Babysitters are mischief-makers, home wreckers, husband stealers, and child abusers in American culture and conversation. Yet in girls’ less-often heard accounts that go back to the earliest days of babysitting, it is parents who have been impetuous, irresponsible, insensitive, and unappreciative employers.
Although many girls desperate for work entered the field of babysitting during the Great Depression, “baby sitters” nevertheless complained that they were overworked and underpaid. In addition to “minding the children,” mothers also expected babysitters to wash and dry dishes, and mend and iron clothing. Parent-employers also failed to provide emergency numbers, instructions about meals and medicine as well as payment for sitters’ services.
While some babysitters formed unions, issued manifestos, wrote contracts, negotiated working conditions, lobbied for raises, and diminished housework, postwar babysitters continued to complain about bosses—and their “brats.” Norman Rockwell captured the depths of sitter distress in a picture published on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1947; the babysitter was unable to do her history homework because the baby boomer was utterly inconsolable. “When I have something else to do, I never baby sit,” agreed nearly half of the 11th and 12th grade girls who worked as babysitters in Iowa in 1951.
Ever since then, babysitters have continued to complain about the last minute calls and cancellations, low wages, bounced checks, late returns, difficult children, among other grievances. Documenting the experiences of babysitters from their point of view as well as examining the babysitter in the popular imagination, provides a more accurate accounting of the formative work experience of the majority of American girls.