Nanny Deprived

Good Corporate Citizens Care For Their Workers’ Children

gcwcGood childcare for workers has become a “business decision,” said Hewlett-Packard Co.’s work/life manager, Susan Moriconi. On-site child-care centers can be costly, and some locations are too small to support them. By going in with other employers through ABC, companies distribute the cost and assure a wider population of children will use the facilities.

The 21 ABC “champions” will provide most of the $100 million for the six-year venture, but other companies can also join in single projects. The money will help existing child-care and elder-care facilities to expand their offerings, and improve the training and equipment in those centers.

The purpose is to improve care so that “when our people are at work, they focus on work, not on problems at home,” Purkey said.

Why do it?

TI already has a Resource Referral Service and flexible workplace rules to help employees balance family and work demands. But when TI “looked at the infrastructure around us,” said Purkey, “we realized that it doesn’t matter how well-paid our people are if quality [care] options aren’t out there. You have to have the infrastructure.”

That includes child care not only for infants and preschoolers, but for school-age children as well. “That’s a real major gap,” Purkey said. Many working parents worry about latchkey kids returning to an empty home.

Moreover, it’s not unusual for engineers and software developers to work well beyond the usual care-facility closing times of 5 or 6 p.m. What do you do with the children?

“There’s a real need for backup care,”said HP’s Moriconi. On the surface, the availability of after-school programs and day-care facilities may look good. But when it snows, a child gets sick or a holiday closes a center, parents find their options limited.

Though HP’s headquarters are in balmy Palo Alto, Calif., most of its employees work at offices in Boise, Idaho; Chicago; Colorado and Massachusetts. When schools close for snow days, “it’s tough for employees,” said Moriconi.

It’s instances like those that ABC is hoping to resolve through collaboration.

gccA loosely knit organization of corporations, the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care started three years ago on IBM’s initiative. Eleven “champion”companies kicked off a $27 million campaign to support 355 dependent-care projects, and more than 100 other firms participated on a smaller scale in their own cities.

Hewlett-Packard linked up with the group a year ago. TI joined two months ago, said Purkey. “It came at an ideal time for us.” Motorola, an original “champion,” has bowed out, but will still be part of individual projects.

The success of the first campaign led to the current $100 million venture. Not only will ABC produce new or expanded facilities, it will promote such special projects as a voice-mail service in 97 schools that will help parents keep up with children’s homework. Purkey noted that the technology companies are particularly interested in the summer science camps being planned for the children.

Among the joint-venture projects that HP is looking at is a day-care facility in Boise, where it has a major plant, a project in northern Colorado and one in Chicago. All involve other ABC partners or major employers in those cities.

Moriconi said that in Chicago, Motorola and IBM have considerably larger numbers of employees than HP. Without a joint venture, HP would have been unlikely to pursue child-care options, she said. The Chicago project is “in process right now,” she added.

In the EE Times “1995 Worldwide Salary and Opinion Survey” of 952 engineers and managers, only 4 percent said their employers offer on-site child care, and 5 percent provide access to off-site centers. But 19 percent said they’d like to see such benefits added.

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How A Child Care Facility Works

ccfwjPaying teachers and assistants to perform the myriad tasks undertaken between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day is Smoky Row’s biggest expense — the center devotes more than 70% of its budget to salaries and benefits. That’s high, almost approaching the outlay of nonprofit centers, which are able to pony up as much as 80% because their other expenses are subsidized. Many for-profit centers, including large chains such as KinderCare, devote as little as half of every daycare dollar to wages and benefits.

Smoky Row’s teacher expenses are high in part because most of the staff have degrees in early-childhood education, exceeding Ohio licensing standards, which demand only a high school diploma or equivalency. (State licensing standards vary widely; Ohio’s are considered average.) Chosy pays top salaries by day-care standards, but still they’re about one-third less than the going rate for public-school teachers. Full-time teachers at the center earn more than $9 an hour, plus such benefits as vacations and health insurance, compared with $5 or $6 an hour with no benefits at other Franklin County centers.

