I moved to Madison without knowing anyone here. So I found a babysitter through the University of Wisconsin graduate program in early education. The woman I found was great. But she said that she was really busy, and could her boyfriend babysit instead.

I squashed all my sexist stereotypes of babysitters and asked for his qualifications. She said he has a law degree in Puerto Rico, where they are from, but he can’t work here because he didn’t pass the Wisconsin bar, and he doesn’t want to study for it because they’ll only be here two years. So he is looking for work. He has five younger siblings and he babysat them.

I said okay. I did the normal routine — stayed with him and the baby one day. Went out for a little the next. The third day I told him I’d be at the coffee shop. It’s the only store in our neighborhood, so I told him if he wants to go there, go when the baby is asleep so the baby doesn’t see me and start crying for me.

Sure enough, the babysitter shows up at the coffee shop at naptime.

I say, “Where’s the baby?”

He says, “At home.”

“AT HOME?!?!?”

So I sprint eight blocks home, imagining all the most terrible things a mom can imagine about a steep flight of stairs. I get home and the baby is asleep, on my bed, ten feet from an open stairway.

The guy says, “I’m sorry.”

I say, “You can just go.”

He says, “I think it was a language problem. I just misunderstood you. I thought you told me to go to the coffee shop and leave the baby at home.”

This actually happened two months ago. I haven’t written about it because I was blaming myself. But really, this could happen to anyone. It does. My friend paid a chic-chic agency in the New York City area to find her a bonded, background-checked nanny. But she turned out to be anorexic and she fainted behind the wheel. My friend didn’t know until the car was wrapped around a pole. (Everyone safe, thank goodness.)

The difficulty of leaving a baby to go to work cannot be understated. And babysitting situations like this make it even more difficult. So we’ve now gone months with no babysitter, and my husband is about to kill me (because he’s picking up a lot of the slack).

So here’s where the advice comes in, right? Where I tell you how to find a perfect babysitter or something. But there are no perfect babysitter situations. It’s the nature of motherhood to be unsure of leaving. One thing I can tell you, though, is that this I am a part of the opt-out generation: I sprinted up corporate ladders and ran two startups of my own, and I don’t want to do that now, when I have young kids.

A press release from Lifetime Television just announced, “Women in generation Y do not want to permanently drop out of the workforce.” The assumption here, of course, is that the Generation X women– me — who are dropping out of corporate life today are going to abstain from all business for the next twenty years until all their kids are in college. If this were not the assumption, no one would bother with the Lifetime press release.

Newsflash: The current opt-out phenomenon is not permanent. Leaving a baby with a sitter is very, very hard for the mother, (even if the sitter is not leaving the kids at home alone), and only moderately okay for the baby. Some moms can do it, some can’t, most fall somewhere in between, like me.

As the kids get older, the opt-out revolution is about opting out of the absurd and inflexible hours that corporate America is demanding right now. It is not opting out of all work that does not involve kids. In fact, the majority of small businesses are started by women for these very reasons. This is not about being stuck. This is about being true to our values.

So finally, here is some advice: Understand that babysitter problems are not unique to you. They are part of a massive trend that is changing work and home. One bad babysitter doesn’t mean you should give up on corporate life, and the crazy demands of corporate life don’t mean that you should give up on work outside the home. We are all trying to find a compromise, and some of us are trying to find a sitter.

14 replies
  1. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Penelope,
    I’m so sorry you went through that experience with a “caregiver.”

    Thanks for the link on child care reearch. For me it was actually reassuring and supports what I’ve found with my 17 month old, very talkative and interactive son.

    The best parts for me:

    "Higher quality child care (positive provider-child interaction) modestly predicted greater involvement and sensitivity by the mother (at 15 and 36 months) and greater positive engagement of the child with the mother (at 36 months).

    I’ve learned so much about good parenting and stimulation from my daycare provider. She’s a pro with this age group and I’m a first-time parent.

    "Children who spent more time in group arrangements with more than three other children had fewer behavior problems (as reported by the caregiver) and were observed to be more cooperative in child care.

    "The quality of child care over the first three years of life is consistently but modestly associated with children’s cognitive and language development. The higher the quality of child care (more positive language stimulation and interaction between the child and provider), the greater the child’s language abilities at 15, 24, and 36 months, the better the child’s cognitive development at age two, and the more school readiness the child showed at age three.

