The Babysitting Co-Op That Reshaped My Family Life

A neighborhood babysitting swap really did get us closer to the kind of community that has become increasingly rare for American families.

by Elizabeth Doerr
Originally Published: 

My husband and I were at a party in his co-worker’s backyard when I glanced at my watch for the first time that night and shuddered in surprise. It was 11 p.m. Three hours had passed in a flash, and we were due home to our babysitter by the time it would take us to get a Lyft. I looked over at my husband across the patio. He had just grabbed another drink from the open bar and was deep in an animated discussion with friends. This was one of the few annual gatherings my homebody, introvert spouse revels in, and I didn’t want his fun to end. I was also deep in conversation and already feeling the sad pangs of having to leave a party in full swing.

I texted our babysitter: “Hey, we’ll probably be here for at least another hour or so, that ok?”

Under normal circumstances, I would’ve been doing the mental calculations about how much money we’d be out after this night away. Evening babysitters cost $20 an hour or more, we’d be out a hundreds of dollars after a night of revelry. But that didn’t enter my mind because our babysitter, Jason, is a friend of ours. His daughter, Prudence, is my son Finch’s best friend, and we weren’t paying Jason in cash; we were paying him in hours.

“Sure! Take your time and have fun!” Jason responded.

We were part of a babysitting co-op, in which a group of families swap babysitting services for each other and in which the currency is hours instead of dollars. Before that party night, I had banked up 10+ hours from babysitting for some of the other 15 families in our co-op. I knew Jason, who had a second kid on the way, was just grateful to be stocking up on hours. Knowing this fact also relieved me of any guilt for asking Jason to spend even more time on our couch watching Netflix while my then-2-year-old slept.

The babysitting co-op helped us comfortably revisit our adult lives. Lives that, until then, felt like they’d been consumed by the world of parenthood.

After roughly three more update texts that pushed our return time later and later, and three “no worries!” replies, we eventually headed home to relieve him at 2 a.m. The next day’s exhausted parenting regret was the only thing we had to worry about, thanks to a connected community of parents and kids that we had built through our neighborhood-centric babysitting co-op. In our group, we used hours as currency and got to go on date nights again and know there was always backup care in an emergency. It seemed we landed on a form of communal child-rearing that feels genuinely unique in the United States. Which is to say not that communal, but just communal enough to get some relief.

I was lucky enough to be brought into a co-op when my now 6-year-old was still an infant. Proposed by a friend in a neighborhood-focused parents Facebook group, it came at a time when many of us were desperately in need of a life outside of parenting and, deeper still, solidarity and community outside Facebook groups and mommy meetups. And all of us wanted a babysitter without breaking the bank. The co-op helped all of us comfortably revisit our adult lives with a trusted group of people. Lives that, until then, felt like they’d been consumed by the world of parenthood.

Leaving the workforce because of lack of affordable child care is much more likely among families whose household income is less than $50,000 a year.

“Interdependence is something that I’ve thought about, wishing that there was a little bit more of that in my life, feeling kind of isolated but also feeling so busy,” writer Angela Garbes tells me. She also landed on a form of communal child-rearing in a period of desperation — specifically, the Covid-19 pandemic, which she describes in her book Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change. “It takes a lot of effort to create community,” she says. During the darkest periods of Covid lockdown, another family became her family’s lifeline when it became very clear that overseeing her kids’ learning, feeding, and socialization was just too much for one person.

Garbes drew on the culture of bayanihan, communal solidarity in precolonial Philippine culture, in Essential Labor. My first experience with community child-rearing was well before I had my own children, when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Malawi. There, families often live in intergenerational compounds, and babies are passed from arm to arm and children constantly moved from compound to compound, all the amayis looking out for any of the children that happened to be in their presence.

Thinking back to Malawi, it strikes me that my parental isolation is in large part due to my privilege. “Economic resources don’t just determine whether families can afford to go on vacation or attend elite schools; they shape how family members depend on one another,” wrote Stephanie H. Murray for The Atlantic. In the United States, the more education we have, the more affluent we become, the further away from our families we tend to move. And while we have the resources to pay for child care, we’re left adrift from the sense of community that comes with the ease of familial relations nearby. And in some ways that leaves us more disconnected from our community at large.

When we learn to ask for help, we find that it’s less about accepting defeat and more about creating community.

But Jessica Calarco, a researcher of family and educational inequities and associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says this has made lack of community a universal issue regardless of income, which she describes in her forthcoming book, Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Social Safety Net. “In higher income families, particularly highly educated families, grandma lives hundreds of miles away,” she says, “and for low-income families, she lives right around the corner, but she’s probably still working.” She also notes that leaving the workforce because of lack of affordable child care is much more likely among families whose household income is less than $50,000 a year.

There seems to be something particularly American about our system of child-rearing and child care. “Unlike the rest of the postindustrial, modern world, in Europe and even now in much of Latin America, we do not have a history of public support for families or even a social safety net more generally,” says Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who researches gender inequality and families. “In an American context, we’re all on our own.”

“In an American context, we’re all on our own,” says Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois Chicago who researches gender inequality and families.

I thought about our beloved babysitting co-op a lot last year when the Portland Public Schools teachers strike closed my kids’ school for 15 days. There were 11 missed instructional days; kids were in school three days in the month of November. Portland parents were thrust, if not for the first time, into the reality of the unspoken social contract we have as American parents: You’re on your own keeping your kid alive and happy and well-adjusted — good luck!

