ONE ASPECT OF MOTHERHOOD (AND there are several) I won’t miss when my nest is empty is the unending search for babysitters. Finding them is only part of the problem. My relationship with babysitters has always been a little absurd. I am willing to bear almost any indignity to keep them—and they know it.

One morning not long ago, I timidly called one particularly brazen teenager to remind her of my ten o’clock appointment with the doctor (made three months in advance) since it was fast approaching 10:15. A younger sister paged her to the phone, “Connie, I think it’s one of your clients.”

This client-sitter relationship emerged about four years ago. Leaving my six-weeks-old first-born son with a $1.25-an-hour-four-hour-minimum stranger was not easy. The mature professional arrived wearing sunglasses which immediately traumatized the child. Much to our relief, the house was peaceful when we returned from our guilt-ridden evening. On her way out, however, the professional, still wearing the green lenses, remarked, “She was just as sweet as she could be, but she did have to cry herself to sleep.” (That cost $5 and she hadn’t even changed his diaper.)

I ruthlessly crossed this woman off my list of four names, a treasured gift from a rare friend. (I have since learned that most women would sooner share their husbands.) To my horror, the remaining three matrons refused to sit for me because, respectively: (a) I lived upstairs. (b) I had a male child; they preferred little girls. (c) They only sat for their regulars, but could give me every third Tuesday night.

We stayed home a lot. And for awhile we believed our childless friends when they said, “Why don’t you just bring him? We really don’t mind.” We did. They are childless still.

Where do you find a sitter who pleases you, can tolerate your children, renders first aid like an R.N., and who hasn’t signed a blood oath to sit weekly for your four closest friends?

If your first thought is grandmother, think again. She meets all of the qualifications, but she’s gone to Europe. Or if she’s at home and willing, consider whether your child-rearing techniques can bear her scrutiny. “Why do your children always have runny noses?” “He never talks back at my house…but of course, I never permitted that sort of behavior.”

Professional Babysitter Services

THESE RATE VERY LOW WITH me, although I have friends who use them exclusively. They’re expensive. And it has occurred to me that a babysitter of any merit needs an unlisted number—not an agency.

My only experience with a sitter from an agency was a disaster. I returned midday and overheard the unsmiling woman recounting to someone on my phone how she’d had to “drink juice” on that job last night just to keep herself going and “lack to died” when she had to go on another job this morning.

The house was strangely silent for high noon. She reported to me that neither of “them little boogers would eat a bit” and that “that littl’un just screamed hisself crazy” and both were asleep. Sure enough, my three-year-old had stripped naked and gone to bed—his ultimate protest.

Neighborhood Teenagers

AS SUMMER DAY-TIME SITTERS AND year-around night sitters, these rate very high. I especially prefer 12 1/2’s-going-on-13. They have to be home early, but so do I these days. Their braces are good for at least another year, and slumber parties are about their only alternative to babysitting on the weekend. Best of all, they’re eager to please mother and children.

My 12-year-old sitter invents games with blocks and Tinker Toys that put Creative Playthings to shame. She puts me to shame with her enthusiastic readings of Fox in Socks and Cat in the Hat. (I keep those two hidden when I’m at home.)

I even once (only once) recall a teenager who insisted that I paid her too much and who had washed the dishes because the children went to bed early and she didn’t have anything else to do. (I related that story once too often; her line is still busy.)

Shortly after their 15th birthday, teenagers begin to regard my babysitting offers with some disdain. Those who can’t come up with something better to do frequently leave telltale signs that their interests are broadening—ill-concealed cigarettes in the toilet, or a rumpled boyfriend who protests lamely, “We’re just good friends.”

With all teenagers, especially those who are daughters of friends, there is another problem. Though my house is reasonably baby-proofed (the aspirin and oven cleaner can only be used when my husband is home to reach them), it is definitely not teenager-proofed. Shalll hide my antique copy of Fanny Hill, purge our bookcases of fleshy novels, destroy the copy of Playgirl I received for my birthday? Not to mention unmentionables—A friend told this horror story: She was relating the news to her teenage sitter that Mrs. Neighbor-next-door would be having a baby in the fall. “Oh yeah,” yawned the teenager, “We knew that a long time ago—We counted her pills.”

