The Secret Nanny

A few weeks ago my mother-in-law, who hasn’t worked since the birth of her first child some 35 years ago, cheerfully announced that she thinks mothers these days are terrible whingers, complaining about how difficult it all is. Especially disgraceful are those who compare working to parenthood: I mean, their jobs can’t have been very taxing, can they, if hanging around with a baby is just as hard!

For many of her generation of mothers, there was a very clear divide between paid work and early motherhood that meant that the two occupations rarely had to be squeezed into one life at the same time. Nowadays, of course, things are very different and the unique challenge of balancing a career and a family means that parents now have to factor some kind of childcare into their daily lives. Not only do paid work and parenthood now co-exist, you also have to pay someone to share the work of parenthood some of the time.

No wonder then that many parents struggle with the social, emotional and financial etiquette of hiring someone to look after their children. It could be the first time you have hired anyone to do a job for you personally, apart from a plumber, and you might feel horribly uncomfortable being an employer and having ‘staff’. It might mean letting a stranger into your home and family, or sending your baby to a stranger’s home. And once you have gone through the hassle of finding your perfect carer, how do you hang onto them?

I worked as a live-out nanny for several years on and off. I looked after children from 18 months to 5 years old, with families in different circumstances and environments. I am not trained, just someone who really enjoys taking care of little ones. I am also not a parent, so can’t really empathise with the potentially agonising process of negotiating the childcare minefield. But let me offer a few thoughts from the nanny’s point of view, that might just help you find and keep a nanny who will genuinely be an enrichment to your child and your whole family.

What do you want your nanny to be?

Before you even meet a potential nanny, really think about what you want for yourself and your family. Do you want a fully-trained, registered Mary Poppins-type with a magic technique for cracking potty training and a perfect Heimlich-manoeuvre? With a whiff of TV’s Super-nanny about her, all crisp, matronly cotton and uncanny insight into your child’s psyche? Sounds lovely, and a good agency may be able to find her for you. But what if they don’t? Because, in reality, many candidates will have a police check, basic first-aid, and that’s about it. I had neither of those things. Maybe what really matters is less quantifiable than that: a natural empathy with your child; a genuine love of play and nurturing; lots of patience and smiles; the feeling that you can trust them and that they will put your child’s safety and wellbeing first. Perhaps this is why, according to the annual Nannytax survey, almost half of families base the decision to hire a nanny on a recommendation from a friend: there’s no certificate for being lovely.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that childcare qualifications are not important: they are and if you aren’t lucky enough to be given a trustworthy recommendation, what else do you have to go on? Indeed, there is a limit to how far you should rely on your instincts: I was once hired in a café by a mum I got chatting to while with another of ‘my’ kids. Impressed by how comfortable the toddler was, she asked if I was looking for more work and took my number. Incredibly, the next day I found myself out alone with her kids in central London with no further vetting at all. She didn’t know my surname, address, nothing. I could have been anyone!

Assuming you want to be a little more discerning than that, how do you make sure? The best families I worked for spent at least two full days with me and the kids together. This is a chance to ask questions, see the nanny interact with your child and get to know them better. And it works both ways: I turned down a job once after spending a day with a family who spent most of the time listing the tasks I should perform and taking no notice of how their daughter felt about me. So don’t forget, the nanny is interviewing you too. Be really clear up front about what you expect from your nanny, and be prepared to negotiate on it: so you want ironing too? Cooking? Shopping? Babysitting? Someone to remember your auntie’s birthday? Be realistic: this is childcare, not household staff or a personal assistant.

Once your nanny starts, do keep an eye on things, but don’t over-do it. Make sure everything is fine: I have known of nannies who were, essentially, secretly doing two jobs at once and some who were taking kids to run their errands all day, so don’t check out entirely. But also bear in mind that some of the toughest times for everyone – nanny, parents and kids – are when the boundaries of who is in charge are blurry. One of my mums worked at home, so would reappear unexpectedly and invariably at an awkward time while I was trying to apply some discipline or halfway through dinnertime, often prompting chaos. Most annoyingly, her 5-year old would sometimes object to my decision on something (snack, raincoat etc.) and run upstairs to mum complaining, usually successfully.

You may want your nanny to be Mary Poppins, but remember that she was both fictional and weird. Your nanny is real: at the end of a likely 10-12 hour shift looking after your kids, just like you she will be knackered and will have struggled with the exact same things you have when you get to the end of the day. If she still has a smile on her face, you’re onto a winner.

What does your nanny want you to be?

One mother I worked for would regularly ask me to take her kids on playdates after school. We would get the bus to someone’s house and then she would meet us there and usher me out, leaving me stranded across town without my bike. Another would think nothing of asking me, during my 45 minute break in a 12-hour day (during which I also cooked dinner for later), to run out to the shops for her. Yet another saw me as some kind of mobile nursery and would expect me to turn up at 9am during the summer holidays, remove her 5-year old and 3 year-old from the house, and not return with them until 5pm, regardless of the weather. As a nanny, I would expect that my job looking after your kids is afforded respect and empathy: would you think it fine to not sit down for 12 hours? Or to be out and about in the rain with two kids for 8 hours straight without a rest?

I have always been willing to help out around the house where I can, and cooking and cleaning up after the kids is part of the job. But I do not expect to be treated like housekeeper, secretary, au pair, waitress or general dogsbody. Apply the self-test: if it seems like too much for you to do in one day, then it is too much for your nanny (and probably your kids!).

Remember that, ultimately, this is a job for me. It’s fantastic when your nanny feels like part of the family, but don’t let that spill into neglect of their time and energy: the average working week for a nanny is 51-60 hours, so let her go promptly. Several mothers I have worked for have come to feel that I am their friend, and loved to chat and even confide in me. This can be lovely and genuine, but remember that your nanny has her own family, home and life to go to at 7pm (mind you, a nanny should be flexible where possible- that’s just the reality of family life).

And…What do your kids want your nanny to be?

Well, that depends on both your kids and your nanny, of course. But for me, I found that being a nanny meant being something between parent and playmate. Firm and fair when necessary, but always energetic and playful when possible. Sometimes a child behaves differently with their nanny, and that could be a good thing. They may make up stories, tell secrets or just reveal different aspects of their personality, both good and challenging, all of which is surely healthy. I felt real, lasting love for some of the kids I’ve looked after and found that they were all happy to soak up affection whenever possible. But I am not their parent and a nanny is no competition for mummy or daddy, so try not to fret over the affection your child will hopefully return to their part-time carer. A good nanny is a bonus for them, an extra grown-up in their lives to lavish care and attention. Don’t expect anything less.