Suppose you could create the ideal nanny. Chances are it would be someone who sat down for her interview and announced, "I have really enjoyed being a nanny. I honestly don't believe there is a better job out there. My days are spent exploring the world through the eyes of children, where everything is a great new adventure. Most days start and end with a great big hug and kiss! The last days with each one of my old 'families' have all been very difficult and teary." Too perfect to be true? Not at all. Of the many people interviewed for this book, nannies were probably the happiest with their jobs. The enthusiasm of Lisa B., quoted here, isn't unusual. It's typical of the women who choose this modestly paid but tremendously rewarding career.
Odd, then, the horror stories you hear about neglectful and incompetent nannies, or the tales of households that go through nannies like so many disposable diapers. How can you avoid their fate? There is no lack of compassionate nannies looking for work, but finding one who is the right match for your family can take some time. Using a nanny placement agency is no guarantee that the person you hire will stay with your family longer or be superior to someone you hear about through the grapevine. And although a placement agency can weed out poorly qualified, inexperienced nannies and provide criminal background checks, there is a limit to their usefulness. Ultimately, your success will depend on more than background checks and gut feelings. It will also require some honest reflection about yourself and your expectations. The clearer you are about those, the better your chances of recognizing the right nanny for you and being able to forge a lasting bond with her.
Behind the Scenes: The Parent Trap
"I love children. It's their parents that make the job so hard!" confessed a nanny on the nannynetwork.com bulletin board an excellent place for parents to browse for insight into the attitudes of nannies. You'll get to eavesdrop as they gush, brag, and fret about their charges, whom they usually refer to as "my baby" or "my boy" (or girl). No hidden video camera could reveal as much as these candid postings do. On the downside, the site is full of nannies' rants about their employers. Their frustration provides a crash course in nanny-parent relations.
There is no reliable profile that describes the type of woman who chooses to become a nanny. Their only common thread is that they love children. No matter how desperate for work a woman might be, she simply won't survive in the field if she doesn't genuinely like kids; there are too many kind and capable nannies out there willing to take her place. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that three million mothers leave their children in the care of a nanny or other individual while they work outside the home. The nannies' level of training and education varies widely: some have college degrees in child development while others have only the experience they have acquired over years of caring for children. Their pay varies as well. At the bottom end of the pay scale are nannies earning less than minimum wage, and at the high end are those earning $15 an hour or more. Nannies for the very wealthy command as much as $1,500 a week, with perks such as a separate dwelling with all expenses paid, cell phone, use of a car, health benefits, gym membership, paid vacations, and more.
For a great many nannies, especially live-ins, exploitation in the form of unpaid overtime is common. Most of the nannies' problems stem from the informal, unregulated nature of the work. "She's just like a member of the family" often translates into the nanny being taken advantage of as if she were an indulgent aunt or Cinderella. Nannies report not getting reimbursed for children's toys, food, or treats; not being paid for gasoline on work-related trips; not being paid if the family goes on vacation; not being paid on time; and having parents reduce their hours at will, changing them every week. Leah H., a nanny in San Francisco, recalled how her former employers' requests spiraled out of control: "They had me doing things that were not child related they once had someone come over and watch the baby so I could clean the house (8,000 square feet, four floors). Then there were the outside errands buying the dad cigarettes in the middle of the night, going on candy runs for the mother, delivering unmarked envelopes to people....Toward the end, I discovered that I had, in fact, been working for old-school members of the Italian Mafia. I quit shortly after." An extreme example, perhaps, but only the part about the envelopes.
Whether a nanny likes her employers or has problems with them, her affection for the children, especially if she has cared for them since they were babies or toddlers, tends to trump all other concerns. "I have always been astounded by what I can and will put up with when I feel a child really needs me," wrote one nanny. And a nanny in Westchester, New York, confessed her grief at having to leave a child who was about to enter preschool:
"My baby's a big boy now....I rock him at night now when we read stories and think how I'll miss his head against my chest, or the way his hair smells, or the sound of his laugh, or the dimple in his chin, the way he chases his dog, or smiles after a frustration and manages a new skill....I can't stand it, only four more days with him. That's it. Four days....I will and do miss him terribly already and he's not even gone yet."