Because their salaries are relatively generous, Smoky Row’s teachers have one of the lowest turnover rates in the area, while other local centers are struggling to keep their staff. Unemployment is low in Columbus, and even a nearby McDonald’s can match the average hourly rate for most child-care workers — plus McDonald’s offers benefits, a rarity in the day-care world.

Parent Dana Ullom-Vucelich says that low turnover is one reason she sought out Smoky Row, though it costs almost $12,000 a year for her two children. As a vice-president of human resources at a local hospital, Ullom-Vucelich says, “I know how important low turnover can be.”

Good qualifications and salaries aren’t the only reason Chosy’s budget tilts toward teachers: She also employs more of them than other day-care centers do. Smoky Row follows staff-child ratios recommended by the NAEYC — that is, one adult for every four infants, for every five toddlers, and for ever ten 4-year-olds. Those standards, tougher than those of many states, including Ohio, are “critical” in providing quality care, says Anne Goldstein of the National Child Care Information Center, in Vienna, Va. But they soak up budget dollars faster than Pampers absorb — well, what they absorb.

In fact, Infant and toddler care, which has the highest proportion of teachers to children, usually loses money. Last year the Infant room at Smoky Row, with 12 children, posted a $23,400 deficit, and the toddler room lost $17,600. Making up the difference are classes for older kids, whose higher ratios also provide a higher return. Says Chosy: “The money is in the preschool” — a truism for most centers.

A ROOF OVER THEIR HEADS

The weather today is unseasonably cold, so instead of playing outside, a group of toddlers are careering around the indoor court, a recessed area outfitted with climbing equipment, a seesaw, plastic toys and the other implements of childhood. Grant, 2 1/2, hurls himself across the room to greet a visitor, while Samuel steers his riding toy through a floor mined with brightly colored balloons. Across the yard, it’s sharing time in the kindergarten class where MacKenzie proudly displays this morning’s contribution: her shoe.

Keeping the kids at Smoky Row housed and heated is the next biggest item in Chosy’s budget: 18.6% goes toward payments on two 20-year mortgages and for taxes, maintenance and utility bills. With 261 children hitting the halls each week, maintenance is a challenge. “We’re very, very hard on things,” she says. Last spring Chosy spent $6,000 to have the outside of the six-year-old building painted; she anticipates paying about $3,000 to have the inside painted this year and recently spent $12,000 for new carpeting.

Chosy economizes by forgoing a few big-ticket items offered by other centers — Smoky Row doesn’t provide transportation and asks parents to pack lunch — and by hunting down bargains such as locally built playground equipment instead of purchasing from a catalog. She also saves on costs by bypassing high-priced service contractors in favor of a college student who cleans the center and a high school student who cuts the grass. Chosy,s husband, Bob, comes over once a week to perform minor repairs; a retired obstetrician, he’s one of the more overqualified (and underpaid) handymen in the Columbus area. Jim Emanuelson, father of a Smoky Row teacher, charges bargain rates to work on accounts receivable. Chosy’s son-in-law, a mutual fund accountant, pays the center’s bills for free.

As for the piles of puzzles, the bins of blocks and the buckets of Barbies, despite their bulk they constitute a relatively small part of the budget, less than 3% of the total. Chosy considers the allotment generous, but teachers occasionally kick in for other supplies, including food for Bunny Foo-Foo (a rabbit) and Rosie the redeared slider (a turtle). Two fund-raisers a year finance new outdoor toys and computer software. In recent years AT&T, which employs the parents of several Smoky Row kids, has awarded grants of up to $10,000 to the center to help pay for materials and field trips. The full-day kindergarten also picks up about $800 a year from the Ohio Department of Education, which goes for library books and other teacher resources.

THE PARENTS’ PART

That help aside, parents basically finance Smoky Row’s costs, a major distinction from nonprofit centers, where public and private subsidies can make up almost half of a center’s revenues. And other for-profit centers get some help from government and private-sector programs, which each kick in about 12% of the typical center’s budget. Because families are lining up to pay full tuition at Smoky Row, Chosy doesn’t take families receiving government assistance. The combination of government payments and a limited contribution required from families falls short of the full fee at Smoky Row. Many families on assistance cannot afford to pay their share, says Susan Jakob of Action for Children, a child-care referral agency in Columbus, so other centers in demand allocate only a small number of spaces to subsidized families. “They can’t afford it. It’s a drain on their program,” she says. On the other side, poor working families are being squeezed out of state assistance programs to make room for those getting off welfare rolls, creating a shortfall in care for parents who are barely managing as it is.