College Students

MY EXPERIENCE WITH THESE IS limited, since they are decidedly insulted when I try to obligate them early in the week. However, if it’s Saturday afternoon, and you’re down for the count, try slicking your pre-schoolers up a little and taking them to a dormitory or sorority house. Your desperate look and their charm will surely snag someone. Search for a senior who’s engaged to someone at UT-El Paso if you want a regular. Do remind them however, that no matter how badly your children beg for a ghost story, they don’t want it. (My own brief babysitting career ended abruptly when I read The Pit and the Pendulum to an eight-year-old who is undoubtedly still under analysis.)

Nursing Students

THESE SITTERS ARE ESPECIALLY GOOD for mothers of colicky new babies. The student may have had no training in pediatrics, but you can be fairly certain that she can read a thermometer or render first aid when older brother decides to “shut that baby up.” Their names are usually available through a central switchboard of nursing school dormitories, and once you’ve used one, she usually can recommend roommates and suitemates who are equally willing to sit when she’s busy.

There are two drawbacks: (1) Nursing dorms are usually located near city hospitals, so you may face a long drive. (2) Students are never available during holidays.

Weekenders (or, if you can afford it, those who will stay while you’re out of the country)

WE HAVE OCCASIONALLY RECRUITED GRANDPARENTS for these rare vacations alone. Grandmother always responds to these requests with “What’s the going rate in Dallas?” And after the first day or so, Grandfather usually concludes that “It doesn’t take me long to look at my grandchildren.”

The going rate in Dallas in $20 per day. At that price, we don’t go often. But when we do, our first choice is childless seminary couples. (Two for the price of one, almost.) Perhaps when my children are older, one sitter will be sufficient, but at their present ages, a relief squad is essential—preferably one with spiritual resources.

Names of couples willing to sit are usually available from seminary job placement offices. Very few are childless, so you may want to consider whether your home can withstand their children and yours. Also, figure the drain on your refrigerator’s stock as part of the expense.

Mother’s Helpers (Teenage types who go with you to mind the kids while you bask in the sun or take in the night life)

I HAVE NEVER TRIED THIS because: (a) I know that if I’m in sight, my children do not permit anyone else to tie their sneakers or wipe their noses, etc. (b) I have seen my babysitters bikini-clad at the neighborhood pool, and my body does not need that sort of competition on its vacation. (c) I have talked with those who’ve tried it. One “helper” became hopelessly homesick in two days and had to be flown home at her employer’s expense. Others reported that their teenage assistants made friends at the ski lodge and virtually disappeared for the remainder of the week.

All seemed to agree that unless you can find an exceptionally mature adolescent who understands the terms of her contract, a mother’s helper may be only one more finicky mouth to feed.

Babysitter Co-ops

I DIDN’T KNOW THAT THESE existed outside of married student housing. But, sure enough, someone offered to “put my name up” for a co-op so exclusive that we may not make it until the children are of school age.

Here’s how it works if you’re an organizer: Only 20 members are allowed. Data sheets listing father’s and/or mother’s occupation, children’s names and ages, pedigrees, pediatrician, special interests, etc., are printed and distributed to each participating family. Each member is issued 20 tickets a year representing 20 hours of “free” babysitting. The only hitch, of course, is that for each hour you dump sweet Amy on Jerome’s mother, you will be repaid in kind (and not necessarily the same sweet Amy-kind).

This is really not such a bad setup if you have only one child. As a rule, playmates are welcomed by mothers of only children, and the child being left is usually so enthralled with toys known only from Captain Kangaroo commercials that he scarcely notices his mother’s departure.

However, I wonder what happens when the word gets out that little Howie is a biter, or that Jeremy’s mother says he’s toilet trained, but…

In spite of all the problems I have had with babysitters (They could no doubt write a scathing critique of me. For the record, I am shaping up: We do have color T.V. now, and there’s something besides cold asparagus in the refrigerator), and in spite of the massive guilt that temporarily descends each time I pry a small tear-streaked boy from each thigh (the more articulate child hiccupping, “I hate Connie—You knew I hated Connie”), I still go. I am reassured by my own well-meaning parents who once (no, twice) left my brother and me for two weeks with a superstitious old woman who double-locked all of the doors in the house, put chairs under the doorknobs, checked under beds and in closets for prowlers and told me I was going straight to hell for singing at the table. We survived it.