I have a new baby. Of course, technically he’s my sister’s child, but I watch little Lochlan during the work week now, so I feel like I have a new baby. Which means I’m weepy and irritable and I have goop all over my shirt in noticeable places.

For how long I’ve been away from the job (my youngest are now nine), taking care of babies is remarkably the same as it always was. You find you don’t have a minute – I mean a minute – where you are not checking on that child. Feeding that child, changing that child, buckling or unbuckling that child into car seats or shopping carts or strollers or swings. And at the end of the day you are exhausted. Not because you’ve done anything more strenuous than any other day before you had a baby. It’s just you’ve now done every menial task – from loading the laundry machine to dropping off kids at school to grocery shopping – while holding a twenty pound bowling ball.

My oldest child is now eighteen, and he passes me in the hallways sometimes, and waves occasionally, and once in a while eats dinner with us. But rarely do I see him. It is the opposite of having a baby. It is like having a friendly ghost reside in your home, whom you spot now and then, and every once in a while rifles through your wallet for cash. You almost miss him/her being a baby, you know so little about these ghostly inhabitants, and you sometimes long for the days when the two of you would discuss Thomas the Tank Engine and all his friends in intimate detail.

Yet, time marches on, and last week my eighteen year old went out into the world and found a job standing on street corners trying to convince people to donate money to charitable causes. He started this $10.00/hour job on Monday. He came home that night exhausted. He had been on his feet all day, his voice was hoarse, his enthusiasm for life visually eviscerated.

“Welcome to the working world, my friend!” we all joked. But he looked beat, for sure.

The next morning he paused in the kitchen long enough to ask me if he could quit. I said no, definitely not, that he had to give himself time to adjust, that every job sucks at your soul in one way or another (or myriad, unimaginable ways, more often than not…) that he had to hit the ground running once again and give it his best shot.

My poor boy lowered his head and walked out the front door towards the bus stop not unlike Charlie Brown after he’s just had the football snatched away from him for the hundredth time.

All day Tuesday and Wednesday, for eight hours, Jacob marched up and down the streets of Seattle. Wednesday night he collapsed on the couch again, picked at his dinner, and admitted he was worried. His boss had told all the new hires they had to get two people to pledge $30/month by the end of the week or they’d be fired. And Jacob had yet to get one donation.

Thursday night Jacob returned around 7pm after catching the city bus home, and paused in the hallway on the way to his room. “They let me go,” he mumbled.

“What?” I gasped, still clutching his dinner plate. “It’s your fourth day? On your first job! Can’t they give you a chance?”

Jacob just rolled his eyes at me and shut his bedroom door.

That night I worried over the predicament facing all the young people still milling about my home. No jobs, not enough money for college, too much competition to even get into the classes, colleges, or jobs they would soon need…

The future is uncertain, indeed. It’s a dog eat dog world out there, and my kids, your kids, our kids, are going to need to toughen up a lot to make it. Most of them have sat around for years playing video games and have been driven to every event they’ve ever attended. They’ve had a surplus of stuff at their beck and call, and it’s a rude awakening when suddenly they must hustle to survive.

This morning I oversaw all the kids getting off to school, then I gratefully set my new baby down on the carpet to play. I had age-appropriate toys circled around him, and I clutched my coffee and iPhone and dreamt of a five-minute respite.

Immediately that baby crawled directly over to the fireplace and tried to grab the poker. I moved them both to more appropriate spots then sat back down. Instantly my boy was off towards the stairs. I dropped the phone and ran to the landing, grabbing his chubby little legs and scooping him back to safety. “Play on the carpet!” I said, smiling. “See, here’s your owl. And your car.” Lochlan ignored me and instead went scooting off towards a distant sofa, which he crawled under and magically reappeared with a discarded string cheese wrapper in his mouth…

You forget, when you don’t have crawling cherubs, how much time the caregiver must  physically cushion their falls, steady their feet, point them in a new direction, guide them to safety.

Yet Katriel still managed to get out of our car a week ago, and within about five minutes of setting foot on solid ground fall down and break her arm. Jacob found a job but still managed to suffer defeat. Annalise went to the first day of seventh grade yesterday and discovered all of the electives she chose last spring were already full, and someone in administration had put her in student store instead, (Have you ever even heard of that? Nevermind trying to provide her with a language or an art or a skill – let’s have her sell candy at the student store!) as well as 6th grade lunch instead of 7th.  So – ugh!

And here is the age-old dilemma of caregiving…How much do you step in and try to soften these abrupt landings into the very real world of toil, unceasing competition, random luck, and constant danger?

I suppose you scoop up the baby onto your hip, pat the young child on the back, and simultaneously push the eighteen year old back out the door. But it is a murky line to walk, and I can’t help thinking that we are all better off living in a society where when one falls – and we all do at some point or another – someone, or something, is there to cushion the fall besides just your mother.

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