February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Is your child in good hands? February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998
Is Your Child in Good Hands?

With long days and overnights, a planner's greatest challenge may be finding reliable care for the kids


In late 1996, Catherine Springman, CMP, launched an extensive hiring process. Springman, vice president of the Columbia Resource Group, a Seattle-based meeting and event planning company, decided what she needed most from the new hire was flexibility and continuity. She contacted two employment agencies, and both proceeded to interview her thoroughly before producing lists of possible candidates. After studying their credentials, Springman conducted in-depth phone interviews with 10 of the candidates. Before making her final choice, she met with two of them in person at her Bellevue, Wash., home.

Springman was not the sole decision-maker. Her husband Kurt, the manager of Digital Equipment Corporation's executive briefing center in Bellevue, Wash., had equal say. Which is not surprising, because the search was for a live-in nanny to care for the Springmans' now nearly 18-month-old daughter, Chelsea.

"Knowing ourselves, we saw there was no way we could get Chelsea to day care every morning and pick her up every evening," Springman says. "Fortunately, we have a house that can accommodate another person. We really looked at our lives and our work and our personalities."

For most parents today, this sort of self-examination is a required activity. Six out of 10 American children will receive regular care from someone other than their parents before they start kindergarten, according to a survey released by the U.S. Department of Education in 1996. That's 60 percent of all children, whether mom stays home or not. The percentage of kids looked after by someone other than their folks jumps to 88 in families where mom holds a full-time job. These arrangements are sure to be trickier when mom is a meeting planner (or when dad is a meeting planner and mom also works). After all, most planners frequently have to put in more than a nine-to-five day. And most also have to spend nights away from home several times a year and may easily be on site at a meeting for as long as a week.

Planners, like all parents, are understandably worried about making the right choices. The tidal wave of news stories about children being abused by caregivers only heightens this anxiety. "I can't imagine anything you should be more concerned about," says Kathleen McCartney, professor of psychology and director of the Child Study and Development Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

While experts may prescribe costly solutions, they are aware that the vast majority of parents don't have limitless budgets. "Most people can't afford high-quality child care," according to McCartney. (Most authorities agree and would like to see the government step in to make better child-care options more widely available.)

Single parents are likely to feel the pinch the hardest. "Single parents are more stressed," says McCartney, "and they need to be able to rely on their child care more than anyone else. It's hard to have no back up." She suggests that single moms and dads band together to share drop-offs and pick-ups from day care, and perhaps even extend those pick-ups into play dates. "That way you can mow your lawn while your child's at a play date."

Often, even those who can devote time and money to finding appropriate care for their young children are left living with compromises. "She's been with us almost a year and has become part of her family," says Springman of the nanny she hired. "Like any relationship, not everything is perfect. I've learned to disregard unimportant stuff. The most important thing is that she loves the baby and keeps her safe and happy. There's some light housekeeping she's not that good at."

TOUCHING BASE WITH THE HOME TEAM Brad Weber, a Washington, D.C.-based senior account executive with Conferon, an independent planning firm, is away from home on business about 120 days a year. And that can be rough on his 2-year-old son, Grant. Weber has developed several rituals to make his absences a little easier. For one, partings and homecomings are hardly downplayed. "I always try to take him to the airport when I'm leaving and have him there to meet me when I return," says Weber. "Also, I phone him every evening regardless of what I'm doing and leave a message for him on the answering machine. That way he can listen to me tell him how my day's been. And I end by telling him when I'll be back. 'I'll be home in three more wake-ups,' I tell him." * D.G.

Despite these small misgivings, Springman doesn't long to be a stay-at-home mom. While "in an ideal world," she'd like to work less and spend more time at home with Chelsea, "I'd like to keep my salary the same," she notes. "I don't think I want to stay home all the time. I love the interaction with people, with adults.

"Being a mom has really helped me to prioritize and be more efficient at work," she adds. "Before, work kind of permeated everything. Now, I compartmentalize. I try not to bring work home. I get home for her. I really try to leave the office at five. If I still have work to do, I'll spend time with my daughter and work after she's asleep."

