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Health: Manna from heaven; Spending time alone away from the chaos of home is essential if parents are to have any hope of holding on to their sanity. But finding a reliable babysitter is no mean feat as Louise Palfreyman can testify.

Byline: Louise Palfreyman

I f teenage girls were told that their social lives would be decimated by motherhood, you can bet there would be less unplanned pregnancies.

Forget Juanita, the crying robot baby of Big Brother 2 fame who when not on camera is deployed as an effective deterrent in schools.

All sex education experts really need to do is tell a 17-year-old that she will never again be able to go out in the free, spontaneous manner to which she is accustomed.

Parenthood brings with it many joys, but so many restrictions.

Nights out have to be planned weeks in advance, and nosedive from four or five a week to half that amount a month in the early days - if you're lucky.

Most couples with children will readily admit they rarely get a night out together, finding it easier to do their own thing, leaving the other half at home.

A recent poll on a parenting website found:

37 per cent of parents consider their marriage to have suffered since having children

37 per cent say they hardly ever have sex any more

27 per cent never go out No one is suggesting the children are to blame. They didn't ask to ruin your social life. But these statistics are nevertheless stark realities which those with children and without regular babysitters will recognise only too well.

Babysitters are like manna from heaven.

If you haven't been out for months, you almost feel like sobbing with gratitude when they walk through the door. Having a night out alone with your spouse or partner is a rare delicacy.

'It's not that we don't want to spend time together, it's just so difficult,' Jan Reynolds, a 42-year-old infant school teacher says.

Her daughter is nearly two years old, and she says she and her partner Matt have yet to crack the regular nights out formula.

'We just don't bother going out that much because neither of us have parents living locally, so it gets to be a real problem.

'We've asked friends, and offered to babysit for them, but somehow it doesn't always work out because everyone is so busy.'

This scenario is being repeated across the land.

Parents work hard, and modern society is less close-knit than it used to be because everyone else works hard too, at the expense of community spirit.

Not everyone is lucky enough to live on a friendly street with neighbours on hand to help out or have a mum round the corner. So, say you do want a nightout. Who do you ask? Some couples have a core of friends, who will agree to do a stint every so often. Others have a willing mother or mother-in-law who somehow alwayssteps in at the last minute. The unfortunate ones have nobody, usually because all their friends are childless, out all the time and terrified of being put in charge of a baby.

In the 60s and 70s your mum was probably part of a church babysitting group, or a co-operative set up on your street by neighbours. Those were the days. And those days may be returning.

It took an enterprising young couple who had recently themselves become parents to spot the total absence of such groups in modern life. Xochi and Michael Birch were appalled at the lackof support available in their local community in London.

Michael remembers: 'My parents belonged to a babysitting circle and it worked well for them. I remember regular babysitters coming round and it was fine. When our first baby, Isabella, was born we looked for a circle through the National Childbirth Trust in Richmond but there wasn't one, and neither was there anything on the internet.'

Determined to rise above the sea of nappies and get a night out, they persevered.

'Being new to the area we hadn't had time to meet prospective babysitters yet, and as we were both IT developers we decided to set up a circle online.'

It was the babysittingcircle.co.uk that uncovered the miserable statistics mentioned above. And since its birth a year ago there are now ten babysitting circles in the Midlands to choose from. Jan says that having an extra resource to tap into when she is trying to arrange a night out would make all the difference.

'You just want someone you can trust to look after your child, knowing that you will do the same for them.'

How internet babysitting works

The babysittingcircle.co.uk is a rapidly growing resource for home alone parents. There are ten new circles in the Midlands area, and I am currently in the process of setting up the South Birmingham Circle.

As administrator, it is up to me to arrange a meeting, get everyone together and then start the circle.

Member families take turns to babysit for one another, and to ensure that everyone gets out what they put in, families exchange tokens when they babysit.

The only real money that changes hands is a nominal pounds 14.95 service charge for using the site. But I got that chucked in for free for setting up my own circle.

Applying and managing a circle online is an easy first step to making new friends.

And if you go out just once a week you can expect to save over pounds 1,000 per year onprofessional babysitting fees. A circle has its own private online environment which is only accessible by members of the circle. Within this environment, circle members can:

Organise social events with other members

Take part in both public forums and private local forums on the site, covering a huge range of parenting issues

Vote on whether to grant new applicants membership of the circle

Use their own personal on-line calendar, including babysitting and social activities

All these free features are made accessible to each circle member through their own personal home page.

The service keeps circle members in touch with what's important by sending them emails, such as an opportunity to go babysitting and earn some tokens.

If you are interested in joining the South Birmingham Circle, or any others in the Midlands, go to http://www.babysittingcircle.co.uk After registration you can sign into babysittingcircle.co.uk and search for circles that are local to you.

Michael says: 'It's easy to find local circles as we will match your postcode against that of all the circles. You can then apply to join a circle. If there isn't a babysitting circle within two miles of your home then simply create one and we will pay for your first year's service fee for you.'

All circles are private. Members have to apply to join a circle and be accepted by the existing circle members.

The service simply makes the administrative aspects of running a babysitting circle easy. It is still ultimately up to the parents as to who looks after their children.

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Once a baby arrives, many parents find maintaining a normal social life almost impossible
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 12, 2002
Words:1168
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