Ventures in Babysitting
When Vanessa Wauchope was growing up in Westport, Connecticut, she spent her free time doing what many teenage girls did for pocket money: She babysat.
For $2.50 an hour, she was a mother's helper, accompanying women from her church as they went to the beach with their children. In high school, she schlepped neighborhood kids around their seaside town in an S.U.V. and went along on family road trips to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
In college, Wauchope studied business and figured her babysitting days were behind her. But when a family tragedy prompted her to move to Manhattan at age 21, she began babysitting again for extra money. She soon found herself with more work than she could handle from worldly, well-to-do parents who were utterly desperate for flexible, part-time child care.
"It got to the point where I had too many clients," says Wauchope. "I began recruiting friends, and it just snowballed from there."
Now four years old, Wauchope's company, Sensible Sitters, is a million-dollar business, with 300 babysitters in New York and 150 in Los Angeles.
Unlike high school sitters of yore, Wauchope's corps of part-time, in-home child-care workers are CPR-trained, available around the clock, and paid by check or PayPal. Like office temps, they sign weekly time sheets, and Wauchope sends them 1099 forms for tax filings. None are minors. Their employment contracts prohibit extreme fashions like pierced eyebrows, microminis, tattered jeans, or exposed boxer shorts while on the job. So far, she's never had to fire someone for improper attire.
"Anyone who goes to our clients' homes is representing our company, and we ask them to look as presentable as possible," says Wauchope, who wears her strawberry-blond hair in a neat ponytail. "Blue hair is not going to go on Carnegie Hill," she adds, referring to the tony neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
In exchange for their professionalism, her sitters get a peek at the glamorous lives of well-heeled executives and celebrities and are often asked to accompany clients' families out-of-town to places like Palm Beach, Aspen, Spain, and Italy; some have even traveled by private jet to St. Barts and St. Maarten.
"It's an experience of a lifetime to be with these families," says J.J. Hennessey, 24, who has been posted by Wauchope's agency to jobs in Southampton, Sag Harbor, and Bridgehampton, three towns in New York's posh Hamptons, on Long Island.
Wauchope isn't the only babysitter-entrepreneur. Babysitting is a growing niche in professional services because, for one, its traditional source of labor has been drying up. Neighborhood teens, loaded with homework and college-application-boosting extracurricular activities, have less free time, according to Annie Davis, president of the Association of Premier Nanny Agencies, a nationwide nonprofit group. The push for professional babysitters also comes from a new generation of parents who demand more for everything having do with their precious progeny, say Davis and others.
For example, Wauchope's sitters are not allowed to watch TV but must engage kids in educational play. New York parents are especially nervous about the E.R.B., also known as the S.A.T.'s for three-year-olds, which is used by private nursery schools as a factor in admitting or rejecting children. Parents not only increasingly ask for babysitters conversant with a foreign language-French, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish are the most popular-but also insist on fluency.
"It's not just sitting on a couch and watching a TV show until the kid is asleep," says Stacy Jones, an Upper East Side client of Sensible Sitters who recalls her own days of TV watching when she was a teenage babysitter in Ohio. "The caregiver is stepping in and really managing while the parents are at work."
Professional babysitters are also just that: more like professionals. Many of Wauchope's sitters are required to file a status report after every shift. They tell Jones, for example, if their charges went to the park, whom they played with, and what they drew in art class. Jones says she's even asked for a full accounting of the number of diapers her younger son uses up, so that she can tell if the boy's digestive process is on track.
One of Wauchope's most sought-after sitters-a former Manhattan preschool teacher who asked that her name not be used-says parents often ask her to help their tiny tots prepare for the E.R.B. To improve "fine motor skills," one of the tested areas, she gives her charges toy scissors and nudges them to snip away at a lump of Play-Doh. She also arranges an ordered rainbow of M&Ms and encourages them to predict "what comes next," so that they learn to recognize patterns, another tested area.
Parents pay Sensible Sitters directly, starting at $18 an hour for one child. After taking a small cut, the agency pays its sitters. A sitter overseeing several children at once can make $20 or more an hour, plus tips.
Last summer, Sensible Sitters expanded into Long Island with a Hampton Bays branch, where a dozen or so sitters remained on call for vacationing families. Wauchope has grown the business largely through word of mouth, a lesson she gleaned from watching her entrepreneurial parents run their custom-furniture business. She attends parents' group events and creates goodwill in New York, for example, by donating babysitting packages to fundraising auctions at various private schools.
"New York City is very small. One of our Upper East Side clients referred us to her interior decorator down on Chambers Street, whose child goes to St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights, and St. Ann's has a high concentration of people in the art world. So we picked up a lot of St. Ann's clients," Wauchope says. "In Tribeca, there's a huge baby boom right now. It's all about referrals and networking. We don't really need to advertise."
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