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Real-Life Nannies Share Their Thoughts

"PLEASE HELP ME … I can be a tad difficult to work for. I’m loud, pushy, and while I used to think we paid well, I am no longer sure. I work from home, so you get the pleasure of being hounded by me all day. And, you get to pretend to like me, because I am deeply sensitive (but well dressed and a know-it-all – a winning combination, I assure you).

… If you are the type who doesn’t notice crumbs on the table, skip to the next post, because crumbs are a deal-breaker. They put me over the edge. I have all sorts of theories on how to stack my dishwasher, and if you are judgmental about Ritalin for ADHD or think such things are caused by too much sugar – again, Deal-Break City.

… If you are fundamentally unhappy with your life, you will be more unhappy if you take this job, so do us all a favor and get some treatment or move to the Rockies, but do not apply for employment with us. Also, if you suspect all wealthy women are frivolous, we are not for you."

A New York City mom
, who was fed up with the foibles and follies of finding a nanny, penned the mother-of-all job ads, posted in August on Craigslist.com (excerpted above). Her words shed a ray of realism on the elaborate dance between families and potential nannies. The author, a 40-year-old painter and aspiring writer, has gone through at least 10 nannies during a dozen years. Her Craigslist cry for help struck a chord with other mothers who’ve exhausted themselves by painting idyllic pictures of their families and homes to entice the interest of potential nannies.

A survey of recent Dallas-area Craigslist ads reveals nannies and employers in various stages of blustering, boasting and brutal honesty:

The overachiever nanny: “… I run around ‘busy as a beaver’ to have things just lovely for you … (I’ve been called ‘the blonde blur’ by those who know me best!) ….”

The angel-sitter in disguise: “I am a grandmother of eight who has a big heart and wants to fill it with the laughter and smiles of someone’s child.”

The employer-realist: “I cannot afford an hourly fee, but can do a flat weekly fee. However, it will NOT be even close to $400 a week. More like $500 a month.”

The truth is that most moms and nannies walk a fine line between reality and idealism. And, once the relationship begins, they often find themselves lost in no-man’s-land – someplace between the cold shoulder and overfamiliarity. This awkward mix of distance and intimacy creates a minefield of emotions that can muddy the nanny-employer relationship. The mother must cope with the unnerving necessity of leaving her child with a veritable stranger (and supervising from afar). While, on the other hand, the nanny is thrust into the idiosyncrasies of a private family home, where informality both reins and wreaks havoc.

Could it be that the NYC mom is on to something? Finding and maintaining a successful nanny-employer relationship boils down to honest communication, according to Kim Winblood, COO of Mom’s Best Friend (MBF) Agency in Dallas. “That’s our first question (when clients come to us for advice with caregiver problems): ‘Have you talked to her about it?’” she queries.

But that’s easier said than done if you’re afraid your nanny will become offended and quit or possibly take out her disgruntlement on your child.

Would a nanny really do that? Could “constructive criticism” make a nanny just a little less inclined to act like the wonder woman we depend on when our backs are turned? Or was that sudden chill caused by … something else?

We gave local nannies (and agencies) the opportunity to get real about their side of the partnership. Under the blanket of anonymity (an asterisk indicates where a name has been changed), local nannies share their frustrations, secrets and tips for parents – everything they wish they could tell you.

You’re the boss now
If you’re a mom who’s never managed employees before, you might feel awkward discussing pay rates, vacation days or chronic lateness with your employed caregiver. You have to face the music, though – you’re the boss.

“So many moms are non-confrontational,” Winblood informs. She describes a mother who let her nanny go after overhearing what she felt was overly harsh discipline; yet she hid her dissatisfaction from the nanny, telling her that the family had decided to make other childcare arrangements. The nanny and her agency found themselves in the unenviable position of tiptoeing around a client complaint that was not on the record.

 “It’s sometimes easy to get caught up in identifying what the person needs to do or needs to do better, and for us to forget that they need encouragement and positive reinforcement to be happy in their positions,” offers Monta Fleming, president and founder of Metroplex-based Go Nannies.
Once you hire your family’s nanny, “setting boundaries and expectations is huge,” Winblood counsels. If being on time is important to you, she suggests, let her know that the very first time she’s late.

