It's been a while since Renee Flores had little ones at home, but the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, mom of three can remember the years she and her husband both worked and her kids, now 21, 18 and 17, were young.
After hearing her co-workers at a software company talk about the challenges of working from home during the COVID-19 quarantine with kids underfoot, Flores was struck with an idea that she brought to her 21-year-old daughter, Sarah, who is home from Appalachian State University due to the pandemic.
"My mom was talking to some of her co-workers about their home situations and they expressed to her how upset they are that their kids aren't engaging with anyone and they're just sitting on their iPads and playing video games," Sarah Flores told TODAY Parents. "She came into my room and said, 'You babysit. What if there was a way you could do it virtually over FaceTime or something?'"
Sarah was in, and so was Erin Butler, one of Renee Flores' co-workers who is a mom of two boys, ages 3 and 5.
Butler, who lives in New Jersey with her husband, Mark, scheduled a one-hour session with Sarah for her 5-year-old son, Colin, while her 3-year-old son, Sean, napped. During the call, which ended up lasting 90 minutes because Colin was having so much fun, Sarah talked to Colin about his love of marine animals, drew pictures with him and told him stories.
"I was on conference calls while he was on with her," said Butler. "He walked around the house with the iPad and was showing her his room and different areas. They talked about creatures like whales, squids and turtles and were drawing together while Sarah told him all sorts of interesting things about whales."
Butler peeked in on her son once to take a photo, which she later posted to Twitter, and was "in awe" of how engaged her son was with Sarah, who is a public relations major in her junior year of college.
"We booked the next session right when we finished the first," said Butler. "There's not a lot we can do these days — no playdates, no parks and it's still cold out in the northeast — so it was nice to see him interacting with someone. The kids have only really been around us and talking to us for weeks so I'm sure they're sick of it."
"He's already drawn a picture to show Sarah on their next session," added Butler, who paid Sarah roughly $20 per hour for her services, the rate she pays her New Jersey sitters when they watch her boys in person.
Renee Flores says for her, the idea was about giving support to parents who are struggling to meet all of their responsibilities during this time of social distancing and self-isolation.
"There's guilt for parents," she said. "You're so torn because being a working parent in a dual-working family you're missing the scaffolding that normally supports you, whether it's school or in-home support or family members or other kinds of childcare. That's the only way it works — it depends on that incredible level of support. If my kids were that little right now, I thought, 'What wouldn't I do to have someone give me some time to focus and not have that guilt?'"
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While Sarah's virtual babysitting business is only in the early stages, the 21-year-old is already thinking about ways to grow the idea into something big. From virtual playdates to more advanced curriculum, she plans to experiment and see what works best to keep kids engaged and having fun.
Butler says she's grateful for the help and is looking forward to Colin's next session with Sarah.
"The days are so challenging and I feel bad when the day ends because we are exhausted and have had the kids really watching TV or movies or playing on their iPads most of the day," said Butler, who recently wrote about the challenges of working from home during quarantine on LinkedIn. "It's been tough trying to juggle our schedules and keep the kids occupied...and alive."
"I think it's harder to keep a kid engaged on the iPad than if you're in person with them," Butler added. "You have to be really creative and Sarah definitely was. It was super helpful and it was nice to see Colin excited about something."