B-A-B-Y-S-I-T-T-I-N-G : The Problematics of Sittercity.com

8pm on a Friday night, November, 1999: In the age before text-messaging, my girl Remi pages me. I can't talk so I send her a text back. It looks like this:



I was the neighbourhood's most sought-after only babysitter. I loved kids. I wanted to be a child psychologist, after all. And I loved working, even if it came on the heels of a day at my "real" job, selling clothing to pregnant women in a boutique on 4th Avenue. I always charged less than 8 (eight!) dollars an hour and I often brought toys from home. I took the younguns to the park, to science world and out for pizza and bubble-tea on my own dollar. I sang and danced for them. I read stories, located lost transitional objects, gave baths, helped with homework and confiscated the hair dryer when I caught little Billy-Joe mildly pleasuring himself with its hot air stream (sorry, Billy-Joe!).

 I even tried out my burgeoning psychotherapeutic techniques, asking Johnny, "What would you say to your mommy if you could talk to her right now?" Which, to my surprise, actually worked: he thought about it, took a deep breath and said, "I'd tell her I fell in the loo..."

Ten years later I have a little one of my own, and I need to find childcare. I'm (hopefully) going back to school this spring and although it's a low-residency programme, I'll have a little less time to spend lounging around the house like it ain't no thang. 

But it's harder than I thought. All the people who said they'd LOVE to babysit when I was pregnant either live in Canada or have lives of their own (or, what's worse, both). Some new acquaintances here in SF have offered, but people seem surprised at how tough it is to look after Sweet Baby James, which might be my fault (who wants to carry a 30 lb. baby on their hip all day? ME) and it might not... He's got a good temperament, but he's active. Like, learning-how-to-walk-and-carry-a-broom-handle-for-fun-at-10-months active. He kicked the sh#t out of me when I was pregnant, causing "les contractions fausses" (Braxton-Hicks) every 10 minutes. 
(here's a video of someone else's Braxton-Hicks contractions)

He's a honey badger. And I love him.

So we decided that we want to pay for childcare. Because unlike when we take friends up on their offers to babysit, when we pay someone for childcare, they have to do it, and they have to come back if they want more money. Friends, you are still welcome to babysit. But you might have to let us pay you.

My efforts to find someone fun, reliable, and who needs the money ($15/hour is the going rate here, though childcare is a tough gig and I would pay more if I could afford it) haven't been all that successful. Craigslist, my go-to for so many things, has pretty much proved to be a dud in the city of its origin. I haven't made friends through it, I haven't been able to find a cheap changing table to use for an art project, and I received only one response to my search for a caregiver. 

She seemed nice. But she never called me back. 

Enter, Sittercity. A friend of a friend posted their link on her fb feed and I thought I'd check it out. The company's based in Chicago and has been around for 10 years. They operate within the US (though also, apparently, within Peru for US military families), where they claim to have over two million caregivers signed up. Potential babysitters, nannies, other kinds of caregivers (dog carers and elder carers, as well as tutors) sign up for "free", paying $11 for their own background check. Then they can see a bunch of listings put up by parents and apply to the jobs they like with the click of a button.

Parents get a one-week free membership. It doesn't allow you to do much: you can post an ad, but you can't respond to any of your applicants (unless you're sneaky like me and you try to source them on fb, which has a certain creepo factor). I paid $35 for one month and I've been happy with the two potential sitters I've met so far. One of them has a Master's in Marriage and Family Therapy; the other just moved to the city to go U of SF. Over ten other qualified sitters have applied. I am happy with the service. 

But something about it rubs me the wrong way...
  • "Safety Matters" is their slogan. The whole safety aspect of Sittercity implies that babysitters don't take kids' safety as seriously as parents. But the truth is, any psychopath can get pregnant – and many do, and more kids are seriously abused at the hands of their parents than by young college-age women looking to make some rent money. The focus on safety in this context is really just alarmist bullshit: the implication is that you, as a parent, are neglectful if you haven't done identity and background checks done on their babysitter. Screw personal references, your sitter is supposed to be cross-referenced to "the most current national databases and registries." Nobody does this stuff for the neighbourhood babysitter who lives down the street. So, you know, you'd better sign up with Sittercity. It's safer.