And assumptions are the kiss of death – for both parties. Anna Crosby* was stunned one morning when her Dallas employer blithely announced that Crosby would no longer be working 45 hours a week – for their family, anyway. She would now only serve 30 hours a week under their roof; they’d contracted out her services for the other 15 hours to another Lake Highlands family. Crosby balked. “When I said no, that wasn’t something I was comfortable with and that it broke the contract that I had signed with the agency, they were not happy,” she remembers.

“Communication is not just instructing the nanny how to behave,” explains former nanny Emily Hauser. “It’s opening up a channel where you and your caregiver can truly have a dialogue. Bear in mind that your nanny is intimidated. If you truly want to hear what’s going on, you have to make sure she’s comfortable.”

Cheri Campbell*, a nanny in Highland Park, says she’s heard stories of nannies who’ve carted children along to their boyfriends’ houses. She urges employers to be specific about what is and isn’t permitted.

“If that’s micromanaging, then so be it; these are your children,” she stresses.

Merrilan Kougias, CEO of Choose the Right Nanny in McKinney, tackles gray areas head on by requiring families to respond to what she calls an “excessively detailed” work agreement. “Before it’s all filled out, our work agreement is actually 33 pages long,” she says.

Is a nanny all you need?
Many families seeking to hire nannies actually need other domestic help, too – personal assistants, household managers, housekeepers/maids or cooks. “A lot of people call looking for Alice on The Brady Bunch,” Winblood divulges. “It’s hard to find someone who’s serious about kids and who also wants to clean toilets, too.”

Monthly one-on-one meetings on how the relationship is working will keep expectations on track. Angel Crow teaches a professional development class for new nannies at a local agency. She cites a common scenario in which the nanny becomes such an integral part of the family that the employer starts expecting her to do more. “The longer you go [on working with the same family], the more comfortable they get with leaving their dishes in the sink [for you to clean up],” she says, ruefully.

Getting too comfortable with a nanny leads to other tricky situations, as well. “I always felt like my employer hired me more as a friend for her than as a caretaker for her little boy,” admits Plano nanny Dawn Frank*, whose employer regularly confides personal details about her marriage and personal life. “I’m never going to feel like I can be completely honest with her, because she’s paying me to take care of her children. I’m not going to say something that would jeopardize that relationship.”

Nannies are business-people, too
Your nanny depends on her paycheck and benefits, yet nannies tell us one of the most common problems they face is not being paid on days when the family doesn’t need childcare (such as holidays). “That doesn’t happen in any other workplace,” Winblood observes, explaining that employers pay nannies to fill a role, not an hourly on-call position at your convenience. “If I don’t find a family to work for every day (while the children from her full-time position are in school), my boss still pays me money to keep me,” reports local nanny Anne Cooper*. “She wants to make sure I’m paid full-time if I don’t have something else. She doesn’t want me to find another family.”

And, what about raises? Nannies lament that this is an often overlooked yet vital aspect of employment. Cooper says she’s received one raise in seven years of full-time work with the same family. “I have a hard time asking for it,” she admits when asked why she doesn’t speak up. “I’m 49 years old and I shouldn’t feel this way, but I guess I’m too nice to ask. She [the employer] knows it, too. She’s super, super sweet, and her family’s super, super sweet to me. … But they know I’m kind of a pushover.”

Caregiver Campbell says she’s seen it happen time and again: “Employers wouldn’t neglect to sit down with their receptionist (to talk about raise, performance, etc.) once a year and just hope she didn’t notice that she hasn’t gotten a raise in three years,” she asserts. “But people do that with nannies because they can.”

So how can you win your nanny’s heartfelt appreciation? Offer benefits. The vast majority of nannies don’t have access to perks like 401(k) plans or health and dental insurance. Many don’t receive sick pay or vacation days. “Families might not be able to afford it, which is understandable, but they don’t understand that a lot of the nannies don’t have health insurance whatsoever,” local nanny Marta Sammis* explains. “They don’t think, ‘Would you take a job if you weren’t provided health insurance?’”

In these days of uncertain gas prices, details matter: mileage, tolls, even oil changes add up. While Sammis says she’s happy to use her own vehicle to chauffeur her young charges around during the day, she wishes the parents would offer to pay for her car expenses or at least allow her to use the family car.

