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Parenting : Sitter Search : One new mother's tips for parents about to embark on that quest for the perfect person to watch their child.


For new mothers returning to work for the sake of money, their minds or both, no task may be worse than finding the right baby-sitter.

When I began looking for a full-time sitter before returning to my reporter's job, I felt hit with the most serious assignment of my life. Would my skills and intuition measure up? Would my child thrive or suffer as a result of my decision?

I had read (and reported) too many horror stories about child abuse not to fear the worst. Despite better judgment, I had rented "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." Despite my feminist mind-set, I felt guilty. And so I tortured myself with the enormity of my mission--i.e., finding a good maternal substitute who, of course, wouldn't really replace me.

For those about to leap from the refuge of home back into the workaday world, take heart. I think I can honestly report that my 9-month-old son is flourishing. I can't believe my good fortune in finding a wonderful woman to care for him and, thanks to her, quite frankly, our household is running better than ever.

So here are one paranoid reporter's tips for parents who have ruled out day-care centers and decided to bypass, or supplement, professional referral services.

My search began with a carefully worded newspaper ad tailored to reflect our needs and screen out unlikely candidates. The calls started coming as soon as the weeklong ad began-- scores of them, in every accent, gender and degree of desperation. I was glad that I had written out a list of questions in advance, after consulting experienced friends and relatives.

I let the answering machine record most of the calls and, ruthless as it sounds, didn't waste time phoning back if I couldn't understand the message clearly. When I did, I immediately established the essentials: Did they meet the ad's requirements? Was their home within reasonable commuting distance? Were they available to work long hours though not live in?

Once past that hurdle, I launched into more questions, ranging from biographical information (age, current occupation) to situational tests (In case of X emergency, you would. . . ?).

I took notes and listened between the lines: Were callers direct or evasive? Did they bristle at my questions, or understand a parent's concerns? Did they ask their own questions--indicating that they were intelligent, had initiative?

I offered no in-person interviews until I talked to at least two local references. And I questioned those references thoroughly; if they didn't sound credible, I thought twice about the applicant.

I met with six candidates to learn more about their family backgrounds and approach to child rearing. After all, the reality is that my son spends more waking hours with his sitter than with us, and I wanted to know just what kind of person she would be.

One of the things that impressed me the most about the woman we finally hired was how open she was about herself--the bad along with the good. She was reflective and self-aware, and I liked that.

I watched how all the finalists handled the baby and asked them to change his diaper. Were they gentle, confident and relaxed? Did they keep one hand on him at all times while he was on the changing table? Did they treat him like a person or a lump of fat?

Last but not least: I wanted someone trained in first aid and infant CPR. Our choice was not, so we all signed up for a class at a nearby hospital--a good starting point for learning about such classes in your neighborhood.

We also asked for proof of a negative tuberculosis test--a step short of some parents' requirement that their sitter undergo a physical.

And while I didn't go this far, the truly cautious may also, through public records, determine whether a person has any criminal convictions or a history of bad driving.

Be sure to leave enough time for a tryout so you and the sitter can watch each other in action. Also, have the sitter start work at least a week or two before you return to your job, to ease the baby into the new person and routine.

Iron out issues of pay (which vary too greatly to discuss here), days off and vacation in advance to avoid misunderstandings. Also settle the question of whether housework and other chores will be part of the job. In my case, since I could barely manage a daily shower while on maternity leave, I thought that it was unrealistic to expect excellent child care and a spotless home.

Actually, I've been pleasantly surprised about that--and about returning to work in general.

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