My how our perspective changes when we have children of our own!
Though I quickly found and enrolled N in a daycare when he was a baby, it was a long time before I was able to find someone to stay with him so I could leave the house at other times. Part of this was financial - hiring a baby-sitter can get expensive quickly - but part of it was the difficulty of leaving my son with a stranger, leaving that stranger alone in my house, and entrusting my son's care to an unknown element. It was hard, at first, to know where to begin looking for someone, when I was new to the city and didn't have many friends.
As I've grown as a parent, and as I've added to my family and my responsibilities, I've learned the importance of getting away for a bit. It's important to be able to step out and see a movie with your partner and without the kids. It's nice to have an adults-only dinner once in a while, to attend a meeting with other adults, to go to a special event, or simply meet a friend for coffee and not have to interrupt your conversation every five minutes to attend to one or more children. Being able to network with friends with deeper roots and older kids helped - they could recommend a babysitter, or even provide one if their kids was old enough.
Most recently, I needed an all-day babysitter a while back so that I could leave my kids at home while I attended a business lunch about two hours away. It was intimidating for me to have to interview and choose someone to entrust my precious kids to when I knew I wasn't close enough to run home right away if something (G-d forbid) were to happen. In the end, a friend I know well and trust implicitly said she was available for the job, so it was a relief to know that my kids (and home) were in good hands.
Now I'm in the process of hiring a new person to watch G for a couple of weeks so I can work more full time than usual. It's less stressful to hire someone knowing that I'll be home with them if something arises, but I'm still working with that "unknown element" fear. Though I'll be able to supervise the baby and the baby-sitter, there's the problem of being sure she'll show up on time, that she'll be proactive with the duties I assign her, that the baby will like her, that I'll like her, etc.
I have found that it's easier now that two of my three kids are old enough to tell the sitter about their routines, to tell me about anything that might have happened while I wasn't there, and to be a help to her.
So, now that I've been there a few times, some tips for finding and hiring a baby-sitter!
If you have friends with kids, ask them for a recommendation. The surest way to know what you're getting is word-of-mouth. Ask about reliability, what kinds of activities the person does with kids, how they interact with the parents, and how independent they are. Ask your friend what kind of vibe they get. It's best to ask a friend who would be looking for similar traits in a sitter - not everyone has the same needs.
Use a sitter-finding site such as sittercity.com or care.com*. I have used care.com a few times now and have been pretty happy with the number of responses I get to my job postings. I like that I can be very specific about my needs and easily weed out applicants who don't meet those criteria. I also like that I can get access to background checks, view the applicant's profile, and see reviews by other users who have employed the applicant. When I contact someone to come in for an interview, I look at how carefully they read the job posting and how they responded. Then I see that they show up on time for the interview and I watch how they are with my kid(s). I chat with them, ask questions pertaining to the tasks I'll be asking of them, and try to get an overall subjective sense of how I feel about them. Do our personalities mesh? Do the kids like her? Is she genuinely happy to meet and play with them? Does she take the initiative to get down on the floor and interact with the baby? What other babysitting experience does she have?
I like to bring a potential babysitter in for a trial day before the "official" start of the job. This way, we don't have the "first day" pressure of trying get our bearings and me trying to get my stuff done as well. Also, I think it's important for the kids to meet and get comfortable with a new caregiver before I disappear so that they'll be happy to see her when she comes again. This also gives me one last chance to change my mind if I'm not comfortable with how she performs.
(I keep saying "she" because most applicants for babysitting jobs are women and girls. That's not to say that men can't be babysitters, but it does seem to be less common.)
There are some really great babysitters and nannies out there. Remember when looking for recommendations that what you need is not always what your friend or neighbor needed. For example, perhaps your friend wanted someone who could do a little preschool-like work with her three-year-old, but all you need is someone to take your first-grader and toddler to the park while you run errands. Your friend might not have been happy with how the babysitter did or didn't teach her child letters and colors, but you might be thrilled with how that person plays tag with your six-year-old and pushes your baby on the swings.
There are some basic traits you'll want to look for, though, and I think these are pretty universal. I'm looking for someone who is reliable, who will show up on time, who will keep my kids safe, who will clean up her messes, and, most importantly, who loves children. I hope my latest hire works out well and that I've found someone who I can call upon to watch my kids whenever I need help.