This social contract is true with or without school, but free public school helps lift the burden at least a few hours of the day. The rest of the time, we’re left adrift in a society that has privatized child care and put us in single-family homes isolated from the people in the community around us. In desperate times, like a full month of a school closure, working parents had no choice but to lean on the people around them or to go it alone. Various “strike camps” emerged to fill the gaps, and a few parents relied on ad hoc babysitting swaps with other families to stay afloat. But when I polled other members of my school’s PTA Facebook group, the vast majority just watched their kids at home.

Both Risman and Calarco place a lot of this reluctance to ask for child care help on the myth of meritocracy that has led to hyper-individualism in the United States. In the realm of parenting, says Calarco, these are “intensive motherhood norms that say that you are the one who knows your child better than anyone else, so it is your responsibility to keep them safe. This comes out of a larger culture of individualism in the U.S., a very sort of DIY approach to society that we use to justify our lack of a social safety nets.” We saw this especially during the pandemic when child care was thrown into disarray and 1 in 10 women with young children quit their jobs.

The babysitting co-op was our way of creating a solution to the system that’s left us hanging. We’re trying something creative out, and it has worked in helping reshape our ability to rely on other people.

“I think it’s so hard to ask for help,” Ayn Reyes Frazee put it to me. “But if we have a system in place, we take out the awkwardness.” Frazee, my friend and former neighbor, was the one who proposed our co-op, when my now 6-year-old was still an infant. Asking for help isn’t a skill we’re taught anymore, and because of the American culture of independence and the intensive motherhood norms Calarco mentions, it feels not just awkward but like we’re failing at parenting when we ask for help. But as we learn to ask for help, we’re also learning that it’s less about accepting defeat and more about creating community. And when there’s a structure in place with clear expectations, asking for and offering help is so much easier.

“It’s a feeling of satisfaction. It’s a feeling of being wanted. It’s a feeling of being needed. It’s a feeling of like I have much to give and much to provide. It’s a feeling of abundance.”

“These were our kids’ first friends, by default,” Frazee points out when I ask her about how central community-building was to her when we started the co-op. “The trust that it requires you to have in another person to be at your house with your baby is huge.” We agreed that what began as an official arrangement during a specific time in our lives developed into special relationships.

The co-op filled the gaps left by our system and culture, and we did with intention. Things like hosting quarterly family gathering together meant that over time, and with purpose and effort, the co-op evolved with our relationships: We could be more spontaneous and less transactional with our care. We pooled funds to have quarterly family gatherings. This led to genuine friendships and essential connections that have continued long after the co-op ended.

Garbes speaks of this connection with the family that became their pod in the pandemic. “The affection that I feel for this family, the affection that I feel for the children was not something that I anticipated,” she says, noting that the emotional value that comes from relationships built in these communities is not quantifiable. “I found living in interdependence gave me something that we’re not good at describing in America, but I’ll put in these terms: The return on investment has been 100-fold, but in a way I never could have predicted. It’s a feeling of satisfaction. It’s a feeling of being wanted. It’s a feeling of being needed. It’s a feeling of like I have much to give and much to provide. It’s a feeling of abundance.”

“It’s a feeling of being wanted. It’s a feeling of being needed. It’s a feeling of like I have much to give and much to provide. It’s a feeling of abundance,” says writer Angela Garbes.

It almost seems like there’s a rewiring of our brains when we become interdependent on one another. The pandemic effectively shut our original co-op down, but some of the relationships remain, and they extend into a deep, familial affection we have for one another’s children. In fact, my family has become particularly close to the family of our late-night sitter, Jason. My husband and I are now his kids’ godparents. Our families have written each other into our wills.

I have since started a second co-op in our new neighborhood with families whose kids go to school with my son. We are a smaller group that is still building those deeper connections. There’s still a hesitancy to ask for help, but slowly, families are beginning to think of the co-op when something comes up, like the strike. When I found myself at home with a sick kid, a neighbor and co-op member, Libby, helped me out by walking our dog. I’ve also become Libby’s person she will text when her husband is away and she has an appointment across town and needs an in-case-of-emergency contact to pick up her kids.

These types of requests are not transactional; they are relational. And sometimes those steps help nudge others in that direction. I may never need to actually act as Libby’s backup emergency contact, but I like that she asked. When you ask for help, others will be more inclined to do the same. When you start a babysitting co-op, you create a structure that encourages and normalizes interdependence. Each action is a step toward creating deeper, more meaningful connections with the people around us.

This personal solution is proving valuable and meaningful to me and my family, but we can’t ignore that we live in a society that doesn’t value interconnection. What we really need is a culture change.

Garbes recommends participating in the public, community-oriented resources already available to us: community centers, public libraries, parks and recreation camps, and even public schools. When we tap into the publicly available resources and assets within our communities, we’re investing in our community as a whole. (And for those inclined toward political advocacy, you can even go further to work with coalitions fighting for deeper investments in public goods such as education, libraries, and parks.) This was part of what was so revealing and profound about the teachers strike: While teachers fought for appropriate compensation and more resources for Portland Public Schools, parents were also experiencing the failure of social safety nets that have overburdened public schools with child care. So many of the solutions already exist, they just need more support — political, financial, and cultural. As Garbes writes in Essential Labor, “We don’t need to re-create social structures wholesale, but we could learn more communal aspects of living, use them to rethink and reshape American family life.”

What started out as a small-scale personal solution through our babysitting co-op became much more than just free child care. It became a community where we built trust and we relied upon one another. It became a small way of rethinking and reshaping American family life, together.

Elizabeth Doerr is a Portland-based writer. She writes about parenting, social justice, resiliency, and climate change. She's currently working on a book about building disaster preparedness skills as a way to push through her climate grief. You can follow that journey through her Substack newsletter.

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