NO PAIR: ONE FAMILY'S EXPERIENCE Two years ago, an au pair arrived from Spain to care for the three children of Harold MacCaughey, an independent incentive planner who works out of his home in Winchester, Mass. She lasted five days.

On that fifth and final day, MacCaughey's wife Lysa, returned home from work to find her then 4-year-old son, Matthew -- who was recovering from bronchitis -- bicycling around in 40-degree weather without a coat on. The au pair's defense: He refused to wear it.

While many parents swear by their au pairs, experts generally have little good to say about the practice of importing largely untrained European young women to care for American children. Among the most vocal opponents is Barbara Lukas, a former British nanny and now a child development instructor in Fond du Lac, Wis.

"It is marketed to parents as inexpensive live-in child care, and marketed to the girls as an adventure," she declares. "There are no guarantees. The girls may or may not have experience. They may not even speak English. How can they cope with an emergency? The companies that ship them in make money. It's exploitative." * D.G.


The Springmans relish the fact that they don't have to endure a daily struggle to get Chelsea out of the house in the morning and retrieve her at the end of the workday. It is a luxury few parents enjoy. Only 13 percent of all children in the United States age 6 or younger receive day care in their own home, according to the Department of Education, and these kids are twice as likely to be cared for by relatives than non-relatives. Even among kids whose moms have full-time jobs, only 18 percent receive care at home, and again relatives are far more likely to be the caregivers.

The most popular form of child care in the United States is a "center-based program." This includes day-care centers, Head Start programs, preschools and pre-kindergartens. Thirty-one percent of all U.S. children under 6 -- and 39 percent of those with working moms -- are in such programs.

One of the things parents like most about center-based child care is the social setting. "I think we have a gregarious child, and we felt we wanted him in a planned day," says Deborah Gaffney, director of conference planning for the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Executives Institute, who moved her 4-year-old son, Andrew, from in-home day care to a preschool. She adds, "We found with in-home care there was a little too much reliance on television. With an organized school, we have the relief of knowing that's not an issue."

A major disadvantage is that families must schedule their lives around a center's hours. Gaffney and her husband, Alan Lichter, a chiropractor, have developed a complex daily commuting ritual built around the need to get Andrew to preschool at 7:30 a.m. and pick him up at 6 p.m. (This is an extremely long day for a 4-year-old, according to the University of New Hampshire's McCartney. While experts have not determined the optimum amount of time children should spend in day care, McCartney notes that the kids who spend 10 hours a day at UNH's center are consistently more tired and cranky than those who are there for a daily eight hours.)

Mornings, Alan, who works from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., drives Andrew from the family's home in suburban Silver Spring, Md., to a local preschool. He parks the car at a Metro station near the school and rides the subway to his office in downtown Washington D.C. Meanwhile, Gaffney boards the Metro at a station near home and takes it to her downtown office.

Afternoons, Alan calls Gaffney to tell her exactly where he parked the car. She leaves her office promptly at a quarter to five, takes the subway back to the Metro station near the school, finds the car, picks up Andrew and drives him home. (Alan rides to the Metro station near home and walks from there.) "We are much luckier than other people," says Gaffney. "There are children at the school who don't live near it at all, while I have only a four-minute drive."


While the majority of children who are cared for by someone other than their parents rely on the kindness of paid strangers, a significant minority are looked after by relatives: 21 percent of all kids and 33 percent of those with working moms.

The big advantage of having a relative handle child care is trust. "Relatives have more invested in your children," says Kimberlee Whaley, associate professor of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University. With Grandma, parents know what they're getting.

Or do they? Child-care experts aren't too sure. "If a relative doesn't approve of the way parents are raising a child, she can set out to sabotage them," warns Barbara Lukas, who underwent rigorous training as a nanny in her native England and is now an instructor of child development at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Wis.

Using relatives for child care raises "all sorts of touchy issues about cultural styles," notes Whaley. After all, parents and grandparents (along with aunts, uncles and cousins) can disagree on everything from whether a chocolate bar is an appropriate afternoon snack to whether a disobedient child deserves a good spanking or a five-minute "time-out."

For child development experts, relying on relatives, who frequently have no other credentials than that they've taken care of their own kids, raises another thorny issue: "Just because you've raised children doesn't mean you know anything about child development," insists Whaley.

