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Babysitting dilemmas

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There are days when I would give anything to be able to call my mom and say, “Could you come over and watch the kids while I go for a run?” or “What are you doing Saturday night? Would you mind if the kids sleep over and Radek and I catch a movie?” These occasions do happen once or twice a year, and when they do, it’s wonderful. The rest of the year, when Radek or I need a break, we pack the kids’ suitcases and drive them an hour and a half to stay with his mother for the weekend. Babička is always glad to see them, and our travel time is balanced by the bliss of having some time to ourselves, child-free. However, like many Czech families we know, apart from babička, we don’t have anyone on hand to look after the kids if something comes up. From my expat friends’ perspective, though, we’re the lucky ones, since at least we’ve got family to turn to, even if babička doesn’t live close enough to drop by regularly.

One of the drawbacks for many expats living abroad can be the lack of extended family or long-time friends who can help out with regular childcare or step in to take over when Mom or Dad falls ill or needs to attend to non-child related concerns. Finding a babysitter can become doubly tricky when dealing with Czech cultural traditions that, up until a few years ago, didn’t seem to acknowledge the need for professional childcare. The normal mode of thinking for Czechs has been for generations: Why hire a professional when babička is available?

Traditionally, since the Czech Republic is a relatively small country, families have lived close together, often with multi-generations of families sharing the same flat or family house. Thus, the need to employ someone outside the family to care for kids seemed absurd. Instead, childcare within the family was a treasured role for babička, děda or a retired teta (aunt). Although during Communism, when the Czech Republic’s traditional three-year maternity leave was shortened to only one year, a state-supported jesle (daycare) system filled the gaps that grandparents and other family members couldn’t. However, once the maternity leave returned to its three-year status, most jesle closed and childcare again became a role filled primarily by mothers or shared among extended family members.

Over the past 10-15 years, the demand for babysitting has steadily grown, and now throughout the country there are numerous agencies set up to meet babysitting, housecleaning, and handyman demands. Some babysitting agencies cater directly to foreigners with expat-friendly listings, websites in multiple languages, and services that range from in-home care to hotel or on-the-job care. Prices vary according to agency with some companies charging extra for sitters with English language skills, multiple children, cleaning services on top of babysitting, nighttime or holiday rates. Many shopping centers, fitness classes and children’s play areas and preschools even provide drop-in babysitting services for busy parents who don’t have the time to arrange a private sitter or need last-minute childcare while on the go.

Still, despite the market for childcare services in today’s Czech Republic, for many Czechs, my husband included, babysitting is viewed as a service intended for expats (and perhaps some rich Czechs) with fast-paced lifestyles, frequent moves and no family nearby. Even though we have Czech friends in Prague who don’t live near their babička who’ve told us about their experience finding a babysitter, either through an agency or recommendations from friends, the phenomenon is still, at least in my husband’s mind, exceptional.

Finding someone to occasionally look after our children has been a topic of contention for as long as Radek and I have lived in the Czech Republic. Whenever babysitting comes up, usually because one of my friends has mentioned going for a date with her husband or another talked about doing the shopping or exercising while a sitter watched the kids, my scheming wheels start turning, and I begin to brainstorm an approach that’ll convince my husband once and for all that having a babysitter on hand might be helpful. But Radek is stalwart in his reluctance to hire a babysitter, and when I talk with other expats married to Czech men, their husbands have similar responses. Isn’t it enough to have babička keep the kids once every month or so, and take turns going out the rest of the time? Think of the money we’d waste on childcare when we could have saved it for a nice vacation.

We have had a few experiences with babysitters in the Czech Republic over the years, however. When Anna Lee was just over one year, Radek and I joined a fitness club in our neighborhood, and we experimented with leaving Anna a few times with the on-site babysitter. Our workouts were relatively stressful since Anna wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and the sitter often called me after a few minutes to say that she couldn’t look after a fussy infant. After one such phone call, I came downstairs to find Anna seated on top of the registration desk where several bored-looking employees took drags of their cigarettes and tried to make her smile. After that experience, Radek and I took turns alternating our exercise schedule until our membership ran out.

Later when I taught at a mother’s center in our neighborhood, the on-site babysitting arrangement worked much smoother. Since the babysitter and the children were in the same room as our classroom, Anna and the other toddlers could see their mothers at all times and could come and go freely. In that instance, I usually ended up having to pry her away from the play area when class was finished and it was time to go home.

When I was pregnant with Oliver, one of my friends recommended a Czech student who was willing to come to our house one morning a week and watch Anna while I ran errands. Since she didn’t have any babysitting experience, we agreed on a rate that seemed reasonable to both of us, and the agreement worked well until she moved on to a full-time job and we moved out of the neighborhood. Looking back, I’m not sure how I got that arrangement past Radek, but I believe it was because I saw the need, got a lucky recommendation, agreed about the specifics and presented Radek with the problem/solution at the same time. It was a no brainer.

When I suggested trying to find someone to look after both kids last year when Anna wasn’t yet admitted to preschool, Radek deterred me, citing all the negatives, including that it’d be difficult to find someone willing to transport themselves to the village where we now live and that the price we’d pay for the sitter could go to finish the house or to buy plane tickets to the States. In the end, summer came before I found anyone to watch the kids, and we traveled to the US where we spent a happy month with the best live-in childcare we could have ever wanted.

Now that I’m feeling the urge to have a bit more flexibility and to enjoy a night out with my husband without having to drive the kids to babi‘s and back, I might strike up my search for a sitter once again. I know that options for childcare exist in the Czech Republic, but it’s up to me to figure what’s going to work for our family.

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