Of course, every family whose kids are in day care so that parents can work qualifies for the federal childcare tax credit (some states offer additional tax credits), which can be worth $480 to $1,440 a year. Most day-care centers also give tuition breaks to siblings — at Smoky Row, older sibs get a 10% discount — and offer a sliding scale to a small number of parents who earn too much for state programs but not enough to afford full fees. A growing number of employers have also joined forces with day-care providers to help parents pay for care, says Goldstein. KinderCare, for instance, operates 42 on-site or nearby centers for corporations, including Ford Motor Co. and provides a 10% discount to employees of more than 400 companies nationwide, with many companies kicking in another 10%.

TOO MUCH, TOO LITTLE

haccfwIn the early days Chosy worked 11-hour days and skipped a salary altogether, but 1996 was a good year. Smoky Row showed a profit of about 4% after taxes (although Chosy took home less during the year than the $25,000 or $30,000 other directors make). That margin compares favorably with the average for-profit center, which earns 3% to 4%. Last year Kindercare, the country’s biggest chain, reaped a 4% profit after rebounding from bankruptcy in 1993; another chain, Children’s Discovery Centers, lost money in the early 1990s but earned 3.4% in 1995.

The real bottom line, experts agree, is that day care costs both too much and too little, taking up to one-fourth of income from young families at the beginning of their earning power, yet not always generating enough revenue for centers to offer the kind of care that families want. High tuition doesn’t guarantee good quality, but even a slightly higher-than-average fee helps maintain standards in an industry whose members are often undertrained and underpaid, says Jakob.

The too-much, too-little paradox is one that parent Dana Ullom-Vucelich has seen from both sides. She earned a degree in early-childhood education but changed careers when she realized she would be making only minimum wage as a day-care teacher. Now she and her husband, Sam, are contemplating paying five-figure day-care bills for at least another year. Says Ullom-Vucelich: “This is the most significant long-term investment decision I have ever made. It touches the root of everything we hope and dream for.” And the price? “No matter what it is, in your heart, you know it’s never enough.”

Nonprofit centers: Help from their friends

Not all child-care centers can expect parents to cover the entire cost of tuition. Nonprofits, such as Fruit and Flower Child Care Center, in Portland, Ore., get a lot of help from other friends.

Fruit and Flower has been in business for almost a century. In the late 1920s it received an endowment whose earnings continue to help finance operations. The center, which raked in more than $90,000 last year from donations and fund-raisers, boasts title to its current building, which was financed by community funds in 1970.

With no mortgage payments, Fruit and Flower devotes only 6% of its budget to its physical plant, mainly in maintenance costs and utility bills — a third of the proportion that the Smoky Row Children’s Care Center, near Columbus, Ohio, earmarks (see the accompanying story). The freed-up funds allow Fruit and Flower to allocate up to 85% of its budget to teacher salaries and benefits, a high proportion for any day-care center. Teachers here start at $8 or $8.50 an hour and receive two raises a year for the first ten years of employment.

Parents get a break at Fruit and Flower, too. Although tuition is stiff, at $187 a week for infants and toddlers, low-income families receive subsidies from the state, and United Way funds let the center charge some families on a sliding scale. Even affluent and middle-income parents don’t pay full freight, according to director Roberta Recken, who says the center spends $943 a month for every toddler, about $200 more than what parents are charged. “I don’t think anyone will pay $943,” says Recken. “It’s more than the market will bear.”

While few nonprofit centers boast an endowment like Fruit and Flower’s or heavy-hitter fund-raising to help them offset costs, most depend on community resources such as churches and universities to provide space or materials, discounts on maintenance and utilities, cash contributions and some volunteer labor.

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Child Care Facilities Need To Get Better

doysWe reviewed the standard child care facilities in New Jersey and found that most were more care-oriented and less focused on educational opportunities. Compared to this, the opportunity to bring retired men and women from Heath Village into the child care center to share their life experiences with the children was very appealing. Ultimately, what developed was beyond our most far reaching expectations.

