When Joyce Maziarz goes to the movies, her ticket order sounds like this: "One adult and eight kids, please."
When Delia Manke pulls up each morning in front of Cleveland Hill Elementary School, six kids clamber out of her big Dodge Durango. Then she drops two more little ones at preschool.
And when Kristi Sajdak or Therese Stahl drive to the dance studio on Saturdays, they take along three girls -- only one of whom belongs to them.
Welcome to the world of "other mothering."
Maziarz, Stahl, Manke and Sajdak aren't chauffeurs, nurses, or child-care workers -- though they do wear all those hats from time to time. No, these women -- part of a group of eight close-knit friends with 20 children between them -- act as "other mothers" to each other's kids.
They share in almost all the day-to-day tasks of mothering them: the rides to and from school, the endless lunch-fixing and snack-making, the nursing of illnesses, the driving to all sorts of sports and activities.
These women pool their time and their resources, as mothers.
"We trade off," said Stahl, a pharmacist who lives with her husband Mike and two daughters in the Cleveland Hill area.
And you know what? It works.
"My house can get insane," admitted Manke, 38, a divorced mom with four kids ranging in age from 12 to 5. "But there's a comfort level. In whatever house they're in, the kids know they can ask for whatever they want."
The system these women have evolved is even winning praise from experts on family life.
"It's very progressive and transgressive," said Dr. Patricia B. Christian at Canisius College. "They sound like groundbreaking women."
This way of mothering may seem strange to Americans, observers said, but it can be quite commonly found in other world cultures.
"This is a natural outcome," said Dr. Oyeronke Oyewumi, director of women's studies at the State University at Stony Brook.
The Cheektowaga women -- five divorced and three married -- have crafted an intricate schedule to help get them through the week. They cooperate on transportation, meal preparation, even picking up sick kids at school.
"This just kind of evolved," said Maziarz, 37, mom to two of the brood.
Here's what makes it even more amazing: all eight of these women work full time, seven of them in jobs outside the home.
So how do they manage this multiple mothering?
It's not easy, but they make it work by being flexible and stressing practicality. For instance: whoever has the most kids for the day can drive Manke's Durango, which seats nine.
And a healthy sense of humor doesn't hurt, either.
"I'm pretty laid-back about things," said Manke with a laugh. "As long as they're not hurting one another, it's OK."
"And even a little bit of blood," joked Maziarz, "is fine."
>New take on old idea
The concept of "other mothering" is not new. It's just, experts say, that you don't often see a big group of middle-class American women doing it in an organized, structured fashion, the way these Cheektowaga moms do.
As far back as the mid-1800s, some women in the United States were pointing out that household tasks could be better accomplished by women working in small groups, rather than alone. Even today, in certain cultures "other mothering" can be seen frequently on a smaller scale.
Christian said that it's not unusual for women in African-American communities, especially lower-income women, to rely on "other mothers" -- such as close friends, sisters, or cousins -- to help care for and raise their children, often because of economic necessity. Christian, chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and criminal justice at Canisius, teaches courses on marriage and family.
"The idea is, 'If I help you, you'll help me down the line,' " she said. "There's an element of -- literally -- parenting. You're caring for other children."
Oyewumi, who is Nigerian by birth, said that in her native people's culture this practice of "co-mothering" is commonplace.
"We, as Africans, we take it as a natural thing for women to pool resources," she said.
And, Oyewumi said, such mutual mothering does not lessen or degrade the position of fathers in the community.
"I don't see any conflicts with fathers," Dr. Oyewumi said. "You also have fathers, and they play their roles."
"This is a situation where people are invested in each other's lives," she said.
That's true in the Cheektowaga group, said Stahl, who said her husband contributes to the circle of care.
"He definitely gets thrown into the mix," she said.
>How it happened
In the case of the Cheektowaga moms, the other-mothering phenomenon evolved as a result of time crunches more than money ones.
Trying to raise children while juggling full-time jobs and outside activities poses difficulties, these women learned. It's even tougher when you're a single parent.
A few of the women first started working out shared-care arrangements about four years ago, when some of them were going through marital break-ups.
This was after some of them first met as Little League moms in Cheektowaga. All of the women, except for one, live in the Cleveland Hill area of the town.
As other women got divorced or became friends with some of the members, the core group grew in size.
The group now includes Liz Muehlbauer, a respiratory therapist; Sajdak, a Sodexo employee; Colleen Newton, a banker; Kara Renbaum, the head women's basketball coach at Hilbert College; and Jean Sadowy, a social worker for New York State. That's in addition to Maziarz, director of food and environmental services for Baker Victory Services; Manke, a dental technician/ceramist; and Stahl, Manke's sister, the pharmacist.
In Erie County, a little less than 11 percent of the population was made up of people either divorced or separated the last time a census count was taken, in 2000. About 52 percent of people were married.
The proportion of divorced and separated people in the population here was a bit lower than the national number, which hovered at about 12 percent, the census showed.
>The daily grind
One of the reasons the Cleve Hill mothering group works so well is that the women bring different strengths to it.
Manke, for instance, works from home. She's an open, free-spirited, nurturing type who doesn't mind if kids who get sick at school crash on her couch for the afternoon. She's also got toys and sports equipment spread all over her house and yard, and on Friday nights she often hosts all of the families for dinner -- yes, that can add up to almost 30 people on occasion.
"I have a revolving door all the time at my house," said Manke, whose kids include Mairead, 12, Tierney, 10, Jack, 8, and Brynn, 5.
Then there's Joyce Maziarz.
She's a sports fanatic who has coached Little League teeball, softball and hardball teams in Cheektowaga. She also manages two youth hockey teams. She's coached eight of the group's 20 kids in Little League, over the years, and just last week she organized an event at Niagara University's hockey game in which her daughter Emily's hockey team, the Buffalo Regals, skated on the ice between periods. Mairead Manke -- one of her surrogate daughters -- served as a referee for that skate.
"We have fun," said Maziarz, whose daughter is 8 and whose son, Mitchell, is almost 13. "It doesn't seem like a lot to me -- I think it's because I like kids more than adults! My truck is the one carrying five or six kids to a game or a tournament -- with the radio up real loud -- the back seat full of sunflower seeds and Gatorade bottles."
The women break the tasks of mothering up into shifts, and combine duties for maximum efficiency.
So, for example, Maziarz will do a run of all the Middle School kids to school on her way to work, where she needs to arrive by 7:30 a.m.
The elementary school kids in the group will get dropped off at Manke's house, where they wait until she drives them to school by 8:25 a.m.
Christian, the Canisius associate professor, said that the local group of moms could serve as a model for other women.
After all, she said, lots of women and families feel they could use a hand when it comes to coping with daily life.
"This is a little bit unique," she said. "And very exciting."