Need a baby-sitter? Save time! Call: The Baby-Sitters Club and reach four experienced baby-sitters.
So proclaims the first flier advertising The Baby-Sitters Club to the parents of Stoneybrook, Connecticut. I read my first BSC book when I was 10, and I didn’t know it at the time but I think I was internalising everything in that series and creating a picture of what I wanted my adult life to be like. And here I am, over twenty years later, and I have that life — almost.
This is the nostalgic ideal of suburban, domestic America: a nuclear family with a father, a mother, two or three children, and a pet dog. The father is the breadwinner in a stable 9–5 job, the mother stays at home and looks after the children, baking bread and cakes and volunteering at her children’s school. The children walk to school, ride their bikes to friends houses, play outside and have adventures until it is dinner time and time to go back inside where they sit down to a warm home-cooked meal with their families.
This rose-tinted conceptualisation of domestic family life may actually have never existed in reality (as historians like Stephanie Coontz and Elaine Tyler May argue in their books The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era) but this ideal was ubiquitous in fiction. Stoneybrook, Connecticut, was the fictional town in which the Baby-Sitters Club series was set and as a young reader in the 1990s, these books represented everything I thought normal family life was like.
The families in Stoneybrook did not all fit with the nuclear family image; there were divorces and step-families and children who were adopted. But on the whole, the world presented was one of happy families with mum, dad, siblings, pets. Children rode their bikes, played outside, had adventures, solved mysteries. People not only knew their neighbours but were friends with them and helped each other out (there are many examples of this throughout the series but it is perhaps most obvious in Stacey’s Choice).
And most wonderful of all, there was the Baby-Sitters Club. An enterprising group of thirteen-year-old girls* formed a club where parents could call one phone number and reach multiple baby-sitters, thereby eliminating the need to make many phone calls to find one baby-sitter. It was a great success and the BSC became a beloved institution among the parents of Stoneybrook.
Over the course of 14 years (in real time; the books were published between 1986 and 2000) or one year (the BSC is also stuck in a time warp where the characters don’t age and the baby-sitters are forever in the 8th grade**), the BSC as well as simply babysitting many of the children of Stoneybrook, run day camps for them, as in Mary Anne and Camp BSC, organise visits to the local retirement home with the kids, like in Get Well Soon, Mallory!, put on talent shows with the kids, as they do in Keep Out, Claudia!. The BSC also solves mysteries with their clients, like in Mary Anne and the Library Mystery and Claudia and the Recipe for Danger.
When I was reading the books as a young impressionable child, I never thought that anything was amiss. Of course 13-year-olds can be left in charge of twin babies (Mary Anne and Too Many Babies), go sailing with two under-10s and no adult (Babysitters Island Adventure), and look after 14 children while the grown-ups plan a wedding (Kristy’s Big Day). What was so odd about that? Thirteen-year-olds were basically adults after all.
Then, I grew up. I never actually stopped reading the books, but my gaze towards them became a little more critical. I graduated school and university, travelled, lived in different countries, had proper grown-up jobs, and saw that perhaps the world of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, was a tad unrealistic. In fact, I’ve even written about the ridiculous moments and events that occur in the BSC. I accepted that the utopian suburban ideal of Stoneybrook was fiction; that in real life people don’t really know their neighbours and kids don’t really play outside in their front yards, and you would never hire a 13-year-old to look after a 6-month-old baby.
But then I moved to a street that is basically Stoneybrook. My husband, toddler daughter, and I moved to a house on a cul-de-sac in a quiet suburb. On this little street, there are about 30 houses and 18 kids. The adults know each other, and have regular impromptu beers on the driveways and front yards after work. Every year, the parents organise an Easter egg hunt, a Halloween parade, a Christmas party, and a Memorial Day block party complete with a giant inflatable slide. Kids are always outside riding their bikes, climbing trees, playing hide-and-seek. I’ve borrowed a cup of sugar from one neighbour, and baking pans from another.
Which brings me to the point of this musing and pondering about the unrealistic aspects of Stoneybrook and the BSC: I have moved to Stoneybrook but I am still not living the life of a parent of the BSC. And this has nothing to do with the more ludicrous moments I’ve written about previously, but rather two things that are far more ordinary and mundane.
The first is related to the core business of the BSC: baby-sitting. There are a few 13-year olds baby-sitters on our street, and more if you expand the geographic radius to cover the entire suburb. If you include high schoolers, there are even more. But despite several attempts, I haven’t regularly called any of them to babysit. This isn’t because they aren’t good kids or responsible baby-sitters — they are. It’s because they are rarely available when I need them. I typically want to hire baby-sitters during school hours, or, if it’s after school, they are busy with extracurricular activities or homework and studying. So how did the BSC manage to get such a steady client base and such good business? In Stoneybrook, it seemed that most parents needed baby-sitters between the hours of school ending and dinner time. Convenient plot point? Realistic of a small town in the 1990s? Still normal now and it’s my life that’s the anomaly?
The second aspect of the BSC that has not materialised despite moving to Stoneybrook is most likely related to the first point: there are no kid-driven talent shows and festivals (see, Stacey’s Ex-Boyfriend and Abby’s Twin) and circus-themed day camps. This is probably because there isn’t an organised group of 13-year-old baby-sitters to coordinate such events. Maybe this might also have something to do with modern life, where kids are enrolled in many extracurriculars and don’t have a lot of free time to do things like participate in a neighbourhood talent show, and parents in real life are more present and active in their children’s lives than the fictional parents of Stoneybrook.
When I read the BSC as an adult, I lovingly chuckled at the more ridiculous and unrealistic events that happen in the series (primarily in the mystery series). But now, when I read it as an adult AND as someone who would have actually called Claudia Kishi’s phone number between the hours of 5:30pm and 6pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’m realising there is actually even more that’s unrealistic about that series than 13-year-olds solving crimes. However, with that being said, I’m still happy to have found the closest thing I can to Stoneybrook. Maybe I’ll just have to rearrange my schedule so I can hire the 13-year-old who lives next door.
*Yes, I know, the BSC wasn’t just 13-year-old girls. Mallory and Jessi, two 11-year old baby-sitters, joined the club in Hello, Mallory, and Logan, a boy baby-sitter, joined the club as an associate member in Logan Likes Mary Anne!
**Mallory and Jessi are forever in the sixth grade.