The 4-year-old boy I baby-sit loves to pretend he's the head chef at a restaurant. The name of the restaurant is Pickles, even though he would never dream of eating a pickle or, for that matter, any other piece of food that's come in contact with a pickle. I'm never allowed to order my own lunch at Pickles; apparently it's the kind of restaurant where the patron is not allowed to choose, as that would be insulting to the chef.
I sit on the couch, usually for 90 seconds or less, while he fusses around in his play kitchen. He then presents me with a blue mixing bowl containing an assortment of chicken legs, the top to an ice cream cone, a pretzel, a tiny can of fake peas, and so on. And then I tell him how delicious it is. Of course I do. What else can you do when a proud little hash slinger presents you with a bowl of plastic for your enthusiastic consumption?
One day, I dared to ask him what was inside the bowl. (It's a calculated risk, asking these questions. Ask them when he's in the wrong mood, and you could very well find yourself face to face with the business end of a lightsaber.)
"It's udon noodles with ice cream and Diet Coke," he replied, in his head chef voice.
From her office in the other room came his mother's voice: "Somebody knows you."
And she's right; he does know me, well enough to reflect my own behavior back to me while he concocts my fake lunch.
There's a particular intimacy in being part of someone's household, even in an employment capacity. His mother and I have silly inside jokes and devote a decent portion of our daily discussions to bowel movements. His father knows what to order me from the local sushi restaurant when I stay late. His older brother has been known to adopt my turns of phrase, some of which I'm not terribly proud of. ("For realsies?") They know all about my absurd fear of getting lost in Brooklyn ("She always ends up in a warehouse," they'll tell you.)
And I know these kids as well as they know me. I can tell what kind of mood they're in by the way they take off their shoes. I love them, and I love their family. I also really love the moment I walk out their front door at the end of the day.
Turns out I am capable of giving away pieces of my autonomy for the people in my life that make me want to give it away and for the sake of being truly known as this family knows me.
"I like my autonomy more than I like him," is my favorite thing to say to my girlfriends after a date. Not that I'm dating a whole lot of people. I'm not. And I won't presume to say the pace of my dating is entirely because of my high standards; there are other people involved, after all, who seem just as happy to leave me to my faithful lover, autonomy.
But I will say that I'm far less likely to draw out a relationship if I'm pretty sure it isn't the right relationship now that I'm in my 30s. The reason is simple and not unique to me. Baldly put: I'm looking for my partner, the person I will marry and have kids with, and I don't think I've met him yet.
For the sake of argument, let's take sex out of the conversation. In New York City, as, I suspect, in many other places, sex is relatively easy to come by. If you separate your emotional needs from your physical needs, it's not hard to find someone to take care of the latter. When you take sex out of the equation, the conversation about relationships becomes more about what emotional needs you're looking to have met by a partner.
Living without a partner for the majority of my 32 years has caused me to actively seek out other ways to maintain my well-being. I've made an effort to speak regularly with my girlfriends, spend significant time with my godchildren, volunteer with my church, and have found work that is meaningful to me. I have a strong village and no one to answer to except myself, and I'm grateful for this life. The wish for a partner on top of all this could be a case, as my grandmother would say, of wanting [to have] my cake and [eat] it too. Let's say my specific brand of gluttony is emotional satisfaction, and without a husband, I'll take it where I can get it.
Recently, my little charge was having a particularly clingy day. His mother experienced this on an almost regular basis when she dropped him off at school, but with me, it's rare. He wanted me to come out for dinner with them, he said, and I found myself staring down the barrel of a tantrum as I tried to get out the door. If I left without delay, I'd have exactly an hour to go home and nurse my introversion before I had to leave again for an evening commitment.
But as any parent can tell you, even the strongest, clearest boundaries can be muddied by a kid's sudden need for your specific company, and I, baby sitter, am not immune. I went to dinner with them for 45 minutes and took a cab to my next engagement. Turns out I am capable of giving away pieces of my autonomy for the people in my life who make me want to give it away and for the sake of being truly known as this family knows me.
All things being equal, that kind of give and take in a loving relationship can be fulfilling. But as of yet, all of the people at the other end of my relationships—the family I work for, most of my friends and family, my godchildren—belong to me only in part. I have found that the power balance in those relationships is not, in fact, equal; it automatically tips toward them. While I'm happy and fulfilled by these folks in my life, they are still only a little bit mine.
The husband and wife are the essentials in a couple; the friend, an adjunct, however beloved. The parents are essential to a child; the caring baby sitter is valued and loved but ultimately replaceable.
The price of autonomy is the expectation that I will be the one to make the effort if I value my nonromantic relationships. I am the one to make the relationship a priority and therefore the one to go the extra mile. I spend the afternoon in my couple-friends' home instead of going out somewhere with them if the kids are feeling cranky. I sleep in the living room on vacation with my family because I'm one person and will fit on the air mattress as opposed to everybody else who is two people and therefore need the double beds. I meet my girlfriend for a quick drink after work instead of dinner because she needs to be home in time to eat and catch up with her boyfriend.
As the autonomous one, I should be the one to go the extra mile, and I do.
And what I miss by not having a partner is the element of priority, someone who puts my needs at the very top of his list, the way I also would do for him. Someone who is to me exactly what I am to him and not only a little bit. Having such a person automatically restores the equality to my other relationships; we shift to the same bullet point on the other's list.
The not-mine 4-year-old, with the gleam in his eye that only appears when he's impressed by his own wit, informs me one day that he's pretty sure that Gargomel will never find the Smurf Village. He has set the whole township up, with little Lego huts for each Smurf, and a central fortress made of Magna-tiles where they can flee should Gargomel penetrate their security systems and launch an invasion, helmed by his gigantic cat, Azreal.
"Why won't he find the village?" I ask. "Where is it?"
"I think it's in Brooklyn," he says.
I would argue with my grandmother, as to the whole cake issue, that eating the cake is the whole point in having it to begin with. I'm not just looking for a person. I'm looking for the person to whom I'll be compelled to text a picture of the painstakingly constructed Smurf Village, a person who will know exactly what it means to me. I'm looking for my person.
I hope he's not in Brooklyn.
© Caroline Angell, author of All the Time in the World (Holt Paperbacks)