Also, relatives may feel exploited if expected to do a difficult job without remuneration. Robin Zahory, associate meetings manager for the Washington, D.C.-based American Society of Association Executives, believes she has found at least a partial solution to these problems. She pays her mother-in-law by the hour to care for her two daughters, 4-year-old Sarah and 19-month-old Sophia.

"That way no one has hard feelings," explains Zahory. "It also gives me an opportunity to have a little more say in their care. My husband's mother is 73, but she also has a daughter-in-law in the house who can help her."

However, Zahory doesn't like to leave her daughters overnight at their grandmother's. "It's hard to put kids to sleep when they're not at home," she says. "One of us needs to take care of them in the evening."

And when Zahory has to go out of town, that "one of us" is her husband, Bob. As a result, "he has been kept from advancing in his career," she says. "He didn't want to take on anything extra." Bob, like his wife, is unfortunately in one of those businesses where unusual hours are the norm -- the hospitality industry. Until recently, he was an assistant room service manager at the Washington, D.C., Renaissance Hotel.

But, with Sophia now a toddler rather than an infant and Sarah approaching school age, Bob recently accepted a promotion to become a banquet manager. Now, when she travels, "he'll have to stay home or work something out with his family," Zahory says.

Despite the juggling, she expects to keep this arrangement: "Ultimately, I know my children are very loved," she says. "That makes me very happy."

FIRST SCHOOL, THEN OFF TO WORK WE GO When he was a little younger, 13-year-old Prescott Smith used to tell people that his mother talked for a living. He was only partially right. Prescott's mother, Susan Bitter Smith, is executive director of the Phoenix-based Arizona Cable Telecommunications Association, and Prescott's after-school hangout since age 6 has been the ACTA office, where he spends about 90 minutes every weekday afternoon.

"He has a cubby hole with a computer," says Smith. "He thinks he works for the association. It's certainly better than having a latchkey child," she contends. Smith says her son enjoys spending time in her office, and she is particularly happy about the fact that he feels like he's a part of her work.

Her 4-year-old daughter, Windsor, who attends a Montessori school by day, generally comes to the office only when she's too sick to go to school. "I have a filing cabinet with blocks and crayons and other stuff to keep her occupied," explains Smith.

Windsor, however, is still a bit young to fully understand the nuances and demands of the meeting planning profession. Last year, when Smith served as chairman of the American Society of Association Executives and was on the road a lot, Windsor told her teacher that her mommy lived at the airport. * D.G.


Kelly Cook Marcavage has only one paying job, but she handles it in two or sometimes three daily shifts. She works from her home in Collegeville, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, as vice president and general manager of A/E/C Systems International, an Exton, Pa.-based company that mounts construction industry trade shows.

Marcavage begins her first shift at five in the morning, while her husband and three daughters are still asleep. At seven, she leaves her home office to help get 7-year-old Erin off to second grade, 4-year-old Tori off to preschool and 2-year-old Rebecca off to day care. Then Marcavage is back at work until four or five in the afternoon. Evening is family time again. The third and final shift -- which runs from nine until midnight -- is a sometime thing. "A couple of nights a week I'll work at night," she says.

Marcavage's husband, Ed, is "very involved." An engineer with Lockheed Martin, "he works regular hours, rarely travels and is home by four every day," she says.

And Marcavage has another helper -- "a godsend," in her words. Nancy has been the family's babysitter for the past seven years. She now works three eight-hour days a week. "She's loving, caring, warm with the kids," says Marcavage. "She knows our neighbors. She cooks for me."

This means the younger two Marcavage children receive what the Department of Education terms "non-relative care," as well as being enrolled in a "center-based program."

Even with two forms of child care, life is hectic at best. Marcavage's recent trip with her husband to Hawaii to attend a Professional Convention Management Association meeting about software was the first childless "vacation" the couple has taken in seven years. "I don't have a personal life," she says bluntly.

