I often offer to help my friends, even mere acquaintances, without thinking about the consequences to my own sanity. One of my more memorable humanitarian efforts that backfired on me is the “babysitting exchange.” Looking after a friend or neighbor’s child for services in kind is something I always enthusiastically agree to in principle. How could it not be a good thing for everyone concerned? Free babysitting by a trusted friend is a bonus.
Unfortunately, the problems I’ve encountered in this grand experiment are varied and persistent, and have overshadowed my own good intentions. In one situation, the swap was always one-sided. Time and again the mom Jill dropped off her child (and dog) at our house last minute while she managed her crisis-driven life. Her promises to do the same in return came to naught. She didn’t inspire confidence as a caregiver, and so I held a hefty babysitting credit I never cashed in with her.
Parents Ben and Amanda liked to party. They persisted in staying out until 1am on the evenings I babysat for them. I’d wait anxiously on their lumpy couch for the moment the front door key finally clicked in the lock. Afterwards, all I wanted to do was stumble home, and I dreaded the next day, my exhaustion palpable in the face of my own lively son Charles.
With Wendy, we arranged weekly playdates with her son Collin. It worked great at first. Then she got a more-than-part-time job. Surreptitiously, she began to use our playdate as a substitute for daycare. Her phone calls saying she’d be late by 30 minutes, an hour or more became the norm. Traffic, work demands and more traffic were usually her excuse.
Jack and Sue were gung-ho about babysitting for my son Charles. They decided to bring their son Will, too, and turn the special night into a slumber party – a fun idea if I ever heard one. In reality, my husband and I returned home at 11.30pm to Will crashed out on the couch, Jack and Sue putting on a puppet show, and Charles enthralled by their antics. Jack and Sue’s failure to put Charles to bed left us all crankier than we began.
The babysitting exchange was getting out of hand. It didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore, so I sought some advice on the matter. I called Cynthia Whitham, a social worker and Associate Director of the UCLA Parenting & Children’s Friendship Program, who counseled me about my dilemma.
“You have great intentions, and noble ideals and visions of community,” said Cynthia. “The initial ‘pact’ was a declaration of love and support and trust. And wanting to solve a mutual problem in a cooperative manner is laudable.” True. I want to live in a place where we do service for each other, where our lives are richer and more fulfilled through our interactions.
“You acted spontaneously and lovingly,” said Cynthia. She had me down to a T. As I explained, I regularly offer to help others, make their lives easy. “I think that shows you are a good friend,” added Cynthia.
Griping after each babysitting ‘incident’ didn’t make me feel like one. Cynthia said that I needed to work out all the “in and out’s” of the exchange. Had I made the agreement before I had all the pertinent information? No, I had not. I was too casual in my approach and needed to firm up the obviously different mutual expectations between the parents.
In order to continue the exchange, I addressed each unbalance in the situation. With needy Jill I said “no” firmly, and meant it, when she insisted on dropping by without notice. I puritanically requested Amanda and Ben come home earlier so I didn’t exhaust my limited resources. Susanna apologized profusely, unaware that she had overstepped her boundaries coping with the change in her job status, and agreed to find alternative arrangements to leaving Collin with us rather than abusing our pact to fulfill her daycare needs. And Jack and Sue complied with Charles’ bedtime. Our friends handled the restrictions, and the exchange continued in what seemed a beneficial community-minded heaven.
It took time to realize that the exchange was exacting a personal cost that would never be compensated by the free babysitting. I was sluggish, snappish the day after a babysitting exchange. I was irritable the afternoon before an exchange. My patience with the children was thin. My response to the parents about their children was a bare minimum. And when it came my turn to take advantage of the exchange with my husband for a night out, I found myself making up excuses to postpone. My attitude worried me.
Cynthia enlightened me: “You are human.” I couldn’t find a flaw to her logic, but I needed a more specific fix. Cynthia pointed out that only saints easily and lovingly want to take care of other people’s children. I had stumbled upon the ultimate deal breaker: I didn’t like babysitting for other people’s children.
It’s not that I don’t like the specific child I’m looking after. The kids are all sweet and good, a delight to be with under playdate circumstances as long as supervised by an adult, preferably a parent. I just don’t want to spend my precious spare time babysitting. I like my friends’ children, but I do not want to care for them alone. I had to rescind my offer to help out the other parents. Would I continue to be an honorable friend if I scrapped the babysitting exchange? “That may be a truer test of friendship,” Cynthia pointed out.
I’d have to address my discomfort with the situation and tell my friends I was pulling out of the babysitting exchange or things would become even more uncomfortable for me.
I told them as diplomatically as possible. Still, it was awkward. Jill stopped calling. Ben and Amanda were hostile but eventually came around. Jack and Sue suggested we try again when the children were older and more prepared for a real sleepover. Pragmatic Susanna signed Colin up for daycare enrichment programs.
Now, what little free time I had left to myself was for myself. Sometimes all I did was mundane chores, sometimes I went to sleep right after putting Charles to bed, and sometimes I watched reruns of “Modern Family” with my husband.
I’ve learned that when I feel that old desire well up to offer my services, when I want to “do good,” I put my efforts in check. I heed Cynthia’s advice. I watch what I say before I jump into thoughtless agreements, and I commit to babysitting exchanges under only the most pleasant and convenient circumstances with all the details worked out in advance.
And if I really need a babysitter and don’t want to have to give of myself in return, I hire someone and add the expense to my evening. Babysitting exchanges are useful, but I’m already a full-time babysitter for my son. I’ve come to accept that it has to be enough for my vision of a communal and better society.
Thea Klapwald is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Variety. She blogs regularly at Awkward Travels with Thea.