The closest I’ve lived to family since becoming a parent is a 21-hour drive, so childcare solutions have become a special talent of mine. I decided very early on that being a martyr would only hurt my family; I’m an extrovert and need to leave the house. But I’ve found that my lovely introvert parent-friends also need to leave the house. And before you dismiss me for being cavalier, know that I’m also very protective of my children and their schedule. You too can be conscientious AND take rejuvenating breaks from your children!
Obviously there are many arrangements that can be made with family (if they are nearby) and/or your partner, so for the sake of scope, we are assuming here that neither are available regularly. For example, I have a very capable and thoughtful husband, but as an anesthesia resident, an 80-hour workweek is the norm. In fact, many of the following ideas were born during periods where he was gone for months at a time for military assignments or medical rotations. Also, we really really like each other, and like to think we’re still young, so even with his busy schedule we go out on dates sans offspring at least three times per month.
OCCASIONAL DAYTIME SITTER
There are just a few things I REALLY don’t like doing with my children in tow and that I REALLY can’t do outside of my husband’s work hours. Doctor appointments, hair appointments, etc. For these few activities swap babysitting with a friend who has the same need!
SCHEDULED DAYTIME SITTER
I’ve found that sometimes the extra work of arranging a babysitter is a great deterrent to leaving the house. Having a standing, scheduled time(s) each day/week/month for a sitter is remarkably freeing and there are so many possible arrangements….
Less than a month after my second son was born, with an unusually active 20-month-old son, a husband just four months into his first year of residency (the busiest year), and parents across the country from our home in Mississippi, Rich was hospitalized for viral meningitis. I was overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and knew it would be months before Rich was back to full capacity. Many kind people came to our aid, but one of the best things I did to help myself was my dad’s idea: I hired a young neighborhood teenager $5/hour to come play outside with my toddler for an hour-ish each weekday afternoon. Toddler got his wiggles out, baby got his nap, I got some mid-day recharge, and the teenager earned a little extra cash after school.
Lee does this every week, but for free. She takes another person’s kid for 3 hours on Thursday mornings and swaps by dropping off her youngest at the other’s house on Monday mornings. She schedules most of her grocery shopping and appointments during this time, as does the other swap mom. Win, win!
When we moved to Oklahoma City for what I knew would be two years, my husband’s schedule was temporarily predictable, my two children were napping at the same time each afternoon, and I recognized an opportunity to both get some alone time and keep my foot in the door, professionally speaking. I found a wonderful college-aged nanny to come to my house after her classes on Tue/Thu from 1pm (the start of nap time) to 4:30pm (when my husband returned from work). She would sit and do homework until 3:00pm, when my boys woke, and then play with them for the next one and a half hours, a total of three hours awake with the nanny per week. I was able to pay her on the low end of typical wages because my kids were asleep for the majority of her time with them. I contacted the Oklahoma Historical Society Library and volunteered this time under the condition that I could choose the department and projects (believe it or not, there are lots of kinds of librarians and I have specific professional goals). By volunteering (as opposed to a job—I realize not everyone has this luxury), I allowed myself flexibility for sickness, vacations, or other errands difficult with children (haircuts, doctor appointments, etc.). I would return home at 5:30-6:00pm and we’d all eat dinner together. This arrangement met three needs at once: 1) regularly getting out of the house and away from toddlers with minimal planning, 2) keeping up my skills from my masters degree, and 3) minimizing the guilt of being away from my small children.
There were even some unintended bonuses that made our home happier. First, the babysitter never burned out because she saw our boys for so few hours each week. Second, my boys never stopped being excited about this designated playtime. Third, I came home refreshed, a much nicer mom. And found I had more patience on other days, knowing I was never more than a day away from a break. Most of all, in the absence of grandparents, aunts, and uncles, my children had another adult who truly loved them and became a valued member of our family. In the months leading up to military deployments, Macayla’s presence was my greatest source of comfort. Oh yeah, another huge bonus: an established relationship with a babysitter for times of greater need.
How to find your sitter. I’ll tell you right now that this first step will be the hardest, but once you have a reliable, trustworthy sitter, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without her/him. Here are some networks through which I—and others I’ve polled—have found success.
- Word of mouth. A recommendation from a trusted friend/family member is best of all!
- Your gym. If you already use childcare at your gym and your child(ren) has a particularly favorite adult, the chances are that person is open to additional childcare jobs. It’s worth asking.
- Church congregation. A large group outside your family that you’re more likely to know and trust than the general public.
- A Facebook babysitting page/group for your region. This is how I found my beloved nanny in Oklahoma! The FB page was for both those seeking and offering childcare in our suburb. I simply posted the days/hours I needed help and several people contacted me. Looking at their personal FB page gave me extra insight into whether they’d be a good fit for my family.
- Care.com and similar websites. I see this as a last resort, but I know several people who have great things to say (background checks!) about these services.
If you have multiple children under school age, you can often get discounts and have a one-stop drop-off if you coordinate all attending on the same days/hours. This can also be an anxiety-inducing research process for us protective parents, but I’ve found recommendations from veteran friends to be very helpful. The bonus here is that your child is learning valuable academic and social skills while away from you. I never planned to put my children in preschool, but as my oldest reached that age and was increasingly bored at home, a highly recommended preschool in our area literally became an answer to my prayers. Each child’s needs are different, right?!
I also have several friends who really enjoy the break and inexpensiveness that a pre-school co-op provides! Preschool co-ops are free or low-cost preschool groups taught by parents within their homes. A co-op might assign each week or an assigned day of the week to one of the parents of the kids in the group. So if there are five kids in a pre-school co-op, the chances are that each parent will only be teaching every fifth week. If there are three kids in a co-op and you have preschool three times a week, you might be assigned the same day (i.e., Mondays) each week to host and teach preschool. There’s a lot of flexibility with a co-op that makes it especially ideal for younger preschoolers.
A wise friend of mine told me one of her secrets to childcare when she lived outside the country. “Find a gym with childcare and a pool and on the days you don’t feel like working out, sit outside by the pool for two hours with a book!” Pros to gym childcare:
- childcare is often included in a gym pass—usually 1-2 hours/day
- video-monitored playrooms
- you can exercise, shower, and/or just relax sans children
- you can arrive any time within daycare hours, no pressure to be on a schedule
EVENINGS: FOR BABIES, TODDLERS, AND YOUNG CHILDREN WHO ONLY GO TO BED FOR PARENTS
- (Early bedtime) Split couple babysitting swap. Ask a friend or neighbor with similar kids’ bedtimes to come sit at your house while your kids sleep and you go out. This person’s partner will be at home with their kids. The next night or weekend, swap the arrangement; you will be at her house with her kids as she and her man go out, while your partner is at home. While living in Virginia, we did this often with Lee and Sam since we each had one child who went to bed at 7pm. It was free and so glorious to have our babies in their own beds at their scheduled time!
- (Early bedtime) Pay a young teenager to sit in your house after kids are already in bed. This is the one I use most often these days since our three kids go to bed at 6:30pm. We ask (through parents) young (ages 12-15) teenagers who are interested in earning money (you’d be surprised how many aren’t) if it’s worth $5/hour to them to sit at our house, watch our Netflix, and eat our ice cream while our kids sleep. Pick up and take home since they’re too young to drive and to offset the low wage. We give her/him our cell phone numbers and go. They’re there in case of an emergency or to comfort a crying baby just until we can get home. If you need a CPR etc. trained individual for peace of mind, you’ll be better off hiring a professional sitter.
- (Later bedtime) Traditional babysitting swap. Special events or general later bedtimes might mean you want to go out before bedtime. Swap nights with a friend(s) where you take your kids to their house while you go out. You’ll watch their kids at your house the next night or weekend.
EVENINGS: OLDER KIDS
- Either type of aforementioned babysitting swaps.
- Form a babysitting co-op. Multiple families drop their kids off at one person’s house or other location—such as a church you all attend—and they all settle in for a movie while the parents go out…except for the set of parents doing the sitting that night. The next weekend or other arranged night, another set of parents will watch the other couples’ kids. Depending on the number of couples involved, you might only have to do the sitting every several months. The pros here are that it’s free and your kids will enjoy seeing their friends, but be aware that the more people that are involved the more possibility there is for problems (sick kids, misunderstandings, babysitter couple canceling last minute, etc.). Trust is obviously important here, but it is more important to be able to communicate well with the people you swap with than it is to be best friends with them–so you can feel comfortable making sure everyone’s needs are considered and met.
- Share a babysitter. Two couples split the cost of a sitter who watches both sets of kids at one of the couple’s homes. The rate might be higher per hour due to the increased number of kids, but once the costs are split, it’s going to be less expensive than each family footing a separate bill.
HOW MUCH TO PAY?
Maybe this question has stressed you out or caused you problems with a previous sitter or worst of all, deterred you from even trying to go out! I move a lot, so the first step is to research typical wages in your area. This doesn’t need to be extensive–just ask around a bit or call a professional sitter and ask what the going rate is. After that, take into account how many kids you have, how demanding they are, whether they’re awake/asleep, etc. Then it’s time to be confident in knowing that you are offering a job to someone with a justified wage. I’ve had awkwardness, especially with teenagers, over asking what they charge or misunderstanding their expectations. It changed everything when I decided to offer a job with certain payment (usually per hour) up front and give the person time to get back to me about whether they accept. Put the ball in their court. For younger teenagers I ask through a parent so everyone is aware and making informed decisions.
Any other brilliant ideas out there? Tell us!