Picture, Jenny Garrity, Heidi Stoy, Bessy Garrity, Angela Peloquin, Lisa Lauderdale and her mother, Linda. By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post

The ingredients of "quality care, freedom, and support almost like a family," have turned four single Arlington mothers into disciples, spreading the word about their panacea for harried double lives.

Their solution: a baby-sitting co-op, just for single parents.

"The kids got us together (all girls about the same age) because they were friends in the extended-day program at school," says 30-year old Linda Lauderdale, an administrative assistant for a Rosslyn engineering firm.

"In the beginning, we were all reaching out. The kids needed to know that they weren't alone and what we women needed to accept was that we were alone, but that within this little world, our group, we could hold hands and pull each other up."

Almost neighbors, having lived within three miles of each other, the four families think they may have onoy a year or two more before their 9-, 10-, and 11-year olds from Randolph Elementary School get too old for their exclusive slumber parties every Saturday night (never in summer or big holidays). But for now, it's the answer.

"It's so wonderful to be with people in the same boat, even if we only sometimes have comradeship in misery," explains World Bank secretary Melissa Tegge, 30, whose two youngest girls belong to "The Group."

Arriving Saturday evenings after 7 (with Barbie dolls and sleeping bags in tow) and leaving by 10 on Sunday morning, these five girls (three are only-children) get a taste for, "sibling rivalry, sharing, learning respect for another mother's style, and intense camaraderie," says research nurse Diane Stoy, 34.

Hence, each mother has three out of four Saturdays free until the next morning; the children have a slumber party to count on every weekend, and the only cost is the evening snack and Sunday breakfast the host mom provides.

During a recent impromtu spaghetti dinner the girls giggled and compared moms and menus, unanimously voting hot-dog buns disguised as French toast as "the most unusual co-op breakfast." "All the moms are different and good in their own way," professes Bessy, the youngest daughter of Tegge. Along with her 11-year-old sister Jenny, she then procedes to catalogue who bakes the best cookies, who is the most strict, and who lets you sleep on the couch.

"I feel a little tougher now," admits Angela Peloquin, 11, chosen by the girls as the softest, gentlest of the five.

"Before the co-op, I hardly had any friends, but now whenever I go to school, these girls are like my sisters."

Lisa Lauderdale, also 11, is happy her natural shyness disappears when she plays dress-up or puts on a dance with her pretend sisters.

"Playing together and getting in fights and having to settle it ourselves," only-child Heidi Stoy, 10, thinks must be just like having brothers and sisters.

"It's been good for my mom, too, we both have more friends now."

"A growing experience for all of us," is what Angela's mother, 31-year-old Linda Peloquin, calls the past three years of co-op.

All four mothers (all about the same age and married and divorced for about the same time) agree that -- besides helping their children -- "The Group" has been crucial loving link to lessen their common feelings of isolation and insecurity.

"After our marriages, we didn't feel good about ourselves, didn't think we had the right to be happy," says Tegge. "We had gotten used to pain and we were almost looking for it.

"You know, society still makes single parents feel like outcasts because being unmarried with a child you're operating out of bounds. You are single, but with a family too. And even though there are so many of us, it's still not considered normal.

"But somehow, together, we've learned this and that from each other and made a whole. Now we realize we're not just different, but special too."

"A lot of guts have been laid on the table over coffee those Sunday mornings," confesses Lauderdale. "But having someone to love you back when you're hurting is like hugging the edge off the bitterness . . . It keeps the door open for love."

Since the co-op started, all four women have gone back to school, sometimes even spending their precious Saturday night "out" studying together for final exams. They occasionally go out together.

"I would never have left these four walls," admits Tegge. "But staying home with your kids all the time and withdrawing isn't good for you. We keep reminding each other to go out and take care of ourselves too."

Stoy thinks just knowing that three out of four Saturday nights are free is a natural catalyst for social growth.

"When I first came to Washington in '74, I had lots of single and married friends, but I needed a different network and didn't know it," says Stoy. "The co-op was the support system with the answers I was searching for so hard.

"These have been the best three years of my single parenthood, but the question is where do we go from here -- and maybe, that's a whole new story."