As a parent, I do many things. I work, I clean, I cook, I worry, I dote on and discipline a person who is younger and shorter than I am. I am also an actress, a dancer and a human being.
Buried among the other items on my resume is this one, of which I am particularly proud: I was a nanny. A part-time nanny, but nonetheless, I cared for at least 100 children over the better part of a decade. Some were one-night stands — an agency would send me to a hotel to care for the spawn of tourists. Many were regulars — New York City families who needed evening care. And then I had about 10 families whose children I cared for each week. Of those families, six became family. By this I mean they treated me as such. The mutual rewards of this bond are (almost) immeasurable.
One might think that when I hung up my nanny cap and became a mother, I would no longer identify with nannies. That I would begin to see things from the other perspective. That I would soften in my understanding of certain injustices I had faced in countless households.
I thought I would shift, but I was wrong. If anything, I identify with babysitters and nannies even more now that I have a child of my own.
She is 4 now. We don’t have the means for a nanny and we rarely use a sitter — mostly because I won’t pay less than the going rate for babysitters in a city where one must sell a kidney to purchase a bottle of soda. But when I can, on occasion, welcome a sitter into our home, we love to talk shop.
Did you know there are books that devote whole sections to training babysitters and nannies? Of course you do; they overflow from every parenting book section in every book store the country over.
Let’s take the particularly odious book “City Baby, New York: The Ultimate Guide for Parents, from Pregnancy to Preschool.” I had morning sickness when I stumbled on this gem, but I don’t think it was the hormones that made me ill.
I opened it and skimmed the contents. I came across the “nanny training” chapter. My heart sank. My blood pressure rose. I’d seen the book at my obstetrician’s office, I’d seen it on display at every baby supply store and it had a million stars on Amazon. I shook as I read it. It was nothing more than a spotlight fixed determinedly on why things go wrong between nannies and their employers. It might as well have been a guide to losing your nanny. Disregard for a nanny’s humanity is clearly a deep-rooted weed in the world of childcare.
“You may want to tell your nanny that you have a camera so that she is always on her best behavior,” the book advises.
“We have changed nannies several times … The most important person in your child’s life is you, the parent. Kids eventually adjust to a new nanny or caregiver,” it says.
“We are big on giving a nanny a trial period. Take this opportunity to observe her with your baby,” it continues.
I read the entire chapter and I couldn’t find one sentence that didn’t seem designed to set up an antagonistic attitude toward “the help.” I’m not arguing for or against nanny-cams, and I’m not saying that parents aren’t entitled to maintain their role as primary love objects for their little ones (and fear not, no one can replace you — really!). I am also not saying that all nannies are fabulous and that they never need to be replaced.
I am arguing that nanny-training books fan the flames of misunderstanding between a nanny and her employer by embedding a patronizing point of view in a parent’s mind. From the start, a tragic dynamic is set in motion. And how unfortunate for that family, because they will often lose their nanny and have no idea why.
It is hard enough to be pregnant and hormonal and terrified of becoming a mother. It is hard enough to say goodbye to a small baby and leave her in the hands of another person. Must guide books intensify this terror by warning parents that nannies may be performing acts of witchcraft in the living room or feeding their children non-organic produce? (True story: an East Side mother once admonished me for buying a banana for her child from a street cart. It was definitely not organic.) If a parent has checked references and spent some time getting to know the nanny as a person while they pass the baby back and forth, his or her diligence is plenty thorough.
A guide book should encourage parents to establish loving and considerate relationships with their nannies. I searched cover to cover for even one paragraph on being respectful toward your nanny. I think you can guess if I found one. Expectant parents are reading toxic bunk that may damage one of the most important relationships they will ever have.
As an alternative, I’ve compiled some suggestions for parents who have nannies and babysitters in their homes.
Remember that you were not always a parent. Being a parent does not need to change you. You can and should remain the warm and caring person you are. It is okay to see a nanny as a friend; it will not diminish your authority. Actually, it will make it easier for you to express your needs and concerns.
Taking care of your nanny is much like taking care of your kids. Fight the urge to ask how the kids are every time you call. First, ask the nanny how she is feeling. Is she tired? Did she get enough to eat? Did the kids give her a hard time today?
Don’t think nannies are as replaceable as batteries. You might need to replace one at some point, but respect their place in your child’s heart and the time they have been in your home.
Don’t think of the relationship as the same type of professional one you might have with office staff. Caring for a child is a deeply intimate experience. Talking to a nanny is not like running a corporate meeting. Laying out rules and asking questions in a business-like manner can make a nanny feel like she is under the command of a drill sergeant. Marching orders don’t make for nannies who obey commands. Mr. Banks, after all, had no luck with that. Remember when Mary Poppins took the children on their first outing? They jumped into a painting and ate (non-organic) candied apples.
Further, keeping the relationship “strictly professional” ensures that a discussion of delicate topics such as domestic chores or safety concerns is awkward. Think of how you treat raising a delicate matter with a friend. Your friend has feelings, and so do nannies. You may feel an issue is resolved because you have formally discussed it. But your nanny may feel admonished rather than respected. That resentment usually festers. Yes, she works for you and you have a right to ask that things to be done in a certain manner, but it isn’t easy to feel good will toward people who treat you like a servant. Sometimes, tone is everything. Your house is not Downton Abbey.
Also, be open to the notion that each caregiver has a unique way of relating to a child, and special ways of nurturing that child. Give your nanny space to do her work; that’s what you are paying her for. She may do things a bit differently than you would, but that’s often a good thing. Children benefit from receiving different kinds of care and listening to other viewpoints.
Remember that nannies spend all day nurturing. They get depleted. When nannies are refueled by being nurtured in return, they go above and beyond. I have scrubbed kitchens, organized bookshelves, taken photos of my charges and framed them for their parents and brought picture books and treats to houses where I am treated like family. And it’s a pleasure. Ask your nanny how her day was. Ask her about her life. Did she do well on that test? How is her boyfriend? How is her father’s health? Where did she get that nice dress? She may not give you long answers, but she will greatly appreciate your genuine interest in her life, which extends beyond the care of your child.
Keep in mind that many families are eagerly searching for a nanny like yours. If you allow hurt to build up, if you step on her toes too often, if you forget her humanity, it is easier for her to replace you than vice versa.
I miss one particular family whose three children I cared for. They used to live on the Upper West Side. The mother gave me all her maternity clothes when I was 20 weeks along. She exemplified the kind of parent I hoped to be. She didn’t mind if her children wanted to sleep in her bed sometimes, or fall asleep next to their nanny, or try a sip of beer, or jump from great heights for fun. She was comfortable with herself; she was comfortable in general.
She trusted me. And because of that, I became even more trustworthy.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor and dancer in New York City. She has written for Salon; Vela Magazine; The Toast; Brain, Child; The Washington Post; Word Riot; Off the Shelf and others. You can find her at www.lesliekendalldye.net, on Twitter @LKendallDye, or putting her child to sleep. She tries not to put others to sleep.
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