I Babysit for the One Percent

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

“It’s like Uber, for babysitting,” is something that sounds vaguely like a joke and is one of the ways that I make rent every month. This could be an essay about the horrors of the gig economy and how you can have two master’s degrees and a full-time job and still not quite enough to comfortably afford groceries and buy a new sweater every once and while, but I’ll spare you. I used to be a full-time nanny, and when I transitioned out of that job into a part-time one (and, eventually, a full-time one), I found myself dabbling in the world of babysitting apps, of which there are a few in New York. Now, a few times a week, my phone pings with notifications for booking requests, which I frequently accept, trekking all up and down Manhattan and, if I’m lucky, closer to home in Brooklyn.

The people who hire me to babysit have enough disposable income to book me on a whim, sometimes with only a few hours’ notice. Usually I am greeted by a beautiful mom who has mastered the art of styling her hair. She gestures toward a monitor and shows me where the remote is before quickly absconding with her partner (equally as beautiful, these men with the expensive watches) and returning a few hours later in the dark. “Everything go okay?” they ask as I put my shoes on. In the elevator, I confirm on the app that the job is over and edit the end time if I need to, which is often. (“Take your time!” I say cheerfully as they leave, hoping for a bigger payment and to pocket the cab fare that gets added automatically past 11 p.m.) A few days later, a small sum — I make between $17–21 an hour, depending on how many kids are present — shows up in my Venmo account, and I spend it on lunches the following week.

I am picky enough to only take jobs where I think the child or children will be asleep. When I was nannying full-time, I made something like $30 an hour (though it was salaried), so to do the actual work of caring for children for much less than that is, frankly, not worth it for me. So I use my babysitting time as something like a bizarre version of a membership to The Wing. I sit in these luxurious homes with the massive TVs, the weird and inoffensive art, the fanciest baby stuff, the coffee-table books. I write and read and sometimes watch Netflix and talk to my best friend on the phone. The fact that there is a child or children in my care is pertinent, of course, but rarely hampers any of these activities, which I would otherwise be doing in my own small, considerably less well-appointed apartment. In fact, I often get more work done in these strangers’ living rooms, as there is no siren song of my bed.

Most of these apartments look eerily similar. The couches are all sectionals in muted tones with one elegant blanket thrown just so. There is a trio of incomprehensible remotes on an ottoman or side table to control a large, wall-mounted screen (which has, of course, all the cable channels and usually HBO, too). The kitchens have big empty islands, fridges and dishwashers disguised as cabinets (why so ashamed of appliances, rich people?), and drawers organized so artfully that it’s as if they fear being photographed at any moment. And these spaces are so very clean, much cleaner than my own apartment, which will only ever be as clean as I left it. The way I see it, babysitting presents an escape from the constant ringing of my 80-year-old landlord’s phone, the chunks of plaster that fall from the ceilings onto my Ikea rugs at regular intervals.

Despite my distinct lack of profound wealth (though I know I am very lucky in the grand scheme of things, money-wise), my experiences in child care have basically inured me to New York City affluence. I once opened a bathroom cabinet (of a babysitting client whose last name you would recognize) to find boxes upon boxes of unopened skin-care products totaling literally thousands of dollars, much more than I make in a month at my full-time job. As much as I might want to rifle through closets and drawers, closely inspect photographs and linger at the books on the bookshelves, I am wary of being recorded in these homes — I often notice a small camera or two within seconds of entering — and therefore keep my snooping to a minimum. The spaces feel so mediated, anyway; I’m sure there’s a team of nannies and housekeepers in and out throughout the week, so any interesting secrets are well hidden.

And so it all feels pretty impersonal, like being on a film set or part of an experiment, inhabiting another life for a few hours. This is what it would be like if I lived in a building with a doorman. This is what it would be like if I decided to hang big photographs of the ocean on my wall. This is what it would be like if I kept bottles of still and sparkling water in my fridge. This is what it would be like if I had windows the size of walls and gazed from them onto the city streets below.

For all the ways that these apartments and the people within them have blended together, some of them stick out, not so much for the interior design choices, but rather for the serene entitlement, the ease with which they expect accommodations. One couple with an elevator that opened into their loft apartment informed me, a few minutes after I walked in, that they “have their babysitters do the dishes,” and gestured toward a sink full of cups and plates that I spent a good part of an hour attempting to find rightful homes for.

Another time, I arrived promptly for a babysitting job in a newly constructed apartment building in the Meatpacking District and gave my name to the doorman. When the mom didn’t answer the buzzer, I sat in the lobby. After ten minutes, I texted her. The doorman called up again. I emailed the app’s support team. A full 30 minutes passed with no word. When the doorman begged me not to leave, I got the sense that this had happened before. Finally, I got a text from the mom’s email address, asking if I was “on my way.” The doorman sent me up, along with the dinner she had ordered for delivery. Apparently she had been upstairs all along, but had forgotten her cell phone somewhere and didn’t have the intercom set up correctly, or something. Ha ha ha, I laughed along with her, as if I had not spent almost an hour worried I was in the wrong place, letting her down, hurting my professional reputation, or that she had been murdered. I empathized as if I, too, frequently made appointments and ordered food for delivery and then did not wait anxiously until it arrived, concerned the whole time that I might have done something wrong.

I know that I spend much more time thinking about these people than they do about me. I assume that I am probably just one of a rotating cast of young women providing this service. Once, in fact, I had a lovely conversation with a dad about books. Then his wife introduced herself to me. Then he offered me the Wi-Fi password. Neither of them remembered, apparently, that I had already been in their home a few weeks before, the adult responsible for their only child. I smiled as I shook the mother’s hand for the second time, listened again to the instructions for connecting to the internet, as if this was a new experience for me as well. I am just a being in their home, I remembered, just a body, a transaction.

I Babysit for the One Percent