Formulation

In 1991 we formed The Friendship Center, Inc., a non-profit corporation existing for the purposes of operating an intergenerational child care center. Heath Village had purchased a one-acre property with a house adjacent to the Village property. The executive director prepared a feasibility study for transforming the house, which was in disrepair, into an intergenerational child care center. Board approval was received that April.

Many questions had to be resolved before the house was to be transformed into the Friendship Center at Schooley’s Mountain, e.g.:

1. Should the venture be a department of Heath Village or a separate corporation?

2. Was the house a viable location, or should the child care center be located within the main structure of the retirement community?

3. For profit or not-for-profit?

4. Governing body?

5. Insurance issues?

Some of these generated major discussion, e.g.:

Where to locate the child care center: Based on field visits to other retirement communities that offered child care, it seemed apparent that if the operation exclusively served children of employees, then it made sense to find room in a central area of the retirement community. However, our desire to open the child care center to the entire geographic area led to the selection of the house and property mentioned above. Its close proximity to a state highway, combined with its nearness to our resident population, seemed to make it ideal.

The focus of the Friendship Center would differ from the typical intergenerational child care program, as we would approach the curriculum and operation from the point of view of the children. Though children visiting nursing home patients would be folded into the child’s experience, it would be a very small part of the overall programming; great emphasis was placed on having independent residents volunteering to lead the children’s learning experiences.

Decision: The house it would be.

For profit or not-for-profit corporation?

The decision to incorporate as a nonprofit Federal 501(c)3 and New Jersey State Title 15 Corporation was easy because of:

A. Anticipated generation of goodwill by the intergenerational concept for fundraising purposes.

B. A need for capital funding to upgrade the property for child care center use.

The original board would include five members, two of whom would have strong ties to Heath Village: the executive director of Heath Village and one Heath Village trustee were among the first three board members. The president of Friendship Center, Inc. was elected at the first official Friendship Center, Inc. board meeting.

The two other trustee positions were filled by a local attorney and the general manager of a large foundation (legal and fundraising expertise is important in start-up).

Over time, the board expanded to seven members, adding two Heath Village resident volunteers.

Making a Dream a Reality

Now that the major organizational decisions had been made, the capital improvements, operational plans, budgeting, marketing and curriculum development needed to take shape.

Capital Improvements

The house needed an enormous amount of remodeling and infrastructure repair.

ccfwFirst, the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Youth Services (which is responsible for licensing child care centers) was called in for a courtesy inspection. Next, a local architect and site engineer were hired to prepare the necessary site drawings and building plans in order that Heath Village receive the necessary use variance and site approvals. These approvals required a presentation at the local Township Zoning Board. Also, a child care administrator was hired, and that individual consulted with the architect for functional room needs and space requirements. The entire approval process took nearly three months from the point of submittal.

Of course, various codes had to be adhered to as well, including:

* Building Safety Code

* Fire Codes

* Traffic Codes

* Special Child Care Codes

Following the completion of construction drawings and all approvals, interior renovation and site work began. This took three months. Cost: approximately $100,000.

Functioning and Operation

Based on the licensing standards for child care in the state of New Jersey, the Friendship Center could care for 34 children at one time. Age groups 2-1/2 to 5 years of age were targeted, and rooms were chosen within the school for 2-1/2 to 3-year-olds, 3 to 3-1/2-year-olds, 3-1/2 to 4-year-olds, and 4 to 5-year-olds.

The staffing pattern (or ratio of students to staff) increases as the children age. Consideration of full-time versus part-time hours and appropriate scheduling adjustments was next. The board and the director concluded that in the first year the Center would need to be extremely flexible with regard to accepting full- and part-time children, and “user-friendly” with regard to arrangements for the dropping off and picking up of children.

Curriculum

Many of the intergenerational programs we studied seemed to favor the idea of having children attend and participate in activities geared for nursing home-level residents. However, the Board of the Friendship Center made a conscious decision to recruit elderly residents who would stimulate the children through various experiences. We would include:

* Language study (French and Spanish)

* Science experiments

* Nature walks

* Bible study

* Cooking classes

* Art classes

* Piano/Sing-alongs

* Computer skills

Recruitment of Volunteers

Proponents of the intergenerational concept are often overly optimistic about the level of senior participation. It is not unusual for the number of volunteers to be relatively small, for a variety of reasons.

