Why would a mother of four employed full-time, choose to spend a Saturday night babysitting for another family?
“Somebody else’s kids are usually better-behaved than mine,” explained Jennifer Eckel, “so I can sit down with my stitchery or a book. It’s an escape.” All the women in earshot under the picnic shelter laughed and nodded agreement.
About 20 families —members and former members of the Brookville-Seminary Valley Baby-sitting Cooperative — were gathered recently at Ft. Ward Park to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their co-op. This affiliation of neighbors who exchange babysitting services hour-for-hour has lasted through almost a half century of social change on the home front.
“Wouldn’t you rather have a mother at your house instead of a teenager?” asked Cris Naser. “If someone spills juice all over the carpet you know it’ll be taken care of. And you know she can handle the new baby.”
“I didn’t care if it was a mother or a father who showed up,” Peggy Faragasso inserted quickly, and the listeners concurred. Most had been invited by a neighbor to join and liked the idea of an experienced parent in charge of their young children when they went out. No one in this fairly modest neighborhood of ‘60s tract houses and garden apartments cited economy as the reason for belonging. “Saving money was a plus,” Faragasso acknowledged, “but not the main thing.”
Missy Cox expanded on the benefits. “It’s a nice way to meet people and get to know 13 other families. Kids get a chance to go play somewhere else and they make friends.”
DURING THE DAY, children usually go to the sitter’s house. In the evening, the sitter comes to their house unless both families agree otherwise. Families choose to be day members or evening/weekend members or both. (Such flexibility has made it possible for dual-income families, and occasionally single-parent families, to participate.) Parents arrange their own sitters using the co-op roster or ask the secretary to call around, starting with the families most in debt.
Women tend to do most sits. “It depends on the other family,” said Kristin Stone. “They may be less comfortable with a man they don’t know. If the kids know my husband, it’s not an issue.”
“At our house whoever had the most portable paperwork did the sit,” said Rick Glassco. “I sat more than most fathers. You’d get clientele — boys who liked having a man who would get down on the floor with them. The co-op formed a community among our kids and other families that’s still going after 10 years.”
Yvonne Hoyle, a new grandmother, offered a testimonial to friendships that often superceded business relationships. “I loved the co-op,” she said. “I wanted to stay on after my kids were grown.” Her husband, Henry Hoyle, recalled that it was a co-op member who came running on New Year’s Day to stay with their two small children when their third decided not to wait for a planned Caesarian section. Several picnickers cited the Jewish member who always offered to sit on Christmas Eve so parents could go to midnight mass. Another recalled being driven to Dulles Airport at 6 a.m., children and stuffed animals in tow, paying for the taxi service in co-op hours.
“I’d like to offer the military family perspective,” said Melanie Bodrog. “We moved here in April of ‘99. We were members by May 12. We’re renters — transient — and the neighborhood welcomed us.” Membership appears less culturally and economically diverse than it was 20 years ago, when the roster included many members from the apartment complexes. “We’re working on it,” said Mia Jones. “We’ve printed business cards and hand them out at Polk School, Brookville Apartments, the Taney Avenue yard sale — wherever we get a chance.”
THE CIVIC SPIRIT of the co-op seems to have spread like ripples on a pond into the larger community. “Members are into everything — church, preschool, PTA, ALIVE!” said Naser. The picnickers quickly recalled five members who became PTA presidents. One of these was Elaine Crowley, who spearheaded volunteer construction of the original Polk School playground.
“She recruited the co-op,” said Steve Kenealy. “That’s what led to my involvement in PTA and the city schools.” He went on to become School Board Chairman.
The co-op has thrived for 40 years, serving 226 families since 1973 (earlier records are lost) without substantial changes to its guiding constitution. What have changed are the communications options. Now members often use e-mail to find a sitter.