The more years you are a parent, the more you learn about those baby sitters - those bursting-at-the-seams adolescent girls you pay $3 an hour to puppy love your children until they discover true love and resign.
You learn how much you depend on these young women for your social life. No baby sitter, no social life.
You learn how narrow is your window of opportunity. A young girl has only a few responsible years to give before she discovers there’s more to do on a Saturday night than watch “Aladdin” with your kids.
You learn to keep a sitter’s interest, not just by keeping Coke in the refrigerator and chips in the cupboard, but by doing what really talks - overpaying. Paying more than the going rate will not only keep your sitter more interested in your kids than the kids down the street, more money also will encourage her to tell all her friends about you.
Of course, there’s one basic problem with getting referrals from your primary sitter. If everybody on your sitter list is your sitter’s friend, that means they do things together, so when one girl tells you she can’t baby-sit because she’s going to a party, chances are they’ll all say the same thing.
An important tip toward building a reliable baby sitter list then: Include girls on your sitter list who don’t like each other.
Another tip: Don’t find your sitter on the street.
I didn’t know this at first. When I first became a parent, I didn’t know any babies, which meant I didn’t know any sitters, which meant my husband and I either didn’t go out, or when we occasionally did, we bribed adults we knew.
Then, strolling the neighborhood with my 10-month-old son one afternoon, a young neighbor walked up and tickled him under the chin. That was all I needed. Admire my baby, and I’ll invite you to stay alone with him even though I don’t know whether you have a criminal record or an honor roll certificate. “Do you baby-sit?” was all I needed to know. She said she did.
But only once in our house.
We came home that night to find her snoring on the couch. That wasn’t so bad, I guess; I could understand a 14-year-old struggling to stay awake at 11:30 p.m. What I couldn’t understand is how she could sleep through my son’s screams or me bursting through the door to retrieve him from the side of our bed where I found him clinging. He had obviously fallen to the floor after being allowed to fall asleep on our bed.
My husband and I were too shocked to do anything but wake the girl and pay her. At least we had the good sense never to call her again and to find future sitters by word of mouth. Today, I have in my possession a long list of proven, cross-referenced sitters, whose phone numbers I might share with other mothers under court order.
Only the best of friends know the phone number of the responsible 15-year-old who brings along her 12-year-old sister to help, gratis, as well as books and markers for my kids and a backpack full of homework to do in off moments. Likewise, another guarded commodity on our list is a perky 23-year-old college student, whose age gives away the bonus she brings: a car. She drives to and from her job.
Of course, no baby sitter conversation would be complete without talking about the first real sitter we ever had, a girl whose mother encouraged her daughter to strike out at a young age.
This mature-beyond-her-years young woman began sitting for us when she was 11 years old. From the moment I met her, I talked to her like she was an adult and she listened and responded like one.
I trusted her early on to do New Year’s Eve stayovers and weekend getaways. She has weathered several hours with me and my kids at an overcrowded amusement park when it was 87 degrees in the shade. She has helped us move twice, staying with us both times for several days until I got the house in order.
She has shared in the growth of my children for five years, which means she’s 16 now, which can only mean one thing: boyfriend.
And that’s another quirk of the trade. Even your most well-paid, loving sitter will eventually grow up to find boys more interesting than your children, although if you’re lucky, she won’t cut you off completely.
She might not be able to pull you out of a bind on Saturday nights anymore, but she might still agree to baby-sit occasionally, if only on week nights, when she’s not allowed to date.
She might even still chat with you during those few minutes during the drive home, giving you a glimpse of your own future, giving you a chance to understand a real, live bursting-at-the-seams young woman, so that maybe you’ll have a leg up when the little girl she tucked into bed that night becomes a bursting-at-the-seams young woman with a boyfriend, too. Shudder.