The Nature of the Family/Nanny Relationship

Of Good Fences and Good Nannies
May 4, 2003
New York Times

I ALWAYS envied women who handled their nannies with brisk, businesslike efficiency. Surely, I thought when I employed au pairs and nannies in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, that is how a working motherhood is supposed to be conducted. Off to work the moms trotted, confident they were doing the right thing, that the children were happy and that the baby sitter was loving and able.

The problem was not that I had bad nannies. They were mostly terrific. The problem was that I had trouble viewing the person who was doing the most important job in our household as an employee.

Money just seemed the wrong currency in a mom-nanny relationship. Love. Blood. Lifelong loyalty. These precious offerings seemed more appropriate for Ali Higginson, the beautiful Trinidadian who brought calm and order into our house in 1991 when my daughter, Keenan, was 3, and my son, Tucker, was 1.

Paying someone to care for your children is like paying someone to keep your heart beating. Is there enough money anywhere to adequately compensate for it? “Most days I’d be willing to give my baby sitter anything in the world because she allows me to have my `other’ life,” said Barb Burg, a senior vice president at Random House in New York who has a daughter, 7, and a son, 6. “If I had a million dollars, at least half would be hers!”

Nonetheless, it is cold cash, not theoretical sums of money or the promise of profound gratitude, that underlies a relationship between nanny and parent. Much as they may love children, typical full-time nannies usually want the $350 to $550 they earn each week to finance college educations, support parents and family back home or build their own lives. “As employers, we often treat them like our family, but you know what? They have their own family,” said Gale Gregory, president of Mom’s Helper, a domestic-worker placement agency in Jericho, N.Y.

Treating a baby sitter as a family member seems more than appropriate, given the intimacy of the job. Parents who hire nannies like to think of themselves as better, more benevolent than Mrs. X, the Park Avenue mom who assumes absolute authority over her nanny’s life in “The Nanny Diaries,” the novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Mrs. X is the self-absorbed, manipulative caricature of a mother who mostly populates horror stories, alongside the physically abusive, dishonest nightmare nanny, for whom nanny cams were invented.

Still, the member-of-the-family approach sometimes offers more comfort to the employer – particularly to moms, who usually manage the relationship – than to a nanny. It helps you, as the employer, walk the knife blade’s edge between being grateful for the nanny and being jealous. You want your baby sitter to be a perfect blend of love, wisdom and good judgment, but not more perfect than you. You want the children to love the nanny, but not more than you.

You want to grant some authority to the person who knows your children so well, but you want your choices to shape their lives. Kathyrn Huang, 36, now a stay-at-home mother of children aged 6 months and 4 and 6 years in Maplewood, N.J., recalls with a laugh one of her attempts at remote mothering. “I remember telling my baby sitter which side of the street to walk on, because of the sun,” she said.

Redefining your employee as a family member may help you get over those emotional quagmires, but it can be a disservice to both of you. An employee is unlikely to wander into work late or borrow thousands of dollars from her employer, but family members sometimes take such liberties as their due. “When they can’t make their car payment, you’re toast,” said one working mother with two children who lives in a New York suburb and didn’t want to be identified to save her baby sitter embarrassment. “You have to loan them the money because you need them to have their car.”

Family membership is not the super-deal we sometimes suppose it is for nannies, either. When I called Ali last week to get her perspective for this column, I expected her to remember working for our family with pleasure and pride. She did. But she also gently reminded me that I had never paid her overtime. To my chagrin, I remembered that I had compensated her with time off, usually within a few days. I gave her what I would have chosen for myself, but I was presuming too much about what she wanted, just the way your sister or your mother might think she knows, without asking, where you want to vacation or the way you like your tuna fish sandwiches.

Sometimes nannies do treasure being part of the family more than they value their paycheck. Dawn Lemirand-Poepping, the first nanny I hired, 15 years ago, surprised and moved me when I called her recently at home in Beloit, Wis. Now married with two children, she said we had, unwittingly, provided her with a personal blueprint. “I had no clue what a functioning family was like,” she said. “You really showed me what it was to be a family, and it was instrumental in my life.”

BUT most of the time, the nanny-as-family notion is a form of self-flattery that only modestly improves the employees’ lives. True family membership means sharing equally in the family’s responsibilities and privileges. No one knows better than your nanny – who sees you come home with shopping bags, renovate the kitchen for $50,000 or rent a beach house for a couple of weeks – that she is not a full-fledged family member, just a close-enough facsimile to make her employers feel better about themselves.


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