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The Mommy Diaries: Hiring a Nanny Is Hell, Too

4 years ago
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Have you heard? "The Nanny Diaries" has a sequel: "Nanny Returns." And with its release, the popular press is once again awash with analyses of that emotionally fraught quagmire: the nanny-employer relationship.

It's admittedly hard to read these books -- or watch the eponymous film based on the first one -- and not conclude that all women who hire other women to take care of their children are the moral equivalents of Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest." But like most things, there are two sides to this story. While it may not be easy to find a good family to work for, hitting upon the right person to care for your kid is no day at the beach either.

You might assume that this is a buyer's market and that there's an endless supply of talented, experienced babysitters out there just waiting to work for you. Wrong. As with any employment situation, most people are poorly suited to the job at hand. And it's up to you to separate out Mary Poppins from Andrea Yates. A few examples from my own past will hopefully illustrate this point.
Back when I was hiring nannies to watch my kids while I went to work, my own screening process always began with a short phone conversation. I would try to determine if there was some glaring reason not to invite this person for a home interview. And more often than not, there was. I once got a call from a teenager who said that she'd worked for years as a babysitter. She then gave me the name of her 19-year-old roommate as a reference. When I gently suggested that I'd prefer to speak with someone a bit older -- and preferably someone whose children she'd actually watched -- she informed me that her roommate was a mother of two.

Most of the time, you can't get people applying for this job to contain their unbridled enthusiasm for young children. It practically leaks out of the phone. But one young lady -- when asked why she wanted to be a nanny -- paused to think about the question and then said, matter-of-factly: "Well . . . it pays better than waitressing."

"Anything else?" I prodded, trying to throw her a lifeline.

She paused again. "Oh, yeah. And the hours are better too."

Well, at least you couldn't fault her honesty.

Speaking of which, I'll never forget the woman who -- in an attempt to bond with me "mana a mana" -- confided that she only hit her own kids when her husband was out of town. Glad to know that. And what will your violence policy towards my child be?

Then there are the references. I tended to speak to references before doing home interviews as an extra filtering device. In addition to the standard litany of questions about feeding, napping and play, I made it a point to ask these parents to name two things they'd improve about the nanny in question. When I posed my "improvement" question to one mother -- expecting to hear something about cooking or punctuality -- the woman instead volunteered that her nanny had experienced bouts of severe depression, sometimes weeping inconsolably for hours on end. Then, catching herself, the mother added quickly, "But she hasn't hurt my kids or anything like that." Hmmm . . . not exactly the standard I had in mind.

After I'd done lots of in-person interviews, I also got pretty good at identifying nanny types. There were what I called the "saccharine" types, the ones who brought along photo albums filled with pictures of all the children they'd ever babysat. This was very impressive the first time I saw it. But after the third time, I began to suspect that it was just a PR ploy. Those were also the nannies who made a huge fuss over my child, giddily exclaiming, "Give him a big kiss for me!" when they would leave our house, as if they'd been bonding for years.

There was also a "proud nanny" type -- usually elderly women who'd been in the child-care business for 20-plus years and were keenly aware of the experience they brought to the table. We had one such woman show up for an interview with her husband in tow. In this case, it was the husband who insisted on underscoring his wife's value to us (and by value, I mean dollar signs). Throughout the entire 45-minute meeting, she barely got a word in edgewise, even though this was ostensibly our opportunity to learn about her approach to child care. Rather, her husband repeatedly emphasized that she wouldn't even consider taking the job unless we committed to a certain salary as well as built-in raises every six months. This woman came with some of the best references I've ever seen and may well have been the Harvard MBA of nannies. But by the time her husband got through with us, I felt like I'd gone toe to toe with a used-car salesman.

Finally, even after you think you've arrived at a deal with someone, there's no guarantee that she'll actually show up. After an extensive round of interviews, my husband and I once hired someone we really liked, only to have her call us at 9:30 the night before she was to start to tell us that she'd be returning to the Czech Republic. When I asked her how long she'd be away, she said that it could be a few weeks, "or a year . . . I really can't say."

I'm not at the point where I'm willing to equate my travails in trying to find competent child care with the sheer hell that the two women who wrote "The Nanny Diaries" were put through by their employers. But I will confess to the odd moment when I, too, begin to wonder if there isn't a movie contract out there for me somewhere as well.

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Filed Under: Woman Up

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