It's a frequently heard lament, one that seems to come with the territory of being a meeting planner and a parent. "Don't even try to have it all," advises Catherine Springman, the Seattle independent planner. "Your child is a priority and work is priority. Other things can wait a few years." *

BEYOND GUT INSTINCT: HOW TO HIRE A CAREGIVER Choosing child care is at least as much an art as a science, and, by the time you're really good at it, your children are more likely to need driving lessons than a good sitter or day-care program. For those grappling with the challenge, experts offer these decision-making guidelines.


  • Meet the caregiver in person. The nanny agency may not be able to praise her highly enough and she may have the sweetest phone voice you've ever heard, but you want to see her yourself before hiring her.
  • Ask situational questions. "What would you do if 2-year-old Janey refuses to eat lunch?" "How would you handle it if 4-year-old Johnny wet his pants in the playground?"
  • Check references. Again, no matter how well an agency speaks of a job candidate, always call previous employers. If the prospective caregiver claims to have taken child development courses, contact the school where she says she studied.
  • Clearly define responsibilities. "I advise my students to get a written job description, listing the days and hours they are expected to work, outlining their tasks and describing benefits and holidays," says Barbara Lukas, who was trained as a nanny in her native England and is now an instructor of child development at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, Wis. Even if your caregiver doesn't ask for a written description, perhaps especially if she doesn't ask for one, it's a good idea to start out making the responsibilities and rewards perfectly clear.
  • Make unexpected visits. The biggest disadvantage of having a stranger take care of your child in your own home is that you don't know what's happening when you're gone, so surprise your caregiver a few times to make sure everything's all right when you're absent.
  • Show your trust. Ultimately, if you can't bring yourself to trust your caregiver, you've hired the wrong person. "Parents who spy on their caregivers are helping no one," says Lukas, referring to those who install secret video cameras. The ex-nanny also recommends that parents think of caregivers "as more than personal conveniences. You need to think, 'Would I hire myself out under the same conditions?' Trust and treating people like human beings goes a lot further than more money in the paycheck."

  • Visit the center several times. You want a sense of what life at the center is like on a daily basis, not just on a particularly good or bad day.
  • Observe the children. Are they happy? Sad? Excited? Bored? Out of control? What are they doing? "Children under 3 should have lots of different places around the room where they can try things out," advises Kimberlee Whaley, professor of Human Development and Family Science at Ohio State University. "They should be able to move around the classroom. You don't want them all doing the same thing at the same time. You don't want things too structured. Children 3 and over can handle a bit more structure. They can have group time."
  • Listen to the caregivers. Are they constantly saying no to the children? If they are, you should probably say no to the center.
  • Talk with other families. Find out what they like about the center and what their complaints are. Consider whether their values are the same as yours.
  • Ask if the center is licensed or certified, and understand what that means. The regulation of day-care centers varies greatly from state to state. In some places, certification only means that the center has passed a minimal health and safety inspection. In others, it means that caregivers have completed courses in child development.

  • Child Care Aware, a national, nonprofit organization based in Rochester, Minn., runs a hotline that puts parents in touch with local child-care referral agencies and also provides free information about how to choose a care provider. (800) 424-2246
  • Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, maintains a Web site ( that offers useful questions to consider when choosing child care.
  • CareGuide is a San Francisco-based company, allied with several nonprofit organizations, including the Conyers, Ga.-based National Child Care Association and the San Francisco-based Professional Association for Childhood Educators. CareGuide also maintains a valuable Web site ( that provides lists of questions to help parents in selecting caregivers wisely.
  • * D.G.
    HOMEWORK HELPER Debra Dohnert, CMP, senior conference planner for the Jersey City, N.J.-based American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, goes on eight to 10 overnight trips a year, each lasting up to a week. In summers, she likes to take her 10-year-old son, Conor, with her whenever possible. "I'm always using my frequent flyer miles for my son," she says. During the school year, her husband, Joseph, a surgical supplies salesman, cares for Conor when she is away. "He's better at it than I am, and he doesn't travel," Dohnert admits. But she worries that Conor's schoolwork might get neglected in this balancing act. To prevent this, she hires a graduate student from New York University to spend two hours a day helping the fifth grader with his homework. "It's helped me out a lot," she says. "When I'm on the road I know that homework and projects are getting done." * D.G.
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