Adventures in babysitter hunting

by Brian Clarey

Every stage of parenting comes with its own travails, from the extreme lack of sleep new parents experience to the physical demands of toddlers to the awkwardness of the teenage sex talk.

But my wife and I thought we had entered a relatively light phase of our children’s development.

They’re young enough that they still like us and think we’re cool, not so old that we have to worry about the kinds of things that keep the parents of teenagers awake at night. For the first time ever, all three kids get on the school bus in the morning, which means we have greatly reduced our childcare expenses while increasing the hours we can spend at our jobs. It’s a development as significant as the day a baby learns to hold her own bottle.

But it’s not all melba toast and soft cheese over at my house, as we realized after a dramatic rise in the frequency of our social engagements, about two or three events a month, up from approximately none.

We’ve got something coming up this week, something big, the kind of thing where we both need to go.

It’s nice for my wife and me to see and be seen together somewhere other than a school concert or our driveway. But a few hours of sweet freedom don’t come without a cost.

Before we can shower up and hit the town, we need to hire a babysitter.

Let me tell you something about babysitters: You cannot find one on New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl Sunday, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day or any of the other high party holidays. You can’t get a high school-age babysitter on a school night, and you can just forget finding one on short notice any weekend night of the year.

And we can’t find one right now. We’re madly texting back and forth, wracking our brains to come up with someone we know who can watch our kids for a few hours on a weeknight, floating names, scanning our phone lists, putting out the word. So far, nothing.

I don’t think it was always like this. My parents always had a ready stable of neighborhood girls available at a moment’s notice to watch my sisters and me. Or so it seemed. And when they reached about 13 years of age, my sisters took their places in the neighborhood corps of babysitters. I even did

it a couple times myself when a parent was in a pinch.

If I remember correctly — and it’s possible I don’t, because this was like 25 years ago — babysitters got $2 to $4 an hour back then, and a $20 night was considered a mighty good take indeed.

A little noodling on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows $20 in 1984 is about $40 in 2010 dollars, but as any parent can tell you, if you’re paying $40 for a night’s babysitting, you’re getting off easy.

Babysitting around here usually runs between $8 to $12 an hour, depending on the ages and numbers of the children being sat, which means a dinner-and-movie date can put as much as $50 on top of the evening’s overall cost. Overnight sitters are a different matter entirely; in our house we’ve instituted a $100 day rate, which covers a 24-hour period, including sleep time.

A decrease in the supply of babysitters would explain the raise. It would also explain why good ones are so hard to come by.

These days babysitters know CPR, have some background in education, can maintain complex after-school schedules. I would never hire a babysitter I did not personally know or who did not come highly recommended by someone I trust. And, it seems, not as many kids are interested in babysitting these days.

So when parents find a good one, they tend to keep it to themselves.

We had a babysitter once, perhaps the best one in the history of babysitting. She was expensive — $15 an hour for our three children — but it was worth it. She did projects with the kids. She took notes on their behavior and shared them with us when we came home. She cleaned the kitchen and folded laundry — she once sorted our infant daughter’s clothes, mostly onesies and overalls, into nine categories. Sometimes she made cookies.

We were so pleased with her that I found myself gushing to another parent about this wonderful woman, who didn’t mind working weekends and had her own transportation “She’s the best in town,” I said. My friend said nothing. The next time I called our sitter, she gave a sad little gasp. Turns out my friend, a musician, had booked her for every Saturday night for a year. With a healthy retainer to boot.

“So sorry,” the sitter said. I was speechless. But I learned a valuable lesson.

Forget love and war. It’s the quest for a good babysitter that brings out the pirate in us all.