With three children younger than 6, date night could've easily run the Dillmans of San Ramon, Calif., almost $100 -- and that's just for the high school baby sitter. Never mind that many high school kids have never changed a diaper; they're also rarely available in a midday pinch, when doctor's appointments coincide with baby naps.
The family's child-care options expanded a year ago when Danae Dillman and others in the Iron Horse Mothers Club started a baby-sitting co-op, a community-focused trend in child-care exchange. While some co-ops have bylaws and hundreds of members, others keep it simple. Many consist of a few overwhelmed parents who join forces because they believe watching someone's child is the neighborly thing to do.
Since more young couples live far away from grandmas and aunties, many co-ops grew out of a need for reliable, free child care in an increasingly tight economy. Need to hit the gym or get your hair cut? Request a sit using hours that are accumulated when you watch someone else's child.
Dillman is the president of her co-op, which consists of 12 parents in the Windemere area of San Ramon, Calif. She and her board members meet monthly to make sure the children's medical records are up to date and to visit homes of new recruits for safety and child-proofing. They also run new members' names through the Megan's Law website to check for sexual offenders. An annual fee of $12 covers administrative costs, including a quarterly barbecue.
From there, members log into the co-op's Yahoo group and post "sit requests" with logistics: "I will bring my two boys over for an hour after lunch." Average sits are requested 48 hours in advance, and they usually get filled, Dillman says. It works in emergencies, too. One woman relied on the co-op to watch her first child when she went into labor. Another used it to attend a funeral.
"I've been able to get my nails done and do my Christmas shopping," says Dillman, 35, a stay-at-home mom. "My husband and I went to the drive-in and saw a double feature."
At first, Melanie Beardslee was skeptical about leaving her children with "strangers." So, Beardslee, 41, a full-time speech therapist, spent a little time getting to know the Windemere co-op members, which is something suggested by experts such as Washington-based Gary Myers, author of "Smart Mom's Baby-sitting Co-op Handbook" (Tukwila; 2000).
"It's easier to start and build a co-op than find one," says Myers, who wrote his book based on his wife's experience in Tacoma's University Place Co-op. "You don't want strangers in your co-op, so all you need is two friends and you're up and running."
After a few visits, Beardslee realized she and her neighbors were in the same situation.
"We have the same values," she says. "We have the same needs for our kids." The co-op allowed Beardslee to join a tennis league. More importantly, it has made her community stronger and given her breaks, she says.
"When you go to someone else's house for a sit, you can't wash dishes or do your laundry," she says. "So you can put your feet up and not feel guilty about it. And, other people's kids are usually way better behaved when they are with you."
Most co-op members are moms, but dads do participate. Paul Greenstone, 43, of San Ramon, Calif., accumulates points during the week when he's working from home. Greenstone is a photographer and stay-at-home dad to his 14-month-old son. "A mom will send out an e-blast saying she's got to take one child to the doctor and needs to drop the other one off. I say, 'Bring him over.' It's been a great way for us to meet people and make friends."
When Rebecca Peterson moved to Oakland, she and her husband didn't know any families in the area. Their daughter, Eleanor, was 6 months old, and with her closest relatives in New York, Peterson, a freelance art director, went to the local Gymboree to meet people. A mom there told her about the Crocker Highlands co-op, which has been active for 50 years.
Once a month, members also alternate hosting a kids' movie night at their homes. It's an instant date night for everyone else in the co-op.
When you're a single mom and work full time, like Nichole Soterwood, co-ops can ensure you actually have a dating life. Soterwood joined one in Santa Clara three years ago after relocating from Arizona with her two kids, who are 6 and 4.
"I use it for everything, from dates to helping out in my kids' classrooms," says Soterwood, a systems engineer. Her ex is also in the co-op. They have 16 members and manage their hours on a password protected Web site. Most members come from referral through the children's preschool.
Ultimately, for the families who use them, co-ops are more than a source of baby-sitting. The members are like family, says Ingrid Dick, a 39-year-old mother of two and president of the Las Madres Playgroup in Santa Clara. The group boasts 1,500 total members and is divided into sub play groups organized by the year of the child's birth. Dick's play group has 40 members. That's 40 people she can count on since she left her family and in-laws in Australia 12 years ago.
"I can't even explain what this co-op means to us," she says. "At the end of the day, when we're dragging our feet, there's nothing better than having someone drop off their kids to entertain yours."