Sunday, November 15, 2009


Psycho-sitter arrived fifteen minutes late and said, “I…didn’t…bring the directions.” She repeated the phrase three times and then stared. After a confusing silence, I realized what she was waiting for: me to apologize to her.

Was I supposed to say, “I am sorry I didn’t remind you to bring the directions,”? I had emailed them a week before and she’d used them for our initial interview. Her being late didn’t upset me, but I was tired and eager to hand off Ava so I could nap. This was before our week with sleep consultant Meg Zweiback, and I really, really needed to sleep.

“Well, thanks for being here,” I finally said, leading her to the den. “Ava didn’t get much sleep last night, so she’s a little cranky. But, you guys can play down here for a while.” I left them with some Goldfish crackers and a sippy cup and said I needed to take the dog for a walk before I headed upstairs. Ava cried out when I said good-bye, but I did what I always do when I leave her with a sitter---got out as soon as possible and hoped she wasn’t crying when I returned.

She was crying when I got back from the dog walk, but I sneaked up the steps and hit the bed. They’ll be fine, I told myself, closing my eyes. I waited. Then I heard a scream.

I went downstairs and found them as I’d left them. Not a single toy had been displaced. They both stood by the baby gate as if in prison. Yes, even the sitter.

A crying toddler is hard on a mom, but surely harder on a new sitter. “Don’t take it personally,” I said, deciding to make the most of the day. “Let’s do some errands.” I did need to mail something at the post office. It was rather important, actually: a letter from our pediatrician getting me out of jury duty. He’d made Ava sound like a hyperactive chimp with a staple gun, but still, it was my best hope. We’d already played the lactation card with my first daughter. “There’s a park not far from the post office. You guys can play.”

Before we could leave, I had to find my keys. I held Ava on my knee while I dug through my diaper bag, which today turned out to be a bottomless pit of plastic straw wrappers. The baby sitter stood by. She didn’t offer to hold Ava, or distract her, she just stared. How do I describe her glare? Would you call me paranoid if I said her look conveyed disgust, as if I were a druggie scraping a trashcan for some leftover Chef Boyardee?

But, then came her question, which bothered me more than her glare. “Has she ever had a baby sitter?”

It would have been logical to blame the tears on separation anxiety if the sitter had been doing her best to cheer Ava up. But from what I’d observed, that was not the case. I took a breath and said the truth, “Actually, she’s had a sitter once a week for her entire life.”

In the car, I asked the sitter about her life at college and her plans to study abroad. At one point the conversation came back to my older daughter, whom the sitter had met briefly at our first visit, but who was now in school. “I’ve never met such a headstrong four year old,” she said. I thought about their first meeting. Heidi had insisted on wearing a princess dress when they went for a bike ride. Not recommended if you’re doing the Tour de France, but acceptable if you still have training wheels. Interesting, I thought to myself.

I parked next to the Post Office, a few yards from a little park with a gazebo. I reminded the sitter that Ava didn’t have much judgment around cars or pebbles —the one she’d chase, the other she’d eat—so to keep a good eye on her.

When I came back, Ava was circling the gazebo.

“She would not stay still, so I had to hold her hand the entire time,” the sitter said, sounding taxed.

I loaded Ava into the car and started to think about how I was going to handle the remaining hour of babysitting time. When we got home, I had a plan.

“Thank you so much for your help today,” I said, “let’s call it a day.”

That night, I felt like a very unhappy person had been in my home---judged my kids—and my parenting—explicitly and implicitly—and got paid for doing so. And, I’d lined up this sourpuss for the entire semester. How was I going to get rid of her?

My cousin suggested I tell her we were in witness protection and being relocated, or better yet, that the kids were a hoax, just rentals. But, I decided to take the straightforward approach and send her an honest but polite email.

I told her I assumed she was too professional to quite a job once she’d started and I hoped I hadn’t prevented her from pursuing another offer, but it was probably pretty obvious that we weren’t a good fit.
She emailed back to say my email was ambiguous. Henceforth, she has been known in my mind as psycho-sitter.

Did she need me to tell her she was a terrible baby sitter? That she’d offended me, terrified my youngest kid and misread the eldest? Did she need me to remind her that she was late for the job—because of her own actions—and had not even bothered to say a perfunctory, “Hey, sorry about being late,”?

I wanted to amend my previous ambiguity by laying it all out in black and white, but I was too afraid of psycho-sitter’s style of combat. I took the high road once more, and said despite the ambiguity, she’d probably interpreted my email correctly; thanks again, but no need to come anymore. She can think I’m a disorganized zombie with incorrigible children for the rest of her life. At least I don’t have to see her again.