Stuck in the middle
And then there is the matter of providing a united front on household rules. Hauser recalls her own personal pet peeve: idle threats. She shares her experience with an employer who constantly threatened her children with a disciplinary hammer that never fell. “My life was definitely made harder by the fact that she would threaten consequences that she did not follow through on. I think part of the reason she was able to do this was because she had a nanny. It’s much easier to deal with the fallout of these things if you’re not actually dealing with all of the fallout.”

Nor should a nanny be pitted against warring spouses – but it happens. Crosby tells of a family who inadvertently put her at ground zero in their marital disputes. “They were just struggling,” she remembers sympathetically. “You’re in their home already; you’re in their private lives. The mom was not being truthful with the dad about where she was and what she was doing with her time during the day. He would ask me ‘Where is so-and-so?’ and I would say ‘She’s told me not to tell.’ I wouldn’t lie to them, but at the same time, I would be put in between.”

And what about the absentee parent? Round-the-clock teams of nannies who manage children’s lives on their own are much more prevalent than many people might expect – and a nightmare to coordinate for the staff, reports Campbell, who has experience working for such a family. Some nannies may never see the parent employers because they hand off the children at the end of the day to yet another nanny.

“The problem with that is not only do the parents not appreciate you, but they just don’t have an understanding of how important you are and what it is that you do,” Campbell regretfully notes. “They’re never spending that time with their children to really get how difficult it is and, on the other hand, how rewarding it is.” She left one such team position after just two months, unwilling to bear witness to the children’s slow emotional unraveling while their parents remained distant figures.

In the end, the foundation of a solid nanny-employer relationship is a heaping dose of mutual respect. Campbell cites advice in Stefanie Wilder-Taylor’s book Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay: “The author says when you hire someone and they come in your house to watch your child, don’t hand them the baby the second they walk in the door. When you walk into your office, you don’t – BOOM – start working. You sit down, you get your coffee, you check your e-mail. … Give her that same five minutes,” advises Campbell. “But no one sees it that way – it’s like, ‘Here’s the baby, I gotta go to work.’”

While office professionals may snatch a few minutes to pay their bills at work, if a nanny were to do the same, it’s seen as shirking her duties. “We don’t get any kind of scheduled break,” Campbell reminds parents. With needing to be at work bright and early, and without the ability to run out during a lunch break, a nanny is likely to be more than ready to get on with her own life at the end of a long day.

As for keeping in touch with the day-to-day household happenings, Campbell and her current employer do best with e-mail. “There’s never a really good time to talk,” she explains. But leaving issues on the back burner builds frustration. “Once things start going downhill in a nanny-employer relationship, it’s almost impossible to go back the other way,” she cautions. “It’s so difficult because it’s such an emotional situation, because you’re talking about people’s children.”

To nobody’s surprise, being stuck waiting on employers to straggle in at the end of the day is one of a nanny’s top frustrations. “You hate to say it,” confesses Campbell, “but at 6 at night, if you’re not home, I’m frustrated. And now I’m frustrated and taking care of your children. Do you maybe want to get home five minutes earlier to avoid that?”

Share your praises
If your nanny is doing a good job, let her know. This is one of the most frequent (yet disregarded) requests of nannies and agencies alike. Leave a thank-you card with specifics. Nannies appreciate having something they can tuck into their portfolios to show the next family.

“If she hasn’t done anything extraordinary, thank her for the great trip that Johnny had to the park that he couldn’t stop talking about last night,” counsels Rowlanda Smith, who oversees a support group for North Texas professional nannies. “Let her know that you do appreciate her; and that she’s not just part of your life that’s there, but you really don’t notice.”

When things do go sour, do nannies actually take out their frustrations on your little darlings? Winblood doesn’t see it: “You have to be some kind of crazy to go, ‘Oh, your mom made me mad, so I’m not going to feed you today’ or whatever they’re afraid of.”

But Cooper admits that conflict with parents does color her outlook. “If someone’s yelling at you all the time and telling you that you’re doing something wrong all the time … I would never harm someone’s child or neglect them because of that, but it just makes you look at the child differently,” she confesses.

Despite the raw, neurotic realism of her Craigslist ad, the NYC mother did manage to hire a 25-year-old grad student from 75 applicants. It will be the young woman’s first time working as a nanny. She’s off to a memorable start.