Two-year-old Nicole Savage was quietly falling apart.
It had been 20 minutes since her parents dropped her at the Botzes’ comfortable house in Pacific Palisades. Now, great big tears were silently falling down the toddler’s cheeks.
Rene Botz, who had agreed to baby-sit Nicole and her 5-year-old brother, Taylor, so their parents could go to a play, noticed the child’s distress and swept her up in her arms to show her a wind chime outside.
“I didn’t panic,” Botz said. “I needed to pay attention to her sadness that she was missing her mommy and even though I’m not her mommy, I was trying to reassure her that she’ll be back.”
It was just that kind of sensitive mothering that Eileen and George Savage expected their children to receive in the care of Rene and Thomas Botz, fellow members in a decades-old baby-sitting cooperative in which families exchange baby-sitting services.
The co-op, which currently includes about 25 families, has operated since at least 1958 and possibly longer, staying in business mostly through word-of-mouth referrals. None of the current members knows who started the co-op, although several former members believe one of its founders included the wife of a onetime UCLA professor in Russian studies.
While the co-op’s stated purpose is to offer families free high-quality sitters, past and present members say the group is also the backbone of a tight social network that in many ways helped build the community of Pacific Palisades.
Women who baby-sat for each other in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s later banded together to start several community groups, including Palisades Parents Together, a parent support group whose monthly newsletter reaches hundreds of families.
“When you go in and are diapering someone’s child and have to rummage through their drawers to find the safety pins, you are on an intimate basis with them right then,” said Elreen Bower, 56, who joined the co-op in 1965 and remained a member through the early 1970s.
Palisades Parents Together co-founder Sarah Adams, 62, says some of her best friends are people she met in the co-op years ago.
“We did a lot for each other that people pay for today--whether it was taking someone to the airport or sitting for their kids,” said Adams, a family therapist.
At the group’s most recent monthly meeting, an easy intimacy was evident among the dozen or so women who gathered at Sally Marshi’s house to discuss baby-sitting business. As Nicholas Marshi looked after the children upstairs, his wife and the other women squeezed around a coffee table and talked. Laughter came easily as the women voted on whether to allow weekday sits to carry the same exchange weight as weekend ones. They decided yes.
The co-op includes 26 families, six of them headed by single mothers. While most of the mothers do not work outside the home, some have jobs ranging from part-time archeologist to bank consultant.
New members are not screened, but they may join the co-op only at the invitation of a member and only if they live in Pacific Palisades.
To ensure its smooth operation, the co-op is guided by a five-page handout of baby-sitting rules governing everything from the accessibility of cold drinks to a prohibition against spanking.
Members, who pay each other with scrip, receive 30 hours of baby-sitting credit when they join and must not owe any hours when they leave the co-op. (If they can’t repay in baby-sitting hours, they may pay off the debt with money.) To remain in good standing, members are required to sit a minimum of three nights every six months. They pay $5 a year for the group’s administrative costs and take turns serving as secretary, whose job it is to arrange sits and to tally up how much scrip each member has at the end of the month.
“They really follow the rules,” George Savage said. “That’s why it survived so many years, in my opinion.”
Conflicts, however, do occasionally arise.
One mother was asked to leave the co-op after members learned she had neglected to use seat belts on the children under her care. And a single mother recently quit the co-op after the group refused to change its rule prohibiting sitters from bringing their own children along to nighttime sits, a rule made to ensure calm bedtimes for the children of both parties.
In most instances, however, co-op members are more than willing to meet each other’s needs, sometimes stretching themselves to fit convoluted schedules for each other’s benefit.
The arrangements the Botzes and Savages made illustrate the point.
Because the Savages had to leave early to make their play, the Botzes invited them to bring their children over about 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with them and their three children.
After dessert, Rene Botz kissed her own children and her husband goodbye and drove the Savages’ children to their home, where she helped Nicole and Taylor brush their teeth and put on their pajamas. Botz read to the children before tucking them into bed and singing them a lullaby.
“I just love the idea of moms helping other moms,” Botz whispered as the children drifted off to sleep. “It automatically makes you feel connected to them. And by giving my time, I get so much in return.”