When I was in my twenties and pounding the pavement in NYC, I worked for a woman who ran a temp agency. I was her temp, in fact, and she’d taken me on as her personal assistant. She was a wealthy woman with a lot of power and the ability to live eccentrically. I spend most of the time sitting next to her in town cars, jotting down notes, typing and retyping letters, never proficient but always willing. When her terrier needed a baby sitter, I got him one. When the same dog needed to fly to the Caribbean on a chartered jet instead of in a crate in cargo, I understood.

I won’t say we moms are CEO’s, because the analogy is misplaced, but we run our households and we call the shots. I now realize what earned me a spot as L’s personal assistant: I never judged her.

What bothered me about psycho-sitter was that judging seemed to be all she was prepared to do. Instead of soothing, she looked for a reason for Ava’s tears. Instead of cheering a princess on a bike, she judged the mindset. And, instead of apologizing for being late, she looked to blame.

I have wonderful baby sitters. Rachel, who comes with a flower in her hair, who once looked at me as I headed out the door and said confidently, “I think I should tell you your blouse is unbuttoned. You have a job interview, right?” And, Samantha, who enters the chaos of our house and leaves it more peaceful, never missing a beat when I ask her to drive the kids, or help in a “poopy-emergency”. These sitters are a meaningful part of our lives.

Psycho-sitter apparently expected the household to be in perfect order when she arrived. If that were the case, I’d never need a sitter.

Although I know most of us are grateful for our wonderful baby sitters, I'm sure a few of you have similar stories to share. Please post a comment and let us know what happened and how you handled it.


Alison said...

Sarah, she's sounds crazy! No wonder you call her the pyscho sitter. She is just plain rude. Heidi and Ava are dears - I can't believe she would act like that around them...

BTW - I love your posts...they are very engaging and really well-written. I look forward to reading more!

Jennifer said...

Love it! Fortunately, my Mother and Mother-in-law are our babysitters. Along with Uncles and Aunts. I dread and look forward to getting a babysitter who ISN'T related to us! Thank you for this very candid blog, love it!

Sarah Vander Schaaff said...

Alison and Jennifer,
Thank so much for reading the blog and for leaving your comments. I really appreciate them. Let me know if you have any ideas for future posts...

Brit said...

I have a just recent story to report - I've had what I thought was a wonderful babysitter (she was great with my girls) for about a year. I trusted her to do everything with them - including coming to philadelphia and driving them through rush hour traffic to get home when I have to work late. Just recently I payed her for a week of work, $100, with a check written out to cash. A few days later she was in touch with me reporting that she had lost the check. I trusted her and had her come over to get another check which I gave to her without question. The next day I went to the bank to cancel the first check - it had been cashed. I checked the signature on the back and compared it to the other checks I have given my sitter over the past months - it matched. Urg. So, I canceled the second check before she was able to cash it. I will eventually call her, but hope that she figures out that I know and calls me to apologize. Lesson here is to not write checks to "cash."

Sarah said...

Sarah, I remember L!!!! Seems like a different lifetime when we worked with her, doesn't it? Another great post -- but sorry you had to deal with psycho!

Libby Seiter Nelson said...

I had a sitter for about six months who was a little rough around the edges but came highly recommended. She doted on my twin babies and never complained about anything. She cleaned up and was always on time, but my oldest (then 3) never took to her. It got to where I only scheduled her during his naptime and if he woke up before I had come home, he refused to come down from his room. No amount of probing or cajoling could get him to tell me why he didn't like her. I didn't trust my instincts. I was desperate for a break and after all, hadn't she come highly recommended?

The last time she sat for us, Sam burst into tears at the mention that she was about to arrive. It finally tumbled out that FIVE months before (he could judge because we had moved and it happened at our "old house") she had hit him, because (his words) "she knows I don't like her." I called her that moment and cancelled our standing weekly date. I didn't go into much detail except to say it wasn't working out...I had absolutely no expectation that she would be truthful in the face of a three year old's accusations. She was in financial trouble and out of a warped sense of fairness I sent her two weeks pay and a quick note. It was such a relief to be rid of her but I blame myself to this day for not trusting my child's feelings. Good for you for severing the relationship after day one!

Sarah Vander Schaaff said...

It was so decent of you to send the two week's pay when faced with that kind of information. What an ordeal for you all. Thank you for sharing your story. I always love hearing from you and learn so much.