For those of you following the continuing saga of my Smartner and me trying to parent our challenging (and darling, and spunky, and funny, and sweet) 3 year-old, you'll remember that my last installment described the wonderful gains we've made as we've outsourced some of our daughter's care to other, qualified, loving people. It's been really great for us to hire others to help take care of our daughter, but that post has nagged at me since I wrote it. What's needled me is that I didn't acknowledge what a great advantage it is to have the money to pay other people to help me take care of my kid. After I wrote and posted the piece, I wondered how it would read to my mom when she was my age, single, and struggling to make ends meet. What would that sound like to my mom of 30 years ago to have some moneyed housewife blithely suggest that she just get a sitter? What did that sound like to my friends and associates who can't afford to hire additional care for their kids? I didn't think about it or address the kind of privilege that allowed me to not think about it. And so, here I will do that. And I will brainstorm with you different means of catching a break - some child care as parent respite care - whether you can blithely and easily throw money at the problem or not.
Look, don't throw money directly at the baby. They baby will just turn it into a big wig, which will apparently then scare the baby. Come on, you know the old saying "Babies are excellent paper-money-wig-makers, but they are poor financial managers" is ubiquitous because it's true. Throw wisely, friends. (Image Source)
So! What if you are in need of some part-time child care options to give you a break and to give your kids an opportunity to be under others' care, and you need those options to be as affordable as possible? Here are some ideas. And, please, as always, respond back in the comments with any other ideas or comments you have. Let's hive-mind this problem, people. It's a tricky one.
Shannon and Christina: Borg Buddies 4-eva! (Image Source)
1. Babysitting Swap
This one's a near-no-brainer. You need some time to yourself. Other parents need time to themselves. So why not swap babysitting with them? You each get to take turns having some kid-free time, and the kids get to play with one another. Win-Win!
Pros: Free, easy, and potentially enjoyable for both parents and kids. I find as my Smartlings get older that when they're allowed to run in a kid herd they need me less. The larger group of kids keeps each other occupied, and my job is reduced to refereeing infrequent squabbles and providing near-constant snacks. I read a magazine, they run wild, and the other parent gets a break. It's really great.
Cons: You do have to put in the work of babysitting and providing snacks in equal measure with the other parent. And, for the love of all that's Smarty, be wise in your choise of swap-partner. If the two sets of kids don't get along, it will not be a successful system. If the parents do not agree on kid management strategies or do not otherwise get along, it will not be a successful system. This is a great arrangement for most folks, but if it's a burden then keep shopping for a new family to swap with. They're out there! Find them!
2. Co-op Preschool
Cooperative Child Care programs are all over the place, which means that it should be easy for you to find one if you're so inclined. The structure of a co-op requires that parents work in their child's classroom on a regular, rotating schedule and possibly serve other volunteer function within the school. The time requirement for parents varies from program to program, and it is this investement of time that takes the place of a greater investment of money. Co-op programs tend to be a lot less expensive than traditional part-time drop-off programs because the reduced tuition is offset by parent work contributions. Both my younger Smartling and Shannon's Smartlings attend/ed co-ops, and we love the model and the experience we've had in these schools.
Pros: Generally co-op programs staff professional (sometimes certified) teachers and offer parenting programs in addition to child care and preschool. Parents are highly invested in the classroom culture and experience, and this translates to a positive experience for kids and parents alike.
Cons: You're going to have to work, and you might have to attend mandatory co-op meetings. Again, participating in the school in this way is part of how you "pay" to attend. The cost is low because engagement and time-investment is high. Ultimately, I did not find this trade-off to work in my favor. Shannon has had both of her 'lings in co-op preschool and pre-k for years now, and she serves on her co-op's board. It depends on the person and the co-op, but it can be a really great experience for whole families.
Through our co-op preschool I met a local mom, Emily, who runs a morning playgroup two days a week. This means that twice a week I pack a snack for my 3-year-old and drop her off at Emily's house to play with a handful of other co-op buddies for 3 hours. The ratio is usually 1:4 -1:6, and the cost is low. Often my older daughter will join in and attend on school holidays, too.
Pros: The Smartlings get to play with their friends for a moderate fee, I keep my child care money "in the family," or at least among friends, and both girls have known the kids who attend for a long time since they're all associated with the co-op Maddsy attended last year.
Cons: Seriously, I can't think of any beyond the fact that it might be hard to find a situation like this elsewhere. It's a lot like a babysitter share, but easier and more convenient. See, I try to think up cons and can only think up more pros, THAT'S how good it is.
4. Parents' Helper
I have yet to try this child care situation out yet, but there's a 10-year-old girl across the street I've got my eye on to be our occasional parents' helper in a few years. Here's how it works: You hire a teenager to come over and keep your kids busy while you disappear into another room to get some work/sleep/reading/staring at the wall done. All kids are nominally supervised by you, but actively kept out of the way by the parents' helper. You don't pay them as much as a conventional babysitter because you're there the whole time, yet you still catch a break.
Pros: It's cheaper than "real" babysitting, and you stay home and get things done while retaining the ability to concentrate and be alone for a bit. Plus, you're giving gainful employment to an enterprising kid who otherwise might not have access to a means of earning money yet.
Cons: You're still at home and the kids are still there. They might want you. You might have to teach them that you're off limits during these times. It might suck. It might be worth it in the end!
5. Hit Up Your Family and Friends
Look, I know that asking for help is hard. I hate it more than anything, except for needing help in the first place. Learning how to ask for help when I need it and to accept help when it's offered has been the most difficult lesson I've struggled with as an adult. But, if you're in the shit, you owe it to yourself and your kids (who do not want or deserve to accompany you on your journey into the shit) to accept any reasonable help offered to escape the shit.
Operative word: WAS. Because no one in their right mind would volunteer to stay in the shit.
This means that if members of your family offer to babysit your kids, you say yes. Even if this means that Grandma feeds them Lucky Charms 3 meals a day or Grandpa teaches them to pull his finger while letting them watch MMA past their bedtime. Even if this means you leave your kids for a couple of hours with a friend and your friend's kids and you can't immediately reciprocate. (It does not, obviously, mean that you leave your kids with dangerous or unsafe people. But then I didn't need to write this, even in a parenthetical, did I?) Let people help you when you need help. Let them offer you grace and generosity. It's good for you. It's good for the kids. It's good for your relationship with the people helping you. Letting people rescue you when you need it can be a beautiful thing.
Pro: Free! Relationship-building! In most cases the kids already know the caregivers and will be comfortable with them!
Cons: Yes, I know that relationships with families of origin, etc., can be stickily complicated. And if it will actually cost you too much in other work (emotional caregiving of the care giver, negotiating child care musts and must-nots, etc.), then it's not worth it. But, for the most part, it's an easy, cost-effective way to get some breathing space and let your kids form independent bonds with their family and loved ones.
There, buddies. This is my peace offering and my earnest hope that you can find a way to cheaply find some time to yourselves. And, please, PLEASE, share more and better ideas in the comments section below. This is a common problem, and together we can find solutions for one another.