Sydne Didier wanted to teach her son that men are caregivers too.
Trevor was 12 years old when I hired him to take care of my son. The same age my son is now, it was his first time babysitting and he was nervous. He lived across the street and I’d asked him to come over for a few hours, to be my “helper” while I did laundry, cleaned up toys, and got a break from the neverendingness of parenting.
My son was 2, almost 3, and already adored Trevor. They’d played before, with supervision, and my son could often be found looking out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the “big kid” he so admired.
My son has always loved men. Their energy. Their way of moving through the world. Their willingness for the types of play that seem just on the edge of danger.
That day, their first ostensibly on their own, I was the one watching from the window.
Trevor let my son chase him around the yard, careful to be caught occasionally so my son wouldn’t feel sad. They took breaks to snuggle in our hammock and Trevor let my son crawl all over him until he cuddled up in the crook of Trevor’s arm. They played in the sandbox and held hands while they walked our dogs.
It was a perfect afternoon, and Trevor became a regular part of our childcare rotation. Trevor wasn’t yet comfortable being left by himself so I stayed at home. I showed him little things about caring for a young one and he allowed me a precious few moments to myself. I got to go to the bathroom alone or take a shower, close enough to answer questions but giving Trevor time to feel responsible for my son.
This went on for several years. My son was what another boy in his pre-school class once termed a “rough and tumble boy” and Trevor embraced this part of him. They had endless energy for running, laughing, and tackling one another, and then resting together, regaining their strength until it was time for another round.
Trevor was sensitive to my son’s needs, protective, and kind. He made sure that my son’s enthusiasm for rough-housing didn’t end in injury. In response, my son trusted him. When he was 4, it was Trevor who taught him to ride a two-wheeler, holding the back of my son’s bike until he said, “I’m going to let go now. You can do it!” And my son did.
As Trevor got older and went to high school, he and my son spent less time together. But as a family, we never lost the feelings of affection we had for him, and our son still noticed every time Trevor drove by our house.
Now, my son is 12 and we have come together once more. After living through the illness and eventual passing of his father, Trevor is taking a break from college to figure out what’s next and is living across the street again.
This time, he and my son do “big kid” things together. They go to movies and they battle with Nerf swords in the backyard. They cook food, or go out to a favorite restaurant. They are old friends, and they act like it, with ease and comfort between them. I do not stay at home, because Trevor knows what he’s doing and I do not worry. Neither does he.
My relationship with Trevor has evolved too. Last time he was here, Trevor talked to me about women. He asked me questions and I tried to remember more than 20 years ago when I was his age and met my husband. Trevor shared the story of a recent break-up and talked about how hard it is to meet a nice girl who wants a relationship. And I wanted to tell the women his age that this boy, this young man, is a treasure and that they should not ignore the importance of kindness.
I remembered my own conversations with a mother whose son I took care of so she could go to the gym a few days a week. Her son was an active 1-year-old, I was 20, and she was probably in her late 30s. I asked her questions about marriage, about family, and she asked for stories about my life with the man who is now my husband. As a young woman, it didn’t seem unusual to look for mentorship from an older woman, but when Trevor does this, I recognize how unique he is and that this is part of him learning how to make a family in the future. This is a man I have known since he was a boy, asking questions of a woman so that he can learn and understand, the same way he did when he was 12 and first changed a diaper.
Still, life with my son is always in the moment and we talked only until my son splashed him with pool water and yelled, “Pay attention to me!” Then, it was back to squirt guns and splash fights.
I love that my strong, willful, sensitive male child has the example of a man who has grown into a complex, caring, thoughtful person with a genuineness and sincerity that too often, young men are trained to hide with bravado and posturing.
As much as I want Trevor as a playmate for my son, I also want him as an example of how a young man can be kind and capable with children. I have never wanted him to have only female childcare because in so many ways, it perpetuates the mythology that women are inherently more adept at caring for children, and men simply sub when a woman is not available. Not having boys take care of children leads to men like my husband who had never held an infant before our own child, never changed a diaper, never been entrusted to care for a baby, and never been taught how to do so. He learned quickly, is an incredible father, and always hated the refrain that too often greeted him when he was out with our young child. “Giving Mommy a break?” people asked, to which he always wanted to answer “No! I am parenting my child.” But he is aware that there was a steep learning curve for him because of all he missed when he was younger.
From his father, and from the other men who care for him, my son learns that to be a caregiver is as much a masculine trait as a feminine one and doesn’t question the idea that this is OK. For him, this is all a natural part of being a man.
Right now, my son tells me that babies are loud and they smell. But the future grandmother in me believes that he will not always feel this way. While he never enjoyed my readings of William’s Doll, a favorite of mine when I was young, or the dolls and stroller I insisted we have for him, having Trevor as his childcare provider is a vital important lived example and Trevor is a role model.
Whether he knows it or not, my son has already started his life as a nurturer and caregiver by consistently choosing to visit the nursery classes at his elementary school. He is admired for helping the 3-year-olds navigate their environment, for teaching them new things, and letting them chase him, and catch him, on the playground. He does the very things that Trevor did for him when he was 3, and I cannot wait until my son gets asked to do the same for the almost-one-year-old who lives down the street.
Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is currently at work on a memoir about her family experience with international adoption from South Korea. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.