act out, she simply said, with her arms out and palms flipped up, "It's not going so well." I assume she heard this from her mother, and it's just about the cutest expression that could come out of a three-year-old's mouth. 
  6. T is too young to talk in many actual words, but when something does come out of her mouth, even if it is a constant string of babble, it's really exciting. In the first few hours of my visit, T didn't say much of anything. But when we were walking around outside in my mother's backyard, she kept pulling me (she still likes to hold onto your finger/s as she walks) toward the patio, which is elevated. And each time we would go up onto it, she would say, "step," in this faint, tiny but oh-so-sweet voice. So I was happy to oblige her desire to continuously go up and down the patio step, just so I could hear that little word.
  7. Tears come easily to little ones, but so do smiles. It pains me to see any tears on their faces, even if I know they are not very serious ones. So there is a constant effort to not only ward off potential tear-inducing events, but also to provoke smiles. Children at these ages smile pretty much only when they are happy enough to; i.e., it doesn't occur to them to fake-smile. So it is the most rewarding feeling to have been the cause of a smile so genuine--or at least to be able to witness it. At the end of the day, I think any parent only wants to feel that their child feels comfortable, safe, and happy enough to smile.
  8. Story time is great. Really. I love to read stories to my nieces. However, E has a tremendous ability to sit and listen to long stories, one after the other, after the other. Especially if it means putting off bedtime. I'm not proud to admit this, but during some stories, I would skip sentences, paragraphs, and even pages, just to get through the book. I know I shouldn't take advantage of E's naivete in that way, but reading that much continuously can be difficult and draining on the reader. I eventually learned to look at the pages of a book first, and then choose accordingly.
  9. Bath time is amazingly easy for these girls. Except when E doesn't want to get out at the end. She instead likes to lie face-down on the tub and slurp the water. But she swears she's not drinking it. Personally, I think that few things in life are better than holding a baby wrapped up in a towel, post-bath, all fresh and happy. This act is fully redemptive for any feelings of frustration, impatience, agitation, or any other ill feelings that may have occurred throughout the day.
  10. Finally, I've never had greater respect for my sisters, their husbands, my parents, and parents everywhere. I only had to do this job for not even 48 hours, and with my mom, and part of the time with her boyfriend and with my sister (and E2). I was exhausted after the weekend. At times I felt like breaking down and crying, because I felt like I wasn't cut out to do the job, and then I realized the absurdity in that. And while I was a bit relieved to head home and worry only about myself again, I instantly missed those snotty little faces, sweet voices, and heartwarming smiles.


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