The Babysitter Bind

It was Saturday afternoon. My wife was at work and I’d been visiting my father. As I drove down our street, I was glad to see all three of our daughters out running around in the sunshine. But 8-year-old Sally looked awfully grim. She wore a backpack and her big sister Marie, almost 12, had her by the arm and was dragging her back toward our house.

That’s because Sally had been running away from home to escape the tyranny of her babysitter – Marie. For 5-year-old Wendy, the running-away action had merely enlivened the afternoon enough for her to turn off the TV and creep blinking out into the daylight.

As a runaway, Sally would have faced a classic dilemma. Hemmed in by several streets that she’s not allowed to cross, there was only a strip of real estate one block wide and a half-mile long in which to hide and begin her new life. But, in our little town she is better-known than the mayor.

And another thing: Her backpack was empty. Just as General Lee liked to cripple the Yankee armies by capturing their supply wagons, Marie had hoped to short-circuit Sally’s rebellion by seizing the contents of her backpack. So, piled on our front porch were Sally’s teddy bear, her flute, books, clothes and a sandwich. Her desperate little pile of stuff made me sad for her.

It also made me sad for myself; Marie is a good daughter, but a bad babysitter. To Sally, it was as if the most overbearing thug in the prison had been given a badge and a baton. Marie made too much of the opportunity to boss Sally around, and Sally refused to accept Marie’s authority. And little Wendy, the only one who really needed a babysitter’s attention, was getting lost in the shuffle.

I’d been so eagerly awaiting the moment when our firstborn would be old enough to babysit the younger ones. Besides the expense, good babysitters are scarce.

Several years ago, my wife Betsy and I were taking a walk and met a new neighbor pushing a stroller. Her name was Joyce. After friendly preliminaries, Betsy began telling the newcomer about good local doctors, dentists and preschools. Then Joyce asked, “So, can you recommend a good babysitter?”

My wife’s response was a flat, “No.”

“Oh c’mon, really,” said Joyce.

Betsy tried for a joking tone: “Nope, I’m not tellin’.” The conversation limped a short distance then died.

The babysitter situation is grim. High school students either have jobs flipping burgers, punching cash registers, etc.; or they are busy with athletics, marching band or each other. So that leaves parents competing for the services of the kids in grades 7 and 8.

Your best bet is to find a competent seventh-grader, pay her a dollar over the prevailing rate, and pamper her with the deluxe cable-TV package, Diet Coke, baked Alaska – or whatever she wants. Remember, babysitting careers are short. A pro-football player may only have 60 games in him, and a young babysitter only has about 100 Saturday nights in her before she ages out. Treat her so well that you’ll be at the top of her list all through her two-year prime.

But even if you can amass some names and phone numbers, one big slumber party can make babysitters as hard-to-find as ball-point pens that write. “Sorry, Mrs. Epstein, but I’m going to Melissa Allen’s sleep-over that night. … No, she doesn’t have any enemies; I think the whole seventh grade is invited.” The local restaurateurs wonder whether to blame the weather or the economy for the empty tables. But it’s because all the sitters are at Melissa’s house.

Well, it took many years for our babysitting situation to improve. Our girls are now 17, 13 and 10. Although the teenagers are busy with boyfriends and the full-time pursuit of pleasure, when Betsy and I go out, we’ll get one of them to stay home with the youngster. Wendy doesn’t need much watching, but the teenagers do. And Wendy’s surveillance is unblinking and her reports are complete.

Rick can be reached at rickepstein@yahoo.com.

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