We need an after-school kid looker-afterer! Our boys say they don’t need nannying, they don’t want to be babysat, and they don’t much like the sound of being minded. But they do need someone there when they get home from school, to ask about their day, stop them bingeing on biscuits and fighting, kick a ball around sometimes and gently bully them into their homework and chores. You’ll need plenty of patience and the ability to be firm when they push it…
The replies come slowly at first. I scroll through the columns of youthful smiling selfies, the occasional glamour shot, one – bizarrely – of a breasty twentysomething in a bikini. It’s free to post an ad and browse the site, but if I want to see any phone numbers I have to pay.
After a week of no responses I fork out my £25 and start calling. Ringletted French Isabelle is no longer available. English Eleanor, resplendent in purple bridesmaid satin, doesn’t respond to my voicemails. Nor do Italian Gessica, Russian Sonya or Irish Ro.
The responses that do come are from all corners of London, some from women willing to travel well over an hour each way for a couple of hours’ work. No good for short-notice work or late-night babysitting. Besides, my conscience would prick me too hard, despite my willingness to pay fifty percent over the minimum wage.
Next come the no-shows. Teacher aide Kimberley, who lives just down the road and looks perfect on paper, is the first. So sorry, have to work late at school, she texts. I reply at once. No problem! How about tomorrow or the weekend? I never hear from her again.
Puppy-cuddling Alba and dramatically lipsticked Eleonora also text on the agreed afternoon to say they can’t make it. Their comms, too, go dark. Personable and enthusiastic by email, accomplished, qualified, raved about by former employers, my best leads all evaporate one by one.
“Young people!” I fume to Hapless. “The generation that breaks up by text! How can they not even reply?”
“Because it’s so easy,” he says.
“But I know where some of them live! I could go round and doorstep them!”
Dave, however, does turn up. With his affable bearded-Jim Carrey vibe and war stories from Camp America, he charms us all. He loves maths, jokes, philosophy and guitar. The boys love him. But between his day job, new tech venture and creative side projects, he’s only available one afternoon a week.
“Why is he 31 and looking for babysitting work?” says Hapless, later. “He doesn’t live with his mum, does he?”
No, I soothe. His last gaming startup just got blown up by investors and he’s trying to get the next one off the ground. Anyway, it’s just getting a male babysitter off the internet. What’s the worst that could happen?
I book Dave for Mondays and keep looking.
Theo the Bulgarian also arrives on time. He’s a second-year economics student and aspiring actor, and he’s come straight from an audition. “Sorry about my clothes,” he says mournfully. His accent is all swallowed vowels, his Ls rolled Russian-style in his throat. He’s wearing jeans, trainers and a leather jacket.
He faces the panel, unsmiling. He answers our questions carefully, in immaculate English. We all clown a little anxiously, trying to thaw him out. He writes ‘No screens until homework is finished’ in Cyrillic on the kitchen wipeboard.
Firstborn decides to take charge of the interview process. “What would you do if you only had 24 hours to live?” he asks. “Who, living or dead, would you most like to sit next to at dinner? Who would you assassinate if you could get away with it? Who’s the most famous Bulgarian?”
Theo blinks, and considers. He names a Bulgarian we’ve never heard of. He would like to have dinner with Tolstoy.
“What’s your biggest regret in life?”
Theo is hitting his stride. “Studying economics.”
But he’s only in his second year! (His parents insisted.)
“What’s the one thing you’d change about yourself?” persists Firstborn.
“Not to be born in Bulgaria,” says Theo, deadpan. He says it Bulgaaria, swallowing the L.
What’s wrong with Bulgaria, we ask. Apparently all the Bulgarians.
“For Bulgarians, everything is terrible.”
Like the English, then?
“No. English people pretend to like you. Bulgarians tell you to your face they hate you.”
“Okay,” says Firstborn. “Um. Do you have a criminal record?”
Theo doesn’t miss a beat. “Not in England.”
We realise that Theo the Bulgarian has a sense of humour so dry you could use it instead of silica gel. Firstborn and I decide we love him. Number Two Son’s not so sure. But anyway, it turns out Theo isn’t moving to North London until April. Doh! That’s no help for the Easter holidays. But he stays for almost two hours anyway. We wonder if it’s the most fun he’s had in ages.
I go back to findababysitter.com and book in another round of interviews.
By now Firstborn is on an interviewing roll. “Are you a child lover?” he asks the next few candidates slyly. He’s figured out the Greek etymology of the word ‘paedophile’ and is avoiding my eye.
“Oh, yes,” they all say, “I love children!” Firstborn snorts into his sleeve while I glare and make throat-cutting gestures at him.
