As you know by now, I am a big fan of moms helping other moms. We may not live in houses full of extended family, like in the old days, or even in tight-knit villages, but it’s still very possible to raise children together. Even though I do love babysitting exchanges and co-operative preschools, you don’t have to join a formal organization to benefit from free childcare.
When I lived in New York City back in 2009, my friend Elizabeth and I took turns taking care of our children. While I was watching her little boy, she was working out or doing errands. While she was watching my little boy, I was, well, launching this blog.
Here’s how our exchange worked and how we extended it to include more friends and more free time.
How to Start: Small
Elizabeth and I took turns watching our toddlers on Wednesday mornings in our building’s playroom. Of course, if we had bigger apartments (and no playroom) we would have done it in our houses. Public play spaces are another good option.
The swap started after we dropped off our older kids at elementary school and lasted for two hours (from 8:45 to 10:45). We always brought our own snacks, drinks, and diaper bags, but this wouldn’t be necessary if the playdate were hosted at someone’s house.
Gradually Expand: Days and Kids
Once we saw that the kids were comfortable with the routine and we felt we could handle another child, we asked a third parent to join the swap. That meant each mom was on duty only one-third of the time, instead of one-half.
Since we were really enjoying the time to get things done, and the kids loved playing together, we gradually added more days, and eventually, for each of those days, another family.
By the end of the year, our children were occupied four mornings a week, and each parent was on duty one day or fewer per week. I still got quality time with my son on our day off. And when I was on duty, I got to see him playing and interacting with other kids.
Expanding our swap to more parents was also great for creating a strong personal network. We moms would stop and chat before or after the swap or even have lunch together. So what started as a way to get some time off actually filled our emotional well too.
Swapping with Uneven Numbers of Kids
Elizabeth and I only had one child under school-age with us, so it was an even-steven exchange. All of the other families had just one child of age as well, until we asked a woman with a one-year-old and a four-year-old to join our Monday swap.
We gave her the option of:
- just dropping off her toddler (with her older child only staying when the mom was on duty), or
- dropping off both children and taking on a extra turn.
We modeled this arrangement on a co-operative playgroup I directed where turns were calculated per child (not per parent). So if a parent happened to have two children (usually twins) in a class, she would be on duty twice as much.
Since each child brings a level of responsibility and care, this seemed like the most fair arrangement for us. But I’ve also been part of babysitting co-ops where the number of children was not a factor in determining points, so it’s really up to the people involved.
Our friend chose to drop off both children and was fine about taking on two turns versus our one.
Swap vs. Co-op
A larger, more formalized version of this exchange would be a babysitting co-op. In a babysitting co-op, a group of parents exchange childcare time using a point system. You earn points when you sit for someone else, and you spend points when someone sits for you.
One of the beauties of a swap, however, is that it is informal. Plus the possibilities are endless with exchanges between friends. Here are some more ideas:
- Trading off every Saturday night with another family, so you can have some couple time
- Taking turns walking or driving kids to school
- Exchanging houses for a week and calling it a staycation
- Doing a dinner swap
Tips for a Smooth Swap
Even though swapping with a friend is wonderfully casual, discussing ground rules up front can help avoid any sticky situations. Here are some points to consider before you jump in:
- Try to pick a friend with children of similar ages, especially for daytime “play” swaps.
- If discipline and safety are important to you, make sure you are comfortable with your friend’s style and standards.
- Consider other locations besides each other’s houses: indoor play areas, libraries, parks, even gym classes.
- Iron out possible problems before you start. What will you do if someone is late in dropping off or picking up? What if children are sick or an unexpected sibling has to come along?
Labor + Time = Money Saved
There are obvious trade-offs about babysitting swaps. You save money, but you spend time and effort. On the other hand, when you pay a babysitter, you save time and effort, but spend money.
Getting used to different temperaments, cleaning up messes, and breaking up tiffs isn’t always what I feel like doing. And whenever I am done with a swap, I need a nap just as much as my kid.
But, kind-of like exercising or organizing closets, sharing is good for me.
When I am there with the kids, I am really with them. When I am off duty, I tend to be on task with my work because I know my time is precious. When both my children and I are occupied doing things that we love, there are no more aimless mornings spent on shopping errands (and buying more than I need). Instead my emotional needs are filled by getting things accomplished and connecting with the other moms in the exchange.
As they say, nothing worth having comes easy. But a casual exchange with other parents was certainly not hard. And free childcare? It’s a deal that’s hard to beat.