So have you thought about daycare yet?”
It’s a question we’d heard several times, but never in such a conspiratorial tone. It was a reasonable inquiry: My son, Nathan, was about six months old, and my English professor husband, Steve, had a pretty demanding schedule, since he’d been named chair of his department about a month after we’d found out we were expecting. It was about all we could do to configure our lives so that I could work a measly fifteen hours a week at a small literary magazine. And those fifteen hours were a lifeline – I needed a small part of my week when I didn’t have a baby attached to my breast to maintain my tenuous grasp on sanity.
Our friends John and Sherry, whose son had been born about a month apart from ours, had mentioned that there was something they wanted to talk about on this “playdate” I expected a discussion of the logistics of a much-needed babysitting swap. What I didn’t expect from the two of them – an editor of an arts magazine and a law student, both of them practical and learned folks – was a recruitment pitch for some cockamamie hippie childcare scheme of dubious legality.
“We’re joining this daycare co-op in the fall. It’s a group of six families working together to take turns caring for each other’s kids.”
I half expected “Free to Be You and Me” to start playing in the background. For our pants to grow into bell-bottoms and flowers to magically appear in our hair. A daycare co-op? In the twenty-first century? I thought all that collective stuff was the arcane dreams of communes and flower children. A babysitting swap was one thing: I watch your kid once in a while, and you watch mine, and the couple who gets to go out can actually afford to do something fun on their date night, instead of spending $50 on a babysitter and having to go to Denny’s and the second-run movie theater. I could envision myself caring for one additional relatively mild-mannered infant – but taking responsibility for the well-being of a bunch of other people’s crying, pooping, spitting up little ones as well?
After a few more conversations and email exchanges with John and Sherry, some of which included the other co-op parents, we were intrigued. We like to fancy ourselves the types who do things a bit differently, and this was definitely outside of the cookie-cutter child care options we’d seen. “Thinking about it” morphed into agreeing to meet the other parents at the daycare house, a rental property which, as it turned out, was two houses away from my place of employment. And, when we met the other parents, we discovered that they were very much like us: honest about their shortcomings but reasonably confident about their caregiving skills, and, while not necessarily drawn to full-time work as early-childhood professionals, seemed to genuinely enjoy the company of their kids. The parents were mostly in their thirties, and a mix of students, visual artists, and even a small business owner – couples with at least one parent with a flexible schedule. And we pretty much liked everyone right away.
Five of the six families had one child each, and one family had a toddler and an almost-toddler, and the children ranged in age from about six months to pushing three years old. About half of the parents were part of the co-op the previous year, which had a somewhat different arrangement but the same basic principles. So there was a feeling of joining a work-in-progress rather than starting something from scratch. It was also reassuring to me that the parents who had been doing this for a year hadn’t been hauled off by the police or child protective services: I wasn’t sure about the legality of setting up an unlicensed, informal child care, and the whole thing had the feeling, in my mind, of a kiddie speakeasy.
In the configuration we settled on, the co-op would be open from Tuesday through Thursday. Two parents (from different families) would be on duty each day from 8:30 am, and would remain on duty until 5:30 pm. We would split the cost of the mortgage payment on the property, and would rotate week-by-week the job of shopping for groceries and cleaning the house. We would keep track of expenditures on toys, diapers, wipes, and the like, periodically figuring out who owed or was owed money based on the overall spending of the group. All told, our total cost for two days of care, including what we’d be spending on groceries, would be less than $250 per month.
And this, I must confess, is what convinced me. I was making little more than pocket change at my job, and most licensed daycare options would have ended up costing us more than I was taking in. As scary as the idea of helping care for seven wee ones sounded, this was an option could work for our family.
As things got under way and we worked out schedules and routines, the joke we regularly made was that the children were easy – it was managing all of us parents that was hard. We held monthly meetings to sort out any questions and concerns, and these were, at times, pretty fraught. The touchy issues came from different families from month to month, but you could pretty much count on there being something tricky that needed to be worked out by group consensus: discipline issues with the older kids, food and nap issues with the younger ones, how to add more hours to the co-op for some families but not for all families, how to handle illness and absences. Here the benefits of less-DIY approach became apparent: having a set of rules and regulations, or at least a well-defined philosophy for the group, would have made it easier to work out some of these issues.
