I’m sitting in front of my computer, scrolling through page after page of profiles and photos. Beverly is a professional chef and has a nice smile—maybe I should send her a message. Amanda lives in my neighborhood, likes dogs, and speaks French—but I already emailed her last week and never heard back. Leanne misspelled believe—is that enough reason to click away? I click away.
I’m not looking for a date. I’m looking for a babysitter.
I found my family’s first babysitter, Harriet, the old-fashioned way: through friends’ recommendations. Harriet was my colleague’s babysitter, and she knew another friend of mine through church choir singing and yet another friend through her work as a doula. She was everything I thought I wanted in a babysitter: calm, kind, well-educated, artistic. She also lived more than an hour away and was constantly and significantly late, causing me to miss appointments and meetings. I had no idea how to handle this; I had never been anyone’s boss, and so I treated Harriet like a friend. Eventually, I had my husband fire her when I wasn’t home.
The whole thing was awful, and it also taught me what I needed in a babysitter. Someone younger than me, whom I can feel comfortable bossing around. Someone local. Not necessarily someone who could be one of my friends. And being a hippy-dippy doula singing Mary Poppins isn’t necessarily a plus.
A few years, another kid, and a house move later, I turned to the Internet. Care.com launched in 2007, offering profiles of babysitters, nannies, tutors, pet sitters, and home health aids; users can search for free but have to pay a subscription fee to make contact with caregivers (and see their background checks). In other words, Care is organized like a dating site—only the date is a babysitter, and your fingers are crossed that you’re both ready for a long-term relationship. You’re not looking for a romantic partner, of course, but the search can feel just as raw and vulnerable—and the desired outcome is, in its own way, very intimate. Sometimes the babysitter is going to arrive in the evening to help with bedtime and find all of us exhausted and irritable after a tough afternoon, markers, books, and animal figurines strewn all over the floor, one of us midtantrum. Sometimes she’ll arrive in the morning to find me still in my pajamas, remnants of breakfast in my hair.
In creating my profile, I tried to send a clandestine mating call to my ideal caregiver—a dolphin whistle through a vast ocean of job-seekers. My profile contained words like “loving,” “thoughtful,” “engaging,” and “supportive.” I chose a photo of my daughter and me in the park, smiling warmly. (“Hey, ideal babysitter! We like to have fun outdoors!”) As with Internet dating sites, Care.com encourages—and indeed almost requires—that users rely on knee-jerk, instinctive judgments of other people. That starts with the pictures. There are 12,000 (!!) English-speaking, in-home babysitters who live within five miles of me; I need to narrow the candidates down somehow. If there’s no picture, I don’t even consider them. Why? Being technologically savvy is not a requirement for being a good babysitter, nor is being photogenic. But if they can’t take the time to snap a nice selfie and upload it onto this website, they’re either hiding something or they’re not serious.
On Care.com, many people post sunny photos of themselves with a cute kid, or a gorgeous headshot. But many babysitters scowl into the camera. Who emails them? Many others post dark, shadowy pictures in which their face is obscured. Or depict themselves at what appears to be a frat party, tipsily holding a Solo cup. Or in their car, headphones over their ears. Or choose a selfie where they’re holding the phone so high you can see all their cleavage. Or a scanned photo that is obviously 25 years old.
Like everyone who has ever swiped on Tinder, I judge, and I judge, and I judge. Recently, a prospective babysitter’s email began: “Hello Tamar, My name is Tamar.” She went on to tell me her age and interest in my job posting, without acknowledging that we share a (fairly uncommon) first name. I wrote her off as robotic and awkward and did not return her email. Irrational nitpicking may be irrational, but anything to cull the herd.
One major difference between using a dating site and Care.com is that I’m willing and able to shamelessly email dozens of people to get a first date—or an interview, in this case. The gender norms that guide dating behavior don’t apply to the largely all-female world of searching for a babysitter; I prefer to do the asking out. I quickly learned that I needed to email about 30 people for every interview I would conduct. So many people never reply, or have moved, or have changed schedules. And I’m trying to pay them!
But the flip side of the overwhelming numbers is that—just as on a dating site—it’s hard to settle, because you know there are thousands more to choose from out there. Is this the best possible person? Or can I find someone closer, cheaper, nicer, more experienced? I “swipe left” on babysitters for bad grammar, bad photos, bad makeup, yet I still have plenty of bad first dates. Megan is a no-show for a trial babysitting session; I call her and she is clearly asleep, having completely forgotten about our appointment. (“Wasn’t it on Thursday?” she slurs.) Jaclyn arrives 30 minutes late to the playground where I’m waiting with my son; I watch her approach, meandering with her phone, seemingly unhurried. She is pursuing an early childhood education degree online, she says, because it’s “better for my ADD.” At least we’re not stuck having dinner.
It’s also sometimes clear that people are “swiping left” on me or rejecting me after our “first date.” In one interview with a perfectly lovely grad student, I launched into every parenting practice I subscribe to: no “Be careful!”, no screens, no baby food, no “Good job,” no praising artwork, no timeouts, no princesses, no calling my daughter pretty, no disposable diapers. The grad student seemed so open, so like-minded! I was sure she’d be thrilled to have found her perfect parenting match. But really it was as if I were telling a guy on a first date every detail of my food allergies or my bathroom routine. Needless to say, after hearing my long list of forbidden phrases and activities—along with a detailed description of the philosophy behind each—that babysitter hightailed it: She emailed me the next day to say it wasn’t going to work out.
Babysitters have also rejected me because I moved too slowly; trying to find the “perfect” match, I’ve lost the chance to hire people because someone else pounced before I did. Finally, there’s ghosting. As rampant as it is on Tinder, it’s all over Care.com. I’ve been ghosted, I’ve done the ghosting: It’s par for the course. Sometimes one of us just doesn’t have the guts to break up politely before things get too serious, so we stop responding and hope the other person gets the message.
We ended up hiring Paula, a lovely young woman studying to be an elementary school teacher. The grammar in her emails was less than perfect. She was not pursuing a career in the arts. But my kid loved her, and she was always on time and super communicative, and I felt very comfortable with her. She was a winner. As with dating, I came to understand that what we think we want isn’t always necessarily what we need. And sometimes it’s good to be surprised by someone. Since Paula, we’ve hired Angela, an aspiring art therapist; Caroline, an aspiring marine biologist; and Jennifer, an aspiring actor. Each of them has been great in her own way, but when her schedule changes and our relationship ends, I’m never heartbroken—my kids draw her a goodbye card, and I get back on the computer. Thanks to Internet-babysitter dating, there really is always another Ms. Right around the corner.