    My son has been a chatter box with real words since 10 months. And I think having the slightly-older kids around at daycare and the added stimulation of their activities helped him learn more quickly.

    "However, again, the combination of family income, maternal vocabulary, home environment, and maternal cognitive stimulation were stronger predictors of children’s cognitive development at 15, 24, and 36 months of age and of language development at 36 months.

    I liked this finding because at the end of the day, it suggests that your strong efforts as a parent when you are with your children matter as much as having quality daycare. Work-family synergy is therefore required.

  2. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Penelope,

    The same issues come up for fathers as well. I know that I had a hard time putting our kids into daycare since I was actually their primary daytime caregiver after my wife’s maternity leaves ended (I brought them into the office with me–there are definitely some benefits to working for startups).

    In the end, we went and found the best for-profit daycare facilities we could. The reason is simple: I believe that the best babysitter is generally a large for-profit corporation. There are many other customers vetting the service, the company has deep pockets and a strong incentive to avoid lawsuits (especially since American juries love to stick it to faceless corporations), and the quality of care is generally pretty uniform and consistent.

    Corporate-run daycare may not be the absolute best, but I can be darn sure that it will be compliant with all relevant state and local statutes, that it will not take any risks with my child’s well-being, and that it will always be there, every day, from 6 AM to 6 PM if I need it, without complaint, drama, or variation.

  3. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Penelope,

    Following on Chris’s wonderful comment, can I offer what formula worked for me in finding a good daycare situation?

    The best advice: know exactly what you’re looking for so you’ll know the right situation when you see it. For me:

    1. I wanted a home-based daycare that the provider understood as her (or his) home based business. That is, they knew what it meant to be running a business as well as to be providing child care.

    2. I wanted to find a care provider who has other skills and experience — who could be doing something else but CHOOSES to be a daycare provider (not someone who is doing it because they feel they have no other options). I wanted someone for whom working with young children is their passion, and they left another career to do it.

    3. I wanted to meet the care provider’s own children or child, to see what they were like. If the child/children are polite and well behaved in meeting a prospective daycare parent, then chances are this person is a good parent and care giver.

    4. I wanted a daycare provider who has the self-respect to not let families treat her (or him) poorly. Ideally, I wanted someone who had fired a family for inappropriate behavior (because then I knew they could do it). This is tough to do, because understandably the care provider often falls in love with the child, but just can’t deal with the parents poor behaviour (unannounced late pick ups, bounced checks, etc.) I treat my daycare professional as a professional and wanted to make sure other families treat her the same way. I don’t want her stressed because of another family’s behavior.

    I put together this list while I was on maternity leave (in Canada it’s a long leave) from talking to other parents of slightly older kids trying to find good care — and then thinking about how to find the best situation.

    I used it to screen prospective care providers, and KNEW WHEN I FOUND THE PERFECT MATCH.

    I found a great daycare professional who was a legal assistant (and also had experience as a QA at Electronic Arts), but whose dream for years had been to open a daycare. She was finally at a point in her life when she could do it. Her eight year old son is polite, respectful and wonderful with the little ones (a testament to her parenting of him — as a young single parent until recently when she has married).

    I found her on craig’s list.

  4. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    Penelope:

    When I got pregnant with my firstborn, the best piece of insight/advice I I got was that as a mom, I would wish I could be in two places at once more than I would have thought possible. Seven years and two jobs later, it’s still true.

    There simply are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers. I so appreciate your commentary…it’s such a powerful antidote to the intense views on either side of the fence.

    Seems like on this issue, as so many other emotionally-loaded ones, that the public discourse focuses on amplifying one dominant message, rather than exploring the areas where reasonable people can disagree.

    Thanks for being that alternative.

  5. Todd
    Todd says:

    Jesus. Every mother’s nightmare. My mom did that once – left me at home (this is back in 1969) while she went “really quick” to grab some milk at the store up the road. On the way back she gets pulled over for driving, well, really quick. After becoming hysterical she convinces copper to follow her back to the house to write her the ticket. lol.

