The Babysitting Co-op

When my oldest child was a boy of four, I asked some friends if they’d like to form a play group. We could get the kids together, I said, and the moms could visit. We lived in the mountains west of Denver; not an actual town, but a valley dotted by homes tucked among stands of pine and aspen and an occasional rock outcropping. 

The two-lane off the interstate meandered past yawning elk meadows; and some miles later, swooped down, enveloped by pine-covered mountains, before beginning a series of switchbacks. Our south-facing house, visible from a distance, jutted out from the mountain, and my kitchen windows brushed the treetops.

I was, without question, the youngest stay-at-home mother in the valley. On any given day, gauzy, birdseye diapers hung from my clothesline and whipped back and forth in the head-clearing breeze. In winter they froze solid, and stood on end like wavy, white ghosts when I brought them into the house.  

The other stay-at-home moms had children of three and older—none as young as our newest addition; and while they busied themselves with hobbies like raising goats, weaving, and crafts, I wiped spit-up and spills and read children’s books aloud, snuggled on the couch with my boys.  

The first mom I called said she had no interest in a playgroup. Her youngest was the same age as my oldest, and about to start preschool. I didn’t mind that she had declined, but her words took me aback. She said she was beyond that stage, and by the time I had my third child, I wouldn’t want to do that sort of thing either. 

In my heart of hearts, I doubted that I would ever feel that way. How could I ever tire of being with my kids, fascinated by their interactions, or sharing an occasional morning with other moms? 

The next mother I called, a well-dressed woman in her mid-thirties, was new to mountain living and less of a home-spun Hannah.  She thought we should have a babysitting co-op, trade off, and use one another’s services to get out of the house. 

I thought about her offer long and hard. I actually enjoyed staying home. I’d long since taken up natural foods cooking, and sewed whenever I had a chance. When the weather was nice the kids and I spent the day outside and never lacked for things to do. 

But maybe I was missing something here. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. Convinced that the others were not interested in a playgroup, I said I would do it; I would join a babysitting co-op.

So the new mom in the valley — I’ll call her Nancy — put it all together. There would be four or five of us, and we were to keep track of our hours. Nancy was the first to call. I watched her kids all afternoon, and I watched them again and again. Once I think I even went to her house to babysit. And once her kids were sick. 

I really had no reason to leave my kids, and wondered why I’d ever gotten involved. Then one day it came out. Nancy had been leaving her kids with me so she could go out with the mom whose youngest was in preschool. They were having a great time, lunching and visiting with one another.  What would have been the problem with meeting at one of our homes and enjoying lunch while the kids played?   

I did use the co-op, twice, to go out with my husband when our younger son was about two; but I left them with another co-op member, whose preschoolers I had kept once or twice. 

I also babysat for a mom down the hill who used me, she later admitted, to have an affair with her mechanic. Horrified, I declined all future requests. I’m sure she thought I would “out” her.

I felt taken advantage of, disappointed in my friend, and humiliated for her husband.

What was the disconnect here? Why couldn’t we moms just enjoy one another’s company occasionally? I am convinced that everyone was looking out for herself,  more interested in what she might take FROM the others than offer TO them.  

Young moms everywhere need mentorship, time with caring older women who have “been there and done that.” I know I did. So many young families live far from relatives. Even so, relatives are not always the most supportive. It’s hard to tell a mother-in-law or aunt that you don’t believe in letting your baby cry it out while they’re lecturing you on the dangers of spoiling. Better to find kindred spirits, “sisters” with whom to share parenting tips or diffuse frustration over a cup of tea and an oatmeal cookie.

With empathetic mentors and friends, moms are less stressed and can do a better job with their children. That’s what I was looking for as a young mother, but did not find in that particular community.

Every mom can both be mentored and be a mentor. The secret, I  found, is that when we do for someone else, we are really doing for ourselves. FFG

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