  • Nanny Cam. In a follow-up to my first point, Sittercity's Three Step Monitoring Process, which they recommend for all parents, includes the recommendation to install a hidden camera. Yes, that's right, since, "The most diligent parents we've seen use a nanny cam to confirm their suspicions or alleviate their fears." And you want to be diligent, right? Ugh. If you're not comfortable with the person you've hired – and most people make this decision within a few seconds of meeting somebody – why leave your kids with them? Because you want to feel like you're in charge of them, that you can see their every move since, hey, you're paying them more than minimum wage? It's classist, exploitive, and filming people without their knowledge should be illegal. I mentioned this when I met up with K, one of our new sitters, and she was shocked. She'd never been told that there was this recommendation out there. I promised I would never film her. What if this had happened to me, as a teenager who connected with her babysitting charges because she loved a chance to just be a kid again? It would only be a matter of time before the parents caught one of my silly (and highly entertaining) song and dance routines on tape, uploaded it to YouTube, and...
  • Representation of Sitters: a follow-up to my second point. The classist, parent-superiority complex drives me crazy. In truth, I identify more with the women applying for my ad than I do with Sittercity's stock photos of thin white mamas baking cookies in their palatial houses. The lists of things you should look out for in a sitter are not only alarmist; they are lacking in compassion and perspective. For example, 
"Signs of Abuse: If a babysitter has bruises, is excessively thin, or seems to have a lot of "accidents," consider using someone else. When a babysitter is abused she often feels powerless and confused, and might bring this attitude into an emergency situation. Not to mention that she should also be spending time in therapy, not at a babysitting job."
          The next item to watch out for on that list? "A Patronizing Attitude".
  • Power Differential: a follow-up to my third point. The sitters have a place to show an avatar picture. And to be honest, I appreciate it – though it made me acutely and uncomfortably aware of my prejudices, and I struggle with this as I try to narrow down my list to four or five potential candidates, like the site tells you to. But there isn't a place to put parents' pictures. In my correspondence with the applicants I have been including a link to our baby blog, since I think this will give them a sense of who we are and what they could expect. But why isn't there a spot for this on the site? In this scenario, the sitter (who, btw, is always female, even referred to as such in the company literature) is the vulnerable one. She is the one who is entering a stranger's home; she is the one who doesn't have the benefit of a cross-references and background-checked employer; she is the one who can be hired and fired at will. There is also a place for parents to evaluate and rate their sitters. Where's the one for sitters to evaluate employer families?  
...So she'd have an idea of what to expect.
  • Corporate Pandering: Corporations are encouraged to provide Sittercity as a service for their employees. Big ones include Dannon, NewBalance and Fox Entertainment. I'm all for childcare in the workplace, but that isn't what this is about. This is about getting corporations to get new mamas off their backs and into their cubicles as quickly as possible. See that last item on the list? Yup. Wouldn't it suck for a company to have to pay for maternity leave?


  • Department of Defense: Despite cutbacks in other aspects of their social programming, the US Department of Defense opted to renew their contract (first opened in 2009) with Sittercity in August 2011. All soldiers, sailors, 'airmen' and marines (and their families) have free access to Sittercity (as potential employers, of course). The 'DoD' employs just under 1.5 million people. It cost me $35 for this one month of Sittercity membership. So, yeah, that was kind of a big contract they landed. With that kind of cash coming in, couldn't they pay for K's background check, at least?
But if you're desperate like me, you might want to check it out. Here's a link to the free trial (http://buzzwat.ch/sve9z) – sign up and I receive a $30 Amazon gift certificate. Let me know that it was you and I'll send you a bell hooks book. Because here at the Mama to Mama blog, safety is our number one priority.


  1. I am really happy that I live in Qc.....

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