It was a little more than one year ago when our friends Bob and Julie approached us with what I thought was a pretty bad idea. Their son Dylan, round of face and tall like his father, had recently turned two. Our own son Ted was six weeks older than Dylan and one size smaller.
Ted’s blond hair, like his shyness, contrasted with Dylan’s thick brown locks and complete absence of all fear. The boys were playmates, although so far theirs was the kind of parallel play that only became interactive when they fought over a cherished toy: a ratty toilet paper roll fished out of the bathroom trash, or my wife’s red lint brush that could magically double as a guitar.
Our two families were sitting around a picnic table in the park, where I had been lulled into a sense of complacency by the sliced tomatoes on the table, the hummus and tabouli. Or perhaps it was the regatta of hot air balloons floating overhead, some sort of event arranged especially that evening to soften me up. Bob and Julie had recently lost their fifth babysitter, and they seemed a little bit desperate. Julie’s job took her out of town, often for days at a time, and Bob, like my wife Jill, was trying to write a PhD dissertation somewhere between the microwave and the diaper table.
“There’s got to be a better way,” said Bob. “We need to pool our resources. We could think of it as a coop. There are four of us. If each adult devotes one day to child care, we can cover four days of the workweek. We’ll save money on babysitters. Our kids can play together. It’ll be great.”
I looked around the table. The other parents were smiling as if Bob had hit on an inspired idea, like sliced bread or Velcro. Like the diaper wrap. It was too neat; I knew I was being set up. I, alone, would have to voice my reservations. I wondered, as I watched Dylan body-check my son with a move that would have gained some attention in the NHL, just how much Teddy was going to enjoy this arrangement. I had to wonder, too, about Dylan’s five previous baby sitters, some of whom had gone to remarkable lengths to stop taking care of him. (One moved back to Central America.) So I did what any sane man would have done in my situation. I hedged.
“Ted has a great babysitter now,” I pointed out. In fact, he spent part of each day with a lovely Vietnamese woman who doted on him, who had beautiful children of her own, and who made the best spring rolls in town. Ted called her Auntie Mai.
“We could still go to Auntie Mai’s house on Fridays,” said my wife. This was meant to be disarming. Friday was the day Mai made spring rolls. “And she could be our back-up.”
“Well, and then,” I said, “I’m not sure I can free up a whole day every week.” Although I read contempt in the eyes of my wife and my friends, they knew I was telling the truth. As a visiting professor, I was saddled with a heavy teaching load, preparation and classes every day, nearly every free moment earmarked for reading student essays.
“Maybe some weeks I can take care of the boys two days,” said my wife. She was smiling at the others, refusing to look my way.
“And there’s Maggie,” said Julie. “She’s our ace in the hole.”
Maggie, a student in the same department with Bob and my wife Jill, was single, a member of a religious order. She loved to spend time with Dylan. I suspected, actually, that she might be the one preparing the boy for the NHL. I knew for a fact that she had taught Dylan how to dive into the sofa from the top of the piano.
“Maggie’s perfect,” said my wife.
It was a done deal.
If I had doubts about this new co-op, my son Teddy had none. Within days he decided he would rather take his chances with Maggie and Dylan than continue going to Auntie Mai’s. Mai watched six or eight other children, and Ted, alone, steadfastly refused to enjoy himself at her house. Since there was no obvious reason for his distress, I held out a little longer, probably because of the spring rolls; until the day my wife insisted that I be the one to drop Teddy off at the sitter’s. When the tears and anguish started three blocks before we got to Auntie Mai’s house, I remembered what it was like to be little and the victim of an inexplicable fear. My own fear, 35 years ago, had involved being left in a Sunday school class, where one week I was fine, and the next I was all but an atheist.
And so, at Ted’s insistence, the coop became a full-time affair. Maggie agreed to take care of both boys one day a week, and I promised to try my best to put off my students as I left the classroom. I would come straight home and relieve Jill on Thursdays. As the fall progressed into the winter, I found I was able to put in my day of child care about half of the time. On those days when I was forced to call Jill and admit defeat, when I had to shut myself into a windowless office to read essays, I was more than a little disappointed. I liked spending time with two year olds. And maybe I wasn’t Captain Kangaroo, but on my days with Teddy and Dylan, we were getting along fine.
The five adults who began our co-op had different approaches to this task of civilizing our young. Some of us were planners, filling a morning with activities like finger painting and baking muffins, doing the important work that is done with scissors and glue. Others of us saw the caretaker role as that of an overseer, a general inspecting the troops as they played in the sandbox or scooted their tricycles along the sidewalk. We came to a consensus where we could, voting yes on bike helmets and cloth diapers, no on hot dogs, agreeing to suspend judgment on vaccinations, praying for afternoon naps.
