The parallel of children and gifts occurred to me after I visited a website this past Christmas, to determine the “proper” protocol for gift-giving. I realized that these same rules apply to getting out. Here it is — my “insight” into the rules of asking your friends to watch your kids.
The rules of gifting/babysitting are as follows:
Get a gift, give a gift: gift exchanges must be reciprocal
This was my favorite. All of my friends seem to be conscious of this point. We know better than to tip the balance. If you only have one kid, I will not ask you to watch my three. Or even my two. If you have three kids? You’re screwed. Especially when all of your friends have fewer. And good luck on the “reciprocal.” One of those kids is staying home.
The get-a-gift rule also applies to communicable diseases. We know what “Well, Bianca’s been coughing” means: it means we’d better pick up the cough medicine on our way back from the bar tonight.
Even-Steven: gift exchanges must be of equal value
You’ll see this one in practice when you have kids of un-even ages. Yes, your five- and eight-year-old can come play with my four- and seven-year-old. It’s close enough. But your baby with my ten-year-old? HA! I think not. I gave up diapers years ago, and I’m not going back!
Once begun, not undone: gift exchanges, once established, must not change
Now this is where it gets tricky. My girlfriends and I have all discussed the idea of “traditions” — you know, date nights, anniversaries, school-night sleep-overs, taking a yoga class. My mom and her friends had an exchange going that didn’t change for almost my entire childhood. It’s a great idea, in theory: you get your date night, I get my yoga class, everyone’s happy, and our kids get to play.
At some point, we all decided we’d kind of like to do things with each other, too. Each other minus the ten screaming kids of widely varying ages at our heels. There weren’t enough margaritas to mask the fact that we just weren’t getting any of that quality girl time we used to have.
The fact is, there is no room for traditional or un-changing in this job. Nope, no time for “you get Wednesday” and “I’ll get the kids today if you get them tomorrow.” The fact is, today, tomorrow, and probably Wednesday, I’m still going to be convincing myself that I want my OWN kids. Yours? Well, they’re yours. Catch me after a few margaritas. Chances are, I’ll commit myself to something I won’t want to do, but I’ll do because I said I would. I love your kids — especially because they’re yours.
Come one, come all: gift exchanges must extend to every member of a relationship category
This one means that if you watch one girlfriend’s kids then be prepared for your phone to ring, sister. Your phone’s ringing already. Friend number one knows you watched friend number two’s one, and friend number three’s two, and she’s just dying to ask you to watch her three — after all, you’ve proven yourself capable enough. You gonna get that?
The best way to avoid the contingencies of this rule are to do what our good friend Nancy Reagan said — JUST SAY NO. Don’t feel bad — if you say no to everyone, you won’t have to feel guilty for not taking those urchins with bent halos. Yeah, there’s kids you like, and kids you… well, kids whose company you would prefer not to keep without the assistance of a bottle of wine and some Valium. Just say no to all of them. If your friends really want to hang out, they’ll hire a babysitter — like they should.
Because the fact is all of my friends and I are in our thirties now. I don’t find babies irresistible anymore, and I’m certainly not volunteering my services like I used to, in a desperate attempt to get a baby fix. I’m fixed. I’m so fixed, if I were a junkie, I’d be near dead of an overdose. I like kids like I like pets — when they are well-behaved and accompanied by their owners.
My kids are the exception to this rule. I love them unconditionally, and I reserve the right to not be able to stand them without guilt because I take care of them on a daily basis. They’re not like an unruly housepet you can kick outside when they irritate you with a food bowl and a chew toy. And yes, I know this from experience.
My advice? Do your friends a favor
Set up a network of babysitters outside your inner circle. Share their names and numbers (and don’t forget to mention that yours is only available when you’re NOT at yoga, the bookstore, or the Doctor on the 21st). Share horror stories about how you got home and your top drawer was rifled through, your Ben and Jerry’s was gone, and there’s a mysterious stain on the davenport — THIS is the stuff of friendship as parents.
I figured out semi-recently that if you want to keep your friends, never mix business with pleasure. I’ll loan you my books, my clothes, my make-up, and my cd’s. That makes me your girlfriend. I’ll keep my kids to myself, and the paid staff, and I will follow the above rules faithfully til death do us part. Don’t think of it as an insult — I’m doing it because I like you.