By Ann Zeise
You don’t hear about childcare co-ops very much any more, but back in the 70’s, when I was a young mom, they were all the rage. I started one up in McMinnville, Oregon, that lasted for years, long after I had moved away.
Here’s how I remember setting it up with my friends.
A core group of friends that all had young children eight years old or younger met at my home for an organizational meeting. We talked about why we might need such a co-op and how we could make it fair and safe.
There’s always one person who shows up to such an organizational meeting who will say that they never need a babysitter, they have a teenager, their mother lives nearby, or something like that, but they want to support the endeavor. Fine, let them spread the word about the existence or the group, but don’t let them be members. You only want members that will USE the co-op in both directions. A member must want to take in other children to their homes and they must have the need to get out some of the time, even if just for a dinner “date” with their husbands once a week.
Safety: how do you ensure the members are all “good” parents and that the kids are decent enough? We decided that any new members had to be recommended by a current member, and that the current member had to have left her own child (at least one of them) with the parent AND that she had to have had the new children over to her home for a spell of child care. We weren’t specific about the length of time, just that it be enough to form some sort of opinion. This just kept totally obnoxious people out of the group. No one would EVER be forced to leave their child with a member they, personally, didn’t trust, nor take in children that were troublesome. I suppose these days you’d want to check that no one had a record as a child abuser.
Fair: this was a tough one to iron out, as how can you make this fair for small and large families? Fair for those that went out a lot and those who didn’t? We decided on a scheme using raffle tickets, which are fairly easy to come by. Each ticket had a set time value. At this moment I cannot recall if we valued them at a half hour or an hour. Each family got a set number of tickets per child. As a bonus, each family also got a “Weekend Off” card, good for the parents to get away from Friday night to Sunday evening or however long they were comfortable with. Hours didn’t count for the weekend. Each family got one weekend away card and no one could have more than two in their possession at a time. This gave the fathers some incentive to be more than just tolerant of the co-op, as they then could get some extra time to be with their wives alone for a whole weekend every month or so.
We created a member list to distribute among all with contact information, any major concerns (allergies, can’t be in house with cats, no peanut butter, etc.), and emergency numbers. We made copies of a form for each parent to leave with the sitter so they’d know the particulars for that period. (Back in those days, that meant using carbon paper and typing it up! You younger gals have it easy now!)
Some interesting excuses and uses came out in the discussion.
One group of moms were all from the same religious group. They felt that they were just fine, freely exchanging casual child care among themselves. I pointed out that perhaps some of the time they might want to do some church event together and would appreciate that the rest of the co-op could take care of their kids. Perhaps one of their group’s mothers was feeling a little put upon, and they didn’t know it.
Some moms needed regular child care in order to take a class or part-time work. If they were willing on off-hours to do some care, that would not be a problem. Some of the moms willing to watch their kids liked the idea of knowing there would be a regular flow of “income” for child care. The co-op probably would not work for those needing care for 40+ hours a week nor for moms badly needing income from childcare work.
Some moms just sighed. What they wouldn’t give to just have two hours maybe twice a week to oil paint or practice their violin! They couldn’t justify paying a sitter to do this, but with a co-op, they wouldn’t need a “good” reason to line up a sitter! Once the concept was clear that the co-op tickets could be used freely for ANY reason, even ones a mom wouldn’t think of paying for out the grocery money, the co-op really took off. Moms who just needed peace to read a book or take a nap could “hire” a sitter and for free, as long as they were willing to watch another’s child later on.
Some of the moms wanted to have a more organized co-op with more structure and regular meetings for the kids to do art, science experiments and such. Could the childcare co-op work for them? Sure! The moms running the “class” for the kids would earn the tickets and then use them for their own child care needs or to pay the moms who ran the classes on other days. This sub-group of four moms and a slightly larger number of kids worked it out so that they each took a turn Monday through Thursday entertaining the whole gang for two hours. Other members of the co-op could also have their children join in, so these moms wound up ahead on their tickets. They used the extra earnings to have fun on the weekends with their husbands, or extra time for a hobby on Fridays. And they got the preschool co-op that they wanted to have.
What if the kids just liked to play together, did a mom have to use the tickets? No. Neighborhood play was not something that we’d ask to exchange tickets for unless the other parents left the neighborhood, leaving the first responsible. If a family invited another child over to play, they didn’t ask for tickets.
Parents with a number of children found it nice that they could then afford to leave each child with a friend with children of the same age and interests rather than having a single sitter who was suitable for one child but not the other. It wasn’t always going to be easier for them, but such is life in a large family. At least the co-op helped economically. They were concerned about reciprocating. How in the world could they earn enough tickets back? They were concerned about having too many kids at their house. They found that, though, having a older child come to be with them was often very helpful and kept their little ones entertained, so it was actually easier to ‘sit’ than not. They would use their weekend off ticket to have the toddlers and preschoolers watched while they did something with just the older kids.
What about teenagers? Could they earn tickets for their family? We came to the conclusion that we all wanted adult sitters most of the time. We also didn’t want to curtail the earning power of teenagers. So it was decided that if a family was willing to have a teen sit, the teen would be paid in tickets but their parents should give them fair value in money back. This was the only way tickets could be bought: parents from their own teenagers.
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Sometimes it was easier for a parent with one child to go to the home of another to watch all the children. Any physical arrangement was fine.
The co-op was not good for moms who worked 40 hours a week, but this was back when most moms of young children did not work full-time. Perhaps this is why co-ops sort of vanished from the scene as more women wanted reliable all day childcare.
Our co-op was totally free. We asked no fees. Contributions for the startup costs were welcomed, but not required.
Ticket halves were given out, and it was noted which number range each person got. This prevented us from having to have to do much record keeping. If a member lost her tickets, we would just declare the missing ones to be invalid, and give her some more. We were so trusting. No one would think of betraying the group! Conniving would be grounds for being outlawed from the co-op, and no more free childcare! There was surprisingly little abuse of the system, as it was a network of friends.
The role of secretary rotated every 3 months. This mom kept a log of any parents who phoned her who were getting more than a little desperate to sit or in need of a sitter. Parents were supposed to use the contact list most of the time. The secretary would also get the letters of recommendations for new members. The letters had to come from a current active member and had to report on the child care exchange the two families had done recently. If someone needed to trade in well-worn tickets for new ones, she did that. The secretary would arrange the potluck and make sure the new families were invited.
Once a month we had a potluck in a park or somewhere so that families could meet other families, and the kids could get to meet and figure out who liked who best. This helped the adults to come forth and find others who might be willing to watch during specific times the following month, rather than having to call around from the contact list. Potential, already screened, members were welcomed at this time, their sponsoring family introducing them, and if they seemed amiable at this gathering, and they liked us in general, they were issued their tickets near the end of the gathering.
At the monthly meeting, inequities were ironed out. One person had too many tickets, and not enough of a need to get out. She came up with the idea of using the tickets to barter for other services. We thought about it, but didn’t want to inflate the value of the tickets, so we said, fine, as long as the value of the tickets remained the same. In other words, if some family needed her tickets, and she needed her lawn mowed or car washed, she could pay the mower in sitting tickets on the same time basis as their original value – 1/2 hour work per ticket. But we were clear from the start: the tickets could not be bought or sold for money or material objects, only services. The rich were not going to have an advantage over the poor in this group! After all, the whole purpose of the group was to give moms a budgetary break as well as a physical and spiritual break. Those in town who wanted to continue to pay for childcare services and never have to sit another’s child could continue to do so. That wasn’t our concern.
If a family did want to leave the group, say, if they were moving or had just outgrown the need, they tended to just use up all their tickets, which put the tickets back into circulation within the group, or they could also give the leftovers to a friend or turn them in to the secretary. Mothers didn’t tend to hoard a lot of earned tickets and then leave the group!
That’s how your hippy mothers of the 70’s got you youngsters out of their hair for a bit. You had a good time playing with your friends more often, and it was a win-win deal for everyone. The idea to put this essay up on a homeschooling site came after a meeting the was held for our Milpitas Homeschool Support Group. Several of the moms have young children, and though they loved them dearly, they both want their children to have some social time away from mom, as well as some breaks themselves. The thought occurred to me that a homeschool support group could also be a childcare co-op, if that is what some of the members needed. Many homeschool groups I know have casual child care or emergency care among friends in the group. It is still hard for a mom to say, even to their best friend, that they just need two afternoons this week without kids so they could complete their oil painting or shop for a dress, something not critical, but deeply personal, self care.
Take what you will from this essay, and leave the rest.