There were plenty of things we agreed upon. We shared a repugnance for television, and a willingness to make an exception now and then for Ted’s Raffi video or Dylan’s favorite, Paul Simon live from South Africa. We had the same ideas about crime and punishment. Although some of us shouted a bit when we got excited, none of us believed in spanking. We tried to keep our sense of humor. We were all similarly bemused by the language that came from the mouths of our boys, who were learning to swear like, well, like nuns. Our initial feelings of trust in the safety of our children grew, like the boys’ friendship, with each passing day.
There were problems, of course. Dylan’s mother’s business trips out of town kept the lot of us revising our schedules. And when Dylan’s mother was out of town, the NHL came out in him, But then she would be back and full of energy from having missed her boy, having missed her boys, and all would be well.
For a while, Teddy toyed with the idea of becoming a nudist. Putting a fresh, clean diaper on him could be as difficult as saddling a rattlesnake. But somehow we always managed to deliver him across town with his pants on, and he always came home to us in similar high fashion at the end of the day.
There were times when each of the adults had to ask for a replacement. Conferences and job interviews called people out of town. Students at the university discovered my office, and they sometimes proved as needy as the boys at home. Dylan’s aggressiveness could be trying, as he bonked Teddy over the head with wooden blocks, toy tractors, wastepaper cans. And Ted’s corresponding need to be comforted, like his addiction to herbal punch, was not always easily satisfied.
At the start of the summer, we added a third child, a talkative, curly-haired girl named Taylor, and scheduling became more complicated than ever. I worried about Taylor, who loved to pop out of her mother’s van first thing in the morning and announce to one and all what the day’s wardrobe consisted of: “I’m wearing my red dress today,” or, “This is my Easter dress.” I feared the boys would intimidate her in the sandbox or on the sidewalks. As a more experienced parent might have guessed, my fears were unfounded. Dylan, Ted, and I soon agreed on one thing: In her red dress or her Easter dress, even in her tutu, Taylor was a force to be reckoned with.
At the end of one year with our co-op, I am taking stock. If I take a piece of paper and draw a line down the center, I can enumerate the pluses and minuses of this childcare arrangement. On the plus side, the children were cared for by a variety of loving adults, each with individual gifts and ways of showing that love. Each child had the chance to make some first true friendships, and to separate a little from Mom and Dad. There were more tangible benefits, too. As parents, we might individually have discovered swimming lessons and story hour at the library, the gymnastics class at the university, or the 4-H fair. But I’m convinced we were able to take advantage of a good deal more of these activities because of our association with each other, an association that could spill over into gentle competition to see who could come up with the next great idea.
Sadly enough, as I have become a believer in our co-op, it is being disbanded. Dylan is moving to Illinois, and taking his parents with him. Taylor’s family will be gone next year, too, on sabbatical in Colorado. Maggie has taken a job in Cincinnati, just an hour away, but there will be, I fear, weeks at a time when we won’t see her. I know that our co-op has had a profound effect on the children. Dylan has learned compassion, and Teddy assertiveness, and they have both learned to use language to settle their differences and express their love. Taylor has learned to share, and to stand up for herself in the presence of men, tiny men though they be. They have all learned how to pedal their bikes and how to walk on a balance beam, and how to use the potty at a friend’s house. I’m sure they would have learned much of this without each other’s help. I’m not sure they would have learned all of it.
The co-op has been good for the caretakers, too, three of whom managed to finish their dissertations knowing that the children they loved were being looked after by grownups they trusted. Maggie was able to experience some of the joys and terrors of being around two year olds. Taylor’s mother, Ann, had time to devote to her job as a bookkeeper and to her art. That piece of paper — the one with the plus column and the minus column? As I sit with it here before me, I can’t find much to put on the minus side. There were those spring rolls, but Auntie Mai still loves me. I was over to see her just the other day.
In fact, some of the most profound effects of this childcare co-op have been on me. I have had what too few fathers have: the chance to spend at least one full day every week with my son and his pals. As the summer has passed, and Jill’s dissertation deadlines have grown imminent, I have taken over some of her days, too. I have come to love the videos, the naps, the swimming and gymnastics lessons. My life has changed.
I will always resist the temptation to make a complicated decision seem like a simple one, but I have chosen to leave my job at the university. There’s a little bakery in my town, and I can get an early shift there that will let me get home by mid-morning. I’m going to have to do some recruiting, but I know there are more children out there who would love to play with Teddy and me in our sandbox, and parents who need to trade a day filled with children for two days off in which they can do their own work.