Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Babysitting

When I decided to go back to work, Barak was about five months old and I was scheduled to start my new part-time job when he would be a day short of 7 months. I was working five days a week from 9-1:30, a 25-minute bus ride from our house. At the time he was breastfeeding exclusively, sleeping, ah, badly, and a pretty high-maintenance baby in general. He was also, as probably would go without saying, the most precious baby in the whole wide world. And I had to figure out who was going to take care of him for those 4.5 hours a day, if it wasn't going to be me.

I didn't know anyone in town, and couldn't imagine leaving him with a babysitter who was a stranger. Family, yes, a friend, yes, but a stranger, no. So I looked into daycares, and found that there was a licensed daycare about three blocks from where I worked that had an opening for a baby Barak's age. It was expensive, oh, was it expensive--about 75% of my takehome pay. I would be working for little more than health insurance, but that was why I was working to begin with. Yes, it seemed a little crazy to spend that much, but I don't think I even hesitated at all--I signed him up, because it was clean and safe and the babies were well cared for and happy, and the teachers knew what they were doing and I would be five minutes away.

Barak stayed there for a little less than a year, until some things happened with the administration that I didn't like, I got pregnant with Iyyar, and his lead teacher, Ada, who was the one who kept the room running so smoothly, got into an altercation with the director (who had failed to report an incident in which a child wandered out of the building to Child Protective Services, and had forbidden the rest of the staff, mandated reporters all, from doing so themselves) and decided to leave. And offered to come babysit for us while she went back to school.

I couldn't come close to matching her pay, but I did the best I could. I paid her as much as she usually earned babysitting, which I managed by finding another baby to come here during the day whose mother paid part of Ada's salary. And I did pay her a salary. It was the same every week, Yom Tov or holiday or no. I said at the beginning that she would get a lot of paid time off because of Jewish holidays, and that once in a while I might ask her to stay late if I had a meeting to balance things out slightly--but she got paid for the full week, every week, no matter what. I didn't ask her to do housework, other than cleaning up after the kids. I depend on my babysitter for the health and safety of my kids and for my ability to work--and I need her to be reliable. So, I felt strongly that I needed to treat her like a real employee, not some kind of casual laborer.

When Ada needed health insurance of her own and got a job working nights at a local hospital, I rearranged my work hours slightly to keep her three days a week. Over this past summer, I also hired Asnat, who is now here three days a week and will be taking over when Ada goes to nursing school next semester. Asnat asked for a dollar an hour more than I was paying Ada; I decided to give it to her, and of course that meant I gave Ada a raise as well--even though the person I'm sharing babysitting with in the fall thought that that was crazy, because after all, Ada didn't have to know what Asnat was earning, did she?

Yesterday the wife of one of my husband's friends called me to ask if I knew any babysitters looking for jobs. She had called Asnat (Asnat had posted an ad in the local kosher grocery) but Asnat was already working for me by then. I said I didn't, and asked what had happened to hers. "She quit," she said. "She wanted too much--she wanted a raise, and she wanted to be paid for when she wasn't working. And she was old." My friend works at the same Jewish school where my husband works, and they get a lot of time off. "Did you pay her for vacations and yom tov?" I asked. "Of course not! Why should I pay her when she's not working?" I knew that babysitter #1 had been with them for three years, but didn't want to ask if she'd ever gotten a raise.

"Well, they need to pay their rent every month," I said. "It's hard if you don't get half your month's pay whenever it's Succos or Pesach."

"I'm not paying a babysitter for when she's not working."

"Okay, well, I'll tell you if I hear of anything."

"Well, I just need someone reliable," she said. "How did you find Asnat?" I told her. "I guess you just got lucky."

Umm. What to say? That she would not have worked for you under those terms anyway? If you expect a babysitter to accept that she will get paid some weeks but not others, that she will have unpaid vacations of up to two weeks during the school year and then the whole summer, and you still expect her to be totally available for you whenever you need her, and never ask for a raise, well--how is she supposed to be able to live on that? Unless she's also getting Social Security (in which case, yes, she'll probably be old), or has enough money that she doesn't really need to be working, she's not.

I know that most of the women in town who work hire babysitters on that basis--they only pay for the hours the babysitters come, and they pay a lot less than I do, and they are always having trouble with babysitters quitting or not showing up or whatever, or being retired Russian women who can't keep up with their kids (the babysitting mainstay around here--because babysitting is not their only source of income, they can handle the patchy pay schedule better). And the people who know that I pay my babysitters a salary think I'm nuts, or just very careless with my money, or foolishly generous.

But I'm not. It's total pragmatism. I need my babysitters, and I need them to be good and reliable and I need them to value their jobs. They are helping me raise my kids, and in babysitters as in all else, you get what you pay for. I want them to be here because they want to be here, not because it's the only job they could get without a green card. If I want reliable employees, I need to be a reliable employer. No?

To be fair, not everyone can afford to do what I do--I have a good job, and I'm not paying tuition yet. I know I'm sounding critical, and I'm not trying to be critical of people who need to work and can't afford good child care--not at all. I'm saying that if you choose to work, or if you have no choice but to work, then whoever is taking care of your children is acting in loco parentis for you. Treat them as you would like to be treated yourself.

(Yet another argument for extended maternity benefits, government-assisted child care, and... oh, a subject for another post.)

3 comments:

Rua said...

What you're doing is right, and your children will benefit from the good care you make sure they receive, and for the good example yous et in how you treat those who work for you.

Deborah said...

Since I do not work for health insurance or away from home and we do have relatives and friends close by, we have only used babysitting for a couple hours here and there when we went out for a quick supper alone--and they were all girls I knew from their births--some of them I myself babysat so their folks could have time alone.

Your reasoning is the most clear-headed and clear-hearted I have encountered. A neighbor who took care of other people's children for a year or so stopped doing so because it became apparent to her that she cared more for the children's welfare than the parents did--and she was never paid in a timely fashion.

jasmin said...

I agree -- after all, it's only fair to the babysitter, and I would definitely want to feel my kid was with somebody I could rely on and who probably felt some loyalty to me, for the reliable income if nothing else.

When I was going to go back to work, another university mother and I were going to split the cost of a regular babysitter to come to her house (where I'd take my son too). Then she got accepted at the university's child development center's preschool and decided to do that. As a faculty wife, she could afford that while I, a lowly grad student, could not (I hadn't even applied to be put on their wait list). Fortunately I found a wonderful, wonderful preschool to take him to ... and it was even on the way to the commuter bus stop to university! But if we had stayed with the babysitter, we were also talking in terms of weekly salary rather than hourly work.