Sunday, September 27, 2009

Miriam Forman-Brunell's "Babysitter: An American History"

Miriam Forman-Brunell is Professor of History at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. She is the author of Made to Play House and general editor of ABC-CLIO’s Girlhood in America. She is also co-director of Children and Youth in History.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Babysitter: An American History, and reported the following:
Page 99 focuses on the short-lived emergence of babysitter co-ops formed by suburban mothers in postwar America. What led young mothers to organize co-ops in which they took turns babysitting for each other’s children, had been a scarcity of sitters, a new reality unforeseen by those riding the wave of suburban expansion. Grandparents with increasingly active lives of their own more frequently declined requests to spend an evening with Junior and Jane. Among the few household workers who frequented the postwar suburbs, most preferred to take care of the house rather than look after the kids. Although babysitting had become the key source of employment for teenage girls after World War II, there were too few around. Plunging birth rates during the Great Depression followed by the baby boom after the war had created a demographic imbalance between babies and babysitters that was especially acute in new suburban communities typically settled by young parents.

What also caused parents to exchange sitting services with neighbors, however, was a less practical and more profound reason. Ever since the emergence of babysitting and the advent of the modern American teenage girl in the 1920s, there had been a growing distrust of female adolescents increasingly represented in the popular culture as irresponsible, unreliable, and unpredictable caretakers. What fueled adults’ suspicions of babysitters back then—and ever since—have been apprehensions about the unprecedented possibilities of girls’ autonomy and empowerment. Widely suspected of damaging property, ruining marriages, endangering children, and destroying families in the popular imagination, the babysitter has served as a lightning rod for a long-standing critique of female adolescents and their pursuit of independence set into motion by inexorable gender and generational changes.

The underlying problems with parent-run co-ops and the long-term needs for accessible and inexpensive caretakers has led to unending attempts to transform the widely imagined disruptive teen into a disciplined sitter. This underlying (albeit unstated) purpose of babysitter training has taken place across a vast domain that spans from classrooms to comic books to horror movies. Manuals, magazines, and other sources have long served to modify the disruptive behavior that has kept girls from satisfying the needs of parents and the society for sitters. Experts, educators, writers, and other cultural producers of the ideal babysitter today continue to contribute to the long-standing social imperative: to alloy female adolescent autonomy with feminine accountability.

From page 99:

Over backyard fences and during coffee klatches, suburban mothers shared their predicaments about the “baby-sitting bugaboo.” The new domestic rituals of suburban women’s lives provided them with opportunities to share perspectives, offer support, and explore alternatives while reinforcing family norms and cultivating cohesion. One suggestion current among suburban mothers was to create child-care organizations to provide relief from the unyielding domestic routines. “Do-it-together, rather than do-it-yourself, is the answer to many young mothers,” the Ladies Home Journal would report enthusiastically about women’s attempts to arrive at a practical solution to a persistent problem. “The age-old technique of ‘you mind my baby and I’ll mind yours sometime’ needed only organization to become the sort of boon thousands of home-bound young parents dream of,” reported the New York Times about the babysitter co-ops that sprang up in places like St. Paul, Minnesota. Young mothers there formed one of the many babysitter co-ops that emerged in suburban neighborhoods from coast to coast.

Parent-run sitter “exchanges” or “co-operatives,” largely staffed by mothers “like ourselves,” succeeded in formalizing the “old-fashioned good-neighbor swap.” Typically, the officer or “sitretary” coordinated cooperation by bringing together a neighborhood mother who needed a sitter with one willing to babysit. In return, the sitter received a credit upon which she could draw when she needed a babysitter. Rather than keeping up with the Joneses, then, neighbors who shared child-care responsibilities cooperated with them. In Levittown, New York, neighbors formed a Jewish-Christian sitters’ exchange service in keeping with the postwar trend that deemphasized sectarian differences and stressed common needs.

For housewives and mothers seeking to push “horizons beyond nursery walls,” regular interactions with neighborhood women made suburban life less isolating. “I particularly enjoy the companionship of the other mothers,” said one mother. “We’ve found our meetings most helpful,” said another. For another young parent, the co-op helped combat her anxieties about motherhood because the women provided assistance and support. “In the absence of our husbands, it has been a real help for each of us to have an interested and informed friend with whom to talk over anything that has been worrying us about our children.” Since most postwar suburban mothers raised their children without the steady assistance of kin, many sitter exchanges provided anxious young women with opportunities to learn from more experienced ones.
Read the introduction to Babysitter: An American History, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue