‘Babysitting’ by Gillian Clarke is a two stanza free verse poem about a babysitter who is having a hard time babysitting a child because of her own fears of abandonment. The entire poem is focused on the emotions of the babysitter and the emotions she projects on the baby. The babysitter obviously feels for the baby girl and feels guilty for not being able to connect with her because she is not her mother; possibly because it reminds her of her own baby/child which in turn strikes her into feeling insecure about leaving her own child(ren) elsewhere to care for a stranger’s child. You can read the full poem here.
I am sitting in the wrong room listening
For the wrong baby. I don’t love
Will stream disgustingly and the perfume
Of her breath will fail to enchant me.
The first stanza of this poem is constructed of ten lines. The first five lines describe the situation that the babysitter is in and the next five lines describe what she is feeling in this situation. The title of the poem projects the image of a caregiver who is watching and caring for someone else’s child in the absence of his/her parent; there is an understood notion of trust and responsibility with this job. The very first line, however, informs the readers that there is something amiss as the babysitter claims she is “sitting in the wrong room”.
Lines two and three go on to further explain the situation of the babysitter, by letting the reader know that she has “the wrong baby” and she doesn’t “love this baby”. By claiming to have the wrong baby the babysitter is heavily implying that she has a baby of her own and she is not with that baby, but instead, she is babysitting; perhaps that is the reason she is unable to connect to this baby and love him/her. The reader can begin to build the babysitter’s story at this point and presume that this babysitter is a mother who is working to offer care to someone else’s baby (perhaps to make some extra money for her own child) and for this reason, it is hard for her to connect to this baby and actually love him/her. She misses her own baby, this is suggested by her confessing that she has the “wrong baby”; perhaps she feels guilty for caring for someone else’s child when she has a baby or children of her own to care for. There is an obvious tension between the baby and the babysitter. The reader is also told that the baby is sleeping and “is a perfectly acceptable child”. Here, the babysitter is letting the readers know that there is no fault of the baby in the lack of connection. The baby is just like any other baby, sleeping away not knowing the absence of her parents yet.
In the sixth line, the babysitter confesses that she is “afraid of her”. This is significant as it highlights the reason she is unable to love this baby. There is true fear present in this situation that any babysitter could relate to. She is essentially afraid that this baby will wake up to not having her parents around which will result in creating a difficult state of affairs for her. The babysitter goes on to say in lines six and seven that “If she wakes she will hate” her; this anxiety is stemming from her own lack of connection to this baby girl.
Lines seven to ten describe the “rage” that this baby might feel is she wakes. The reader is also told in these lines that it is “midnight” and possibly the reason why she is missing her own baby. The last two lines of the stanza ensure the reader that there is indeed a missing link between the baby and her babysitter for the reason being that the babysitter is expecting to feel disgusted by the eventually screaming baby and knows already that “the perfume of her breath will fail to enchant” her. The babysitter knows what it’s like to be “enchanted” by the “perfume” of a baby’s breath, her own baby’s breath. In times when a baby is inconsolable, the intimate relationship between mother and child is the only thing that could possibly comfort the baby. The babysitter knows this; she knows it is easier for the mother to tolerate her child’s tantrums because the smell of your baby’s breath is literally “enchanting” as you lovingly carry the baby in an intimate embrace to comfort him/her. She already knows she can’t even pretend that she would be able to mimic that for this baby, for the reason that it is not hers and she does not love it.
To her I will represent absolute
Abandonment. For her it will be worse
She will find me and between us two
It will not come. It will not come.
The second and final stanza of this poem discloses the reason the babysitter is unable to emotionally connect with the baby girl even though she is her caregiver. Lines eleven and twelve jump right into the emotions of the sitter; she believes that to this baby she “will represent absolute abandonment”. In the eyes of the sitter, she believes that her presence will be interpreted by the baby as an embodiment of neglect and desertion. A baby is too young to comprehend the situation (whatever it may be) of needing to be watched by the babysitter and not her own parents; consequently, she will be terrified when her expectations of being in the company and comfort of her parents are not met. The reader is now beginning to better understand the babysitter and the reasons behind her apparent coldness. She genuinely feels bad for the baby girl, the fact that she is not in arms reach of her mother as all babies should be. Her coldness could be attributed to the fact that feeling bad for this baby might have brought up the realization that while she sits here, her own child must be feeling deserted by her.
Moving forward, lines twelve through sixteen compares the child’s feeling of “abandonment” to that of a woman who has lost her loved one in the “terminal ward”. This comparison is significant because it reveals that the sitter considers the baby’s emotions to be very real and raw (again, possibly because of her habit of recognizing her own child’s emotions.) The feeling of having no control over a loss or desertion is portrayed by emphasizing that the woman suffered her loss in a “terminal ward”; furthermore comparing this to the abandonment she is suggesting the baby will feel exposes how familiar she is with the heaviness of the baby’s sentiment of desertion. This gives the reader the idea that she does know how to love and care for children, at least her own; However, she is unable to muster up any affection for this baby that she is watching or rather “listening for” (also implying that she isn’t even in the same room as the child).
Lines seventeen and eighteen illustrate the babysitter’s fearful scenario in which the baby would wake up “sobbing from the monstrous land” of nightmares, expecting her mother’s usual reassurance and feeding to calm her down, only to find the cold, frightened, unsure sitter. Lines nineteen and twenty conclude the poem and the account of the babysitter’s situation. She feels that after the baby finds her, she will not only be disappointed but is guaranteed to find no connection between the two of them. “It will not come” are the final words of the babysitter’s thoughts and are repeated twice for emphasis. The babysitter is emphasizing that the comfort, love, and nurturing hold that the baby will eventually expect, “will not come” from her because of the pressure she feels from the feeling of abandonment she has projected onto the baby. She manages to create a difficult situation for herself by feeling bad for the baby and her possible understanding of her mother’s absence.