  6. Mary Baum
    Mary Baum says:

    In St. Louis we are privileged to have three superb full-time daycare facilities — Downtown Child Care, Developmental Child Care and my favorite, Clayton Child Center: http://claytonacademy.org/

    We chose Clayton because it’s five blocks from our house, but over time I’ve realized we never again had to give a second thought to the issues of child care that come up so often here and everywhere else in print and online.

    Fifteen years later, my daughter and her two best friends from there (whose mothers are my two best friends) work there in the summers, and two of the girls’ teachers from back then are in our book group — and are still teaching at the Center!

    Our area also has two other top-notch programs to choose from, plus one at the Mid-County Y.

    So while St. Louis rightfully deserves a lot of knocks for its conservative corporate, I give it props for great — if expensive — child care.

  7. Jen
    Jen says:

    All ~ Not all childcare arrangements subject children to unsafe environmnets. You can work outside the home and have your children in loving, stimulating, fun environments. Rememeber not all parents are providing their children this even if they are home with them all day. Even some relatives that watch young children cannot provide the quality of childcare necessary for young children. We have had two nannies for our two children and they have been first rate care givers; conscientios, loving and truly loved what they do. If you can’t walk out the door in the morning and have a clar mind that your child is well cared for then you need to stop and go home. I work outside the home 50 plus hours a week with some travel. I have never hestitated that my children are getting the best care they can get. My children have thrived with their nannies who have become an inmportatnt part of their life.

  8. Bill C.
    Bill C. says:

    See… hahaha the ‘funny’ thing about that story is that as I was reading it and got to the part where you said blah blah the coffee shop, my first question was why you would have suggested to the babysitter (whose job it is to say home with the baby, hence the job title) that he might have gone to the coffee shop where you were, and my second question was “who’s going to be watching the baby if both of you are @ the coffee shop?” :D It wasn’t until I read your reaction to what he said that I became aware that you meant for him to move the baby while the baby was sleeping, which didn’t make sense to me, either. :)

    I suppose the moral of the story is to not count on someone like that babysitter (or me) to take care of a baby in the same way that someone that’s actually had a child would or someone that’s capable of having a child would or even someone that would LIKE to have a child. Of course he’s an idiot for leaving the baby, since he’s not clairvoyant and had no way of telling WHEN the child would wake up. That’s what happens when people accept jobs just to put some money in their pockets.

    I’m glad everything turned out fine! :)

  9. Dave
    Dave says:

    When my son was born, my first and foremost responsibility shifted to that of keeping him safe from harm. He had complete trust and faith in me, his Daddy, that I would not let anything happen to him. My wife and I were fortunate in that we were able to afford for her to be a stay-at-home-Mom. It took some sacrifice but I could leave for work each morning knowing that my little boy was in the best possible hands. Finding babysitters we trusted WITH OUR SON’s LIFE was extremely difficult.

  10. Ed B
    Ed B says:

    Words from Grandparents: Childcare while we worked was at times a nightmareish reality and one we would not choose to do again. Now that our children are married we reflect back on what the true benefit was by trying to combine work and childcare and in the end we probably did not benefit as much as we expected to when we were making that decision.
    So when our children began having children my wife came home and informed me that she is retiring and going to be a grandmother. Fortunately our children are able to make a better childcare decision than we did and it may be the result of our influence. Our youngest daughter worked with her employer to work out of her home, and then recruited a nanny to work out of our daughters home three days a week. Our older daughter was able to have her inlaws and an adult care worker help with thier childs daycare and my son, Jamie whom you correspond, was able to make sure they did not become dependent on his wifes income. She became a stay at home mom, pursuing her art career around kids schedules.
    And of course Nanna is on the road between Vancouver, Seattle and Idaho on a regular basis helping with child care.
    I know that many people have not had the opportunities that our family has had but creativity and re-evaluating what is important may open soem new opportunites that may have been overlooked.

    * * * * * *

    Ed, thank you so much for posting this comment. It’s a real treat to see someone write “Words from Grandparents.” I’m honored to have grandparents commenting on my blog. You bring a great perspective that is often missing in the blogsphere.-Penelope

  11. Esran
    Esran says:

    that babysitter is out of order!!!!!!!!! he needs to go and get a real education again and come back and babysit i hope you interviewed him i hope your baby is ok now

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