A significant number of seniors, especially those of advanced age, are simply not physically capable of the level of activity that one-on-one interaction with small children requires. The dynamics of the senior environment are such that even those who initially have the required vigor will eventually reduce their level of participation, making a steady flow of replacement volunteers essential.

Younger seniors, especially those used to a more active lifestyle, are already involved in a number of activities and are not inclined to assume additional ones.

Those seniors who see their own children or grandchildren on a regular basis may feel less of a need to participate in child care activities.

Other seniors are apprehensive about involvement with children, either because they are concerned about contagious diseases (a genuine concern), or because they are not certain about what to do, i.e., what sorts of things are expected of them. This may be especially true of men, who often are more comfortable with an organized activity such as assembling toys.

Logistics can also be a problem. Many seniors are reluctant to commit themselves to a regular schedule that involves travel (especially in bad weather). In fact, after a lifetime of work and responsibility, it is understandable that some would rather not be locked into something that requires them to be somewhere at a stated time every week.

Finally, there are those who, though able, simply do not desire to get involved. This may be because they do not enjoy the company of children (and perhaps never did), or because they feel that they have done their share of child-rearing and have no interest in doing more, or, in some cases, because they do not approve of day care and feel that raising a child is a parent’s responsibility.

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Having Kids When You’re Over 40

hkofSeven of every 1,000 women in the U.S. between ages 40 and 44 gave birth in 1995. Since 1981 the birth rate for that age group has risen by 74%, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But having kids when you’re into middle age isn’t always easy. For the Tuckers, it would have been less trouble — and less expensive — to get the car.

A COSTLY PROCEDURE. It took two and a half years for the couple to finally bring home Josh, now 2, who was conceived using in vitro fertilization. That procedure alone cost $20,000, on top of earlier infertility treatments — none of which were covered by insurance. “This baby was almost a mortgage on a house,” says Elly, 46.

She gave up her part-time job as a school counselor, reducing the family’s annual income by about $15,000. But even though she no longer works outside the home, the Tuckers still pay thousands of dollars a year in babysitting expenses. Including three mornings a week of preschool, last year’s child-care bill totaled nearly $5,000, much of it run up while the Tuckers were working on a musical show that they produce annually to raise money for the local senior center in Charlottesville, Va., where they live. Even teenage sitters on Saturday night cost more this time around. “We’re paying $6 an hour,” says Elly.

Bill is a partner in a law firm, and his $75,000 income goes a long way in Charlottesville. The couple’s investment mix hasn’t changed much since Josh’s birth, despite juggling child-care costs, college funds and retirement savings. “My business and my real estate investments are my retirement,” says Bill, 52. He expects eventually to sell his interest in the law firm to his four partners, and to cash in on investments in an office complex, residential properties, rental units and a small shopping center.

ccfAs for college, “we’re fantasizing that it will never happen,” jokes Elly. Actually, she and Bill expect that Dory now 13, will choose one of Virginia’s affordable, high regarded public universities.

College is still 15 years away for Josh, by which time Bill will likely be retired. To relieve any uncertainty, the couple is considering the state’s prepaid-tuition plan, which would allow them to pay today’s tuition rates for their son’s future education.

NO “GIMMICKS.” Meanwhile, the thrifty Elly manages to stash about $200 a month in a money-market account for emergencies, in addition to the family’s other investments. “We could live a lot higher on the hog,” she says. “The modern family can spend oodles of money on toys, gimmicks and junk. I try not to.”

They do, however, indulge their mutual passion for music: While Elly and Dory play instruments, Bill takes the role of “appreciator,” his wife says. He’s the one who has provided Josh with a small orchestra of instruments — a saxophone, a clarinet, six keyboards and a full drum set, not to mention a harmonica and triangle — to nurture the preschooler’s “incredible rhythm.”

And Elly got that new car after all. A week before Josh was born, she traded in her BMW — for a minivan.

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Cooperative Child Care And You

cccIt 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.

madIf 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.

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