Participation in most neighborhood groups tends to ebb and flow with the tide of shifting demographics — a trend more marked in the transient Washington region than elsewhere. But in Arlington’s Aurora Hills neighborhood, where many families work at the nearby Pentagon or for security-related companies in the vicinity, a babysitting cooperative that just celebrated its 50th anniversary is going strong.
“The bylaws keep it really organized,” explains Jenny Sammis while slicing up a snack for her 9-year-old daughter, Maura, as well as Colin and Michael, the 9-year-old twin boys she’s babysitting. When Maura heads out to a Girl Scout meeting, the boys stay behind to do homework.
Sammis is happy to take on the extra sitting time. “I have negative points right now,” she says. All babysitting is free through the co-op, and there’s no budget; co-op members earn points through sitting, then spend points when they need babysitting for their own families.
“I love this group,” Sammis says. “It’s saved my bacon more times than I can determine. Anybody in the group would tell you that.”
In addition to child-care coverage, Sammis and other members say the group’s support network of other co-op parents is invaluable.
“You get to see a range of parenting styles,” Sammis says. “You’ve got access to a bunch of people’s opinions, and you’ve got a bunch of people going through the same thing in life that you probably are. I’ve adopted a kind of ‘Best Practices’ by finding out what other parents do well.”
Once, Sammis babysat for children who told her about their family’s “The Great Put-Away,” a timed, one-hour cleanup of the entire house, twice a month, with all family members participating.
“I went home and told my husband, ‘We have to do this here,’ ” Sammis says.
The Aurora Hills Babysitting Co-op started 50 years ago, when a group of five neighborhood mothers working part time and exchanging babysitting favors for one another decided to formalize the process. The current co-op is 25 families strong, with a rotating president and secretary. The secretary is responsible for arranging babysitting times, or “sits”; making sure members who are low on points get the chance to babysit and earn points; and keeping track of members’ points online. The co-op meets once a month to socialize, exchange information and discuss sits, as well as twice a year for a picnic and an anniversary potluck.
“It’s a huge information pipeline,” says Tom Patchen, the group’s sole male co-op member. Patchen joined when his younger daughter, now 6, was a colicky baby. The former Georgetown nurse, now a stay-at-home dad, says the co-op provided support in the form of advice and weekly meals during the worst of the colic crisis.
Patchen says joining the co-op was a natural next step after participating in the neighborhood play groups with his older son, who is now 9.
“I trusted these people, because I already knew the people in the group,” Patchen says. “It’s always reinforced the strength of the village to raise the child. It takes a little bit of everybody to raise our kids. We nickname our neighborhood that: ‘The Village.’ ”
The members say the bylaws help keep the group on track. These include geographic boundaries, so that members can easily walk to one another’s homes for sits, as well as mandatory attendance quotas for monthly meetings to ensure accountability. Members must also be approved by a majority vote; prospective members are encouraged to attend monthly meetings, so the other parents can get to know them before welcoming them into the fold.
When Patchen joined six years ago, his membership was contentious for two reasons: he was the first man to apply and the first openly gay applicant.
“At the time it was a big deal,” Patchen says. “Some of them just didn’t think a man should be [babysitting], but some people just didn’t want a gay person babysitting their kid.”
While some left the co-op when Patchen became a member, he says the families who stayed and joined after his inclusion in the group have provided his children with a sense of community: “My kids have an opportunity to know that not only are their two dads accepted in the neighborhood but, really, by at least 25 families in my neighborhood and by their children. And we’re a part of what grows up and gets better in this neighborhood. And that is a huge deal.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.