When we meet Naomi I think we’re finally sorted. Sweet, well-spoken, half-Nigerian, she’s studying special needs education and lives just down the road. After 20 minutes I’ve decided I’ll offer her the job, though she seems a little overwhelmed by all the yelling. She’ll get used to us, I think. We talk to her about music, sport, world geography. She leaves full of promises about the things she and the boys will do next time she comes. I close the door behind her, beaming. “She’s lovely, isn’t she?” The boys agree and I tell them I’ll call her first thing in the morning.
But Naomi has beaten me to it. There’s a message waiting: “It was lovely to meet you and your boys, but I don’t think I’d be a good fit for your family.”
I’m genuinely thrown. Christ, are we that bad? Yes, the boys are revolting, but they’re adorable too, aren’t they? Aren’t they?
The boys are equally shocked. “Was it because I ate peanut butter out of the jar in front of her after she said she hated peanut butter?” says Firstborn.
“Was it because I told the joke about the P running down the boy’s leg?” says Number Two Son. In retrospect, the fact that she was properly grossed out by both those things was probably fair warning.
“Was it because I said shit in front of her quite a lot?” says Firstborn.
“Yes, all those things,” I tell them. “You see, you guys really are awful.”
Privately, I wonder if it was when Firstborn asked her about her biggest regret in life. She was looking flummoxed so I said helpfully, just to get her started, “Mine’s having children!” The boys laughed, anyway. I log back into the website.
The next couple of no-shows don’t even bother texting. The last message from Emily, 16, reads: sure im free on thirsday after collage ill be there any problems I shall contac u.
Nurta, also 16, with a Whatsapp profile featuring a photo of a woman in full burqa and verses from the Quran, writes: Thanks a lot sweetheart. Yes I’m available 4 till midnight every day. When I ask about her hourly rate: It’s whatever you willing to pay sister. And her last message, when I suggest she visit us at 5pm the next day: Sure why not. She doesn’t come.
Next there’s dour, kind Brazilian Flavía, a digital artist in her 40s with limited English, and pretty tomboyish Romanian Monica, who needs to bring her one-year-old to work with her. They both come a few times, and they’re both nice, but the boys aren’t convinced. Flavía’s hard to talk to, and the baby cramps their style.
By now it’s April. I try to get hold of Theo the Bulgarian. He doesn’t reply. I feel obscurely hurt by this. Et tu, Theo?
But then, suddenly, there’s Jolie. Jolie is a beautiful 24 year old visual arts student from Dorset with a pierced nose and pretty tattoos. She sits at our kitchen table, relaxed, chatty, unfazed by our shouting and bullshitting. It’s all I can do not to vault over the table and kiss her all over her jolie face. She lives close, her hours are flexible. The boys are too lovestruck to talk.
I call her the next day. “Do you swear?”
There’s a pause. “Sometimes,” she says, cautiously.
“Do you drink?”
“Um. Yes. A little?”
“Oh thank God,” I say. “Can you come for a drink tonight?”
I buy her a passionfruit cider and talk her ear off for an hour. She appears to want the job. She has three more days of assessment left, and then she’s free to start.
“Jolie, Jolie, Jolie, Jolie…” I walk around for days with a Dolly Parton earworm. “I had to have this talk with you, my happiness depends on you, and whatever you decide to do, Jolie…”
I realise I’m actually nervous. I’m not going to believe it till it happens. But she asked for a contract! She answers my texts! I dance around the house, grinning like an idiot.
“Mum, why are you so happy?”
“Your beauty is beyond compare, with cool tattoos and shiny hair,” I sing into the dish brush.
I realise how much it’s been weighing on me, the lack of childcare support. Now, between manny Dave and nanny Jolie, I might finally have a structure in place that can accommodate a mix – if not exactly a balance – of freelance and my own writing. Maybe even exercise! I calculate how many freelance hours I have to work to break even and it actually seems manageable.
A few weeks ago I got as close as I’ve come in the last thirteen years to afflicting myself with a job. It was one of those unexpected trajectory-changing opportunities, a full-on creative role at an alarmingly sexy ad agency. I terrified myself by getting down to the final two, before missing out to a guy with heavyweight agency experience. It was more of a relief than a disappointment. At least I wouldn’t have to confront the fact that their client list included a tobacco company and at least one government with a dodgy human rights record.
Afterwards I ceremoniously unsubscribed from all my jobhunting alerts. It was fun while it lasted. Hours and weeks and months of website trawling, CV spinning, letter writing, cold calling, interview prepping, face-to-face bullshitting and then agonising over how to say no to a job offer I’d pretended I wanted.
Given my special neurosis about time poverty, it would be easy to feel it was all a giant, profligate waste. But I was learning the whole time. I was getting out and about in the professional city, making contacts that might yet pay off on the freelance front. I even got stuff for my portfolio out of it.
For now, I brace myself to get back on the networking circuit. But there’s a spring and wiggle in my step as yet another fortnight of school holidays draws to a close, and I prepare to move to a properly nannied state.