There were the marathon book-reading sessions on the couch with the older kids, and sitting in the rocking chair snuggling little sleepyheads.We soon realized that some of the structural ideas we had going in were, in practice, crazy. For instance, when we were making up the shopping and cleaning calendar, for some reason we thought it would be good to make one schedule: your weekend to work was also your weekend to shop. It was a simple way of setting things up, but the one family whose weekend it was typically wound up feeling completely overwhelmed. Being the type of person who is reluctant to admit when I’m having a hard time keeping on top of stuff, I hadn’t wanted to complain, but when one of the other, saner, parents brought it up at a meeting, we all breathed a sigh of relief and agreed to stagger the responsibilities.
Of course, the kids were not always easy, either. We all could have used some lessons from daycare professionals about how you get seven kids of varying ages to nap at the same time without the use of sedatives. Sometimes, one of the kids would just have a rotten day, and you could count on that child monopolizing your attention at the expense of the other kids. And the diaper changes. At first, we were all so busy, that unless things were pretty fragrant, the kids could stay in wet diapers for quite a while before we noticed. By setting up a white board to keep track of each kid’s diapering throughout the day, we began to feel on top of the bottoms. Of course, there were those days when it seemed like you spent half the day in front of the changing table.
And then there were the illnesses. Being a bunch of lefty, eco-conscious types, we initially were reluctant to use chemical-laden disinfectants. A few vomiting bugs later, we probably would have dipped the house in Clorox if we could have. Seriously, there’s a reason why hospitals disinfect things the way they do: it helps limit the spread of infection. And once you see how often drooly, teething toddlers stick stuff in their mouths, it really makes you want to boil everything in sight.
But despite these issues, there were some really great things about being part of the group: there were the marathon book-reading sessions on the couch with the older kids, and sitting in the rocking chair snuggling one or another little sleepyhead. There were the times we set up a bunch of oversized pillows so that the big kids could run across the room and flop on them, over and over again, howling and shrieking with delight, the little ones watching with wonder at their feats of physical prowess. And there was the time that little Chuck, who had up until then eschewed bipedalism for a funny upright crawl that looked something like a Russian dance, decided to stand up, walk across the room like he’d been doing it all his life, and sit back down again with a pleased little grin.
As the year wore on, it became clear that many families would be leaving the group in the coming months, including ours, since we’d be moving across the country that summer so that my husband could begin a new job. John and Sherry also decided to transition to a more traditional daycare. They had come to believe, as Sherry put it, that “a co-op childcare situation is the most expensive sort of daycare you can take on– it may not cost lots of money, but it’s hard to imagine a more emotionally and labor-intensive way to go about getting a few hours off.” While they walked away feeling fairly positively about their experiences in co-op care, and with some very strong friendships for both themselves and their son, they also had come to realize that “low-fuss childcare for your kid(s) so you can work, it’s probably a lot easier simply to write a check and leave the childcare to a (well-vetted) professional.”
The group continues to endure, now two years ago since we left. I emailed one of the moms who family predated us in the co-op and who stayed when we left (all told, they were part of the group for 2 1/2 years), because she, more than anyone, watched the group grow very quickly from “a few families needing low-cost daycare with people they trust… into its own entity.” She described how it became clear that the group needed a written Manifesto, which “spelled out to potential families what was expected, what can be achieved and who we are” and ” highlighting lessons learned along the way and changing with the input and insights of each new family.” The document they developed covers topics ranging from maintaining a safe, respectful environment to communication to notification of changes in schedule, and set up a business agreement laid out for all families so that they understand what to expect from their involvement.
Manifesto in hand, the group continues to endure, now two years ago since we left. They advertise on bulletin board websites like Craigslist, and are able to present new families with a guiding philosophy and some documents that build on institutional memory. I like to think that the current parents benefit from our mistakes and triumphs during our family’s year of “guerilla” child care. I still don’t actually understand if our co-op was strictly legal under state regulations governing child care. I also don’t know if I would ever have the energy to take on a commitment like that again, now that I’d know what I was getting into. But I miss those kids and their parents. I grin and sometimes tear up when I see pictures and videos of them as they grow and we maintain our friendships on Facebook. I imagine that if we had stayed in the area, our son would still be having playdates with his friends from the group, and even though we’re far away now, I still feel close to the parents. We all took a chance on each other to do things in our own way, and I’m really pleased to see that what we were part of endures, and is thriving, now that we’re gone.