My four children are grown and launched into their own distinctive and amazing lives. Finding this poster as I cleaned my office brought back all the wonderful, complicated, impossible features of academic life and parenting. We never lived close to extended family and sometimes floundered. The bluntness of our statement that “life is crazy” reminded me of the importance of transforming that feeling by taking action to get help and reduce stress.

My husband and I have been blessed by multiple students* from universities near our home(s) who over the years who came alongside us to take care of the errands, loose ends, and basic needs of a family. They helped us in many ways not directly related to childcare or after-school care.

Getting started finding help seemed so simple:

  • Describe the job
  • Distribute an announcement
  • Screen applicants
  • Select the best

Then reality set in with additional consideration:

  • How can we screen to save time talking to lots of students?
  • Do campuses allow families from the neighborhood to post jobs or put up flyers?
  • Is social media a safe way to reach out? (We decided not.)
  • How can we be sure we aren’t undermining the student’s academics?
  • What can we find out about applicants to make us feel more secure in our choices?

Logistics started to bump up against the fact that we needed help. We didn’t have time to figure out how to get help. A discussion with a mom in the neighborhood who worked at a nearby university cured this frustration. (Networking in all parts of life pays off.)

She recommended calling the student employment office and asking if they had a job board (analog at the time; now most are digital) or a section of the student paper that allowed posting off-campus jobs (they did). We contacted three universities with 1 to 10 miles of our home. Then we:

  • Decided if concert posters and advertisements could be posted almost everywhere, then so could our flyer. At least one of our student helpers I met while putting up posters.
  • Gave information to everyone we knew at work, church, and in the neighborhood.
  • Had applicants call us, rather than text or email, to hear in person or voicemail how they described their interest in the job.
  • Asked if they were willing to work for minimum wage with potential for modest increases based on what they were able to get done.
  • Created a light-hearted description of our family and a set of questions for applicants to answer by email:

Why did you decide to get in touch with us about being a family helper?

How old were you when you got your first job with a paycheck?

What was it?

How big is your family?

Have you been a regular sitter for other families?

When will you graduate?

How many hours would you ideally like to work each week?

Do you have a reliable car and a perfect driving record?

  • Asked those whom we interviewed in person to bring a current student ID, recent grades or a letter stating they were in good standing, along with a copy of front and back of their driver’s license. (Digital photos would make this a breeze now.)
  • Compared and picked a service to do background checks. These are now much more common, cheaper, and quicker.

Then we picked several to interview in person and got very specific about what types of tasks and errands each believed they were good at and found most appealing including:

We put extra emphasis on willingness to run errands, with examples that included locations like dropping off recycling, taking packages to post-office, or returning library books, so we could be at home more.

We found that getting these things tucked in created more time for participating at our childrens’ schools and in community activities, attending more events, helping with homework, doing things together, and having real meals together five nights a week.

We started with two students to maximize flexible coverage around classes, exams, vacations and the like, and aimed to have each work 5-10 hours a week with few responsibilities that required exact work hour consistency. Involving more than one person also provides a safety net in case someone quits or you have to let them go.

As a team of four – parents and student helpers – we came up with shorthand ways to indicate who was doing what and when. We also identified tasks that could get done whenever someone could get to them.

The most amazing result was that by asking them to think of ways they could be helpful, they generated new ideas based on their willingness to take on tasks and their own unique skills. Coming and going was ultimately facilitated by a coded lock that prevented the need to share keys – now these can also restrict time of entry and indicate who has entered. We also found benefit from having a dedicated, low limit credit card to send along on errands.

Motivation to work more hours spurred the breadth of tasks students suggested which at times included the list above as well as:

  • Creating our first shared, online family calendar
  • Helping host work functions
  • Calligraphy for holiday cards
  • Dry cleaning and shoe repair errands
  • Simple sewing tasks – replacing buttons, repairing rips
  • Extreme cleaning like scrubbing baseboards and tile
  • Touch up painting (four kids are hard on the walls)
  • Polishing silver for special occasions
  • Reminders about and gift shopping for extended family
  • Bike maintenance
  • Putting gas in our cars
  • Taking cars for oil changes
  • Scheduling appointments
  • Waiting for service providers like exterminators or air conditioning repair so we could be at work
  • Placing online orders for standard pantry items (before Amazon figured this out)

We can’t recommend this approach enough. I’ve often heard, “It sounds great but it won’t work on our salaries.” Get creative – barter help in lieu of rent for a room, combine errands across families, or get cheap with other things.

To make ends meet during a window of financial pressure, and keep this system going, we traded down to older cars with no payments, cancelled Netflix and similar, stopped ordering pizza, skipped some vacations, and opted out of expensive social activities and evenings out. We never regretted keeping college students involved. Ultimately doing so became easier as current students recommended friends for the role as they approached graduation.

Getting help brought great people into our lives, introduced our children to students younger than the graduate students my husband and I invited to our home, and built their admiration for those willing to work hard in creative and helpful ways. The added benefit of helping a student earn needed income made any challenges worthwhile. Plus, you never know who you’ll meet –  our first student helper is a neurosurgeon, others are in business, law, and the recording industry. We are indebted to them as the extended family who made our careers possible.

*We chose not to hire student helpers from our university to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest between academic and employer roles.

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1 Comment

It is amazing how many people won’t do this – either guilt over “real parents wouldn’t do this” or “this makes me one of the hated bourgeoise”. I’ve had to talk a fair number of my (well-paid) junior faculty into doing this.

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