On Being A Nanny

I love children. I love them so much, I think I may occasionally creep unsuspecting mothers out in the check-out lines of grocery stores because I’m having full-on peekaboo sessions with their children as they wait to pay. And I also like making money, as some of us do. So, for a long time, I was a nanny as my school-supplementing job. It just seemed the logical choice. Sometimes it was combined with other jobs, but I always felt my most comfortable and happy when taking care of kids. Sure, I knew I wasn’t going to be doing this forever, but I felt it would prepare me for the day I had my own children, and getting paid to finger paint and bake cupcakes is far from the worst thing in the world.

I’ve been everything ranging from a pinch-hitting babysitter who only saw the kids once a week at maximum, to a live-in nanny, to an au pair. (Au pairs, of course, being the nanny who also attempts to teach your children another language by talking at them in their native tongue.) And each one of these levels of intimacy with the family proved to be more complex and fascinating than the last. When you are babysitting, you barely know the family, and are simply a means for the couple to get out of the house every now and again and remind themselves that they’re still human. They might be nice, but the vast majority of your night-time job is making sure the children stay in their beds while you do your homework, watch a movie, or surf the internet. It’s a pretty laid-back affair, and couldn’t be more ideal for a student.

But then you get into actually being a nanny. Live-out, live-in, and au pair are all very different ball games, each with their own obstacles in terms of maintaining your sanity, being amicable with the family, and not feeling like “the help.” If you’re lucky, you find a family with whom you click immediately, and the less glamorous parts of the job (feeding babies, changing diapers, giving time outs) seem like the reasonable workings of a family. But the perfect combination of children and family that you adore is almost never achievable — I’ve only achieved it once, and only the last time I ever worked as a nanny — and making a less-than-ideal situation work for you can start to feel like extended family members you can’t quite nip off the family tree.

First and foremost, there are the children. Some are truly wonderful, and going to spend time with them can be the highlight of your day. They begin to feel like a little cousin, and you become enamored and curious about everything they do, because they’re such a big part of your lives. Sadly, though, this is far from being consistently the case. Now, it is no secret that if you are working for a family that employs at least one full time nanny (often employing several, who work in shifts), there is probably going to be some money floating around — and parents who aren’t always there to give a swift time out when needed. While sometimes the children can remain unaffected by their relatively luxe social status, there are some who become aware of their privilege and superiority before they are fully potty trained. In short, they are brats. And there is nothing worse than a bratty child who realizes, on some level, that you work for them. Being ordered around, yelled at, and generally treated like crap by a 5-year-old is a pretty demoralizing situation, especially when the parents of said child clearly could not be bothered to discipline them themselves. Frankly, I was spanked as a child. Not much, but I knew that if I acted up really badly or put myself or sister in danger, I was going to get a red behind and go to bed early, likely in tears. Now, I would never dream in a million years of spanking a child who was not my own, and I never did, but working as a nanny has convinced me thoroughly — children need to be spanked. When you see children scream at their own mothers until they are given what they want, and are met at most with the attempt to “talk things through,” you understand the depths to which spoiled children can have zero concept of boundaries and respect. I imagine if I had talked to my mother like that, and shudder to think what the response would have been. And again, I am not advocating that everyone go around with a lacrosse stick and beat their children into fun new shapes, but a solid smack on the behind for a kid who is clearly getting out of line is something that every parent should have in their back pocket. Trust me, you miss it when it’s gone.

Then, there are the families. It’s the oddest relationship, especially when you are live-in or an au-pair, because technically you do work for them, but you travel with them, meet their friends and family, often eat with them, and generally get all up in their business. When it’s good, it’s awesome. You’ve made life-long connections that can transmute into familial relationships, or even good friends. Especially if the family is younger and generally people you want to hang out with, it can be an ideal work environment. But then there are the people who, regardless of the hours you work or whether you live with them, treat you like a glorified garbage man who is there to take the irritating child off of their hands so they can go about their day’s business. There is little communication, little respect, and a general feeling like they would forget your name two days after you left. Clearly, for these kinds of families, a nanny is a convenience that is hired, and nothing more. But it’s always seemed so strange to me, the people who are incredibly distant with their childcare workers — do they not realize that they are hiring them to do the most important job in the world? The actual raising of their children? How does that not seem like the kind of thing you’d want to nurture and be secure in the knowledge that you had the best person for the job, someone for whom you have immense mutual respect? It’s one thing if you’re just getting someone to come by once a week while you go to the movies, but quite another if they spend 40+ hours a week essentially raising them. But yet, some parents remain wholly unfazed by the person who they’ve hired as a surrogate parent.

And they also seem blissfully unaware, it must be said, that this person is now intimately aware of their family and relationship dynamics. How many times have I seen couples who clearly hate each other’s very guts passive-aggressively snap at each other from across a kitchen? I couldn’t even begin to count. It’s almost like they forget you’re there, or that you’re capable of understanding that — woah — you’re working for an incredibly dysfunctional family. It’s all a part of the silence, the general “seen but not heard” persona that many people look for in a caretaker.

I loved being a nanny. As tough as it could be sometimes, I feel much better for the experience — and much more prepared for when I have my own children someday (though I know it’s no substitute for the real thing). All things considered, the job is fun, relatively easy, and filled with beautiful moments where you realize, all of a sudden, that you’re actually helping a little person grow up and discover the world. Though that chapter of my life is undoubtedly closed, I will look back on it fondly, even the moments that weren’t as pleasant as I’d hoped. In the end, you get to be a fly on the wall in many ways, seeing a family grow, make mistakes, and learn what it means to have children — if perhaps with a bit of help. TC mark

Chelsea Fagan

Chelsea Fagan founded the blog The Financial Diet. She is on Twitter.


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  • mbutler

    I really enjoyed this. I was a nanny and I don’t think other people truly understand the dynamics you experience unless they have experienced them as well.

  • shannon

    i used to babysit these rich brats when i was in high school. i probably babysat them once or twice a week for about a year but they never liked me because i wasn’t as cool as their former babysitter, francesca, so they just called me by her name sometimes, especially if i wasn’t letting them do something they wanted to do (empty their bathwater into the bathroom floor). i saw them a couple years later when i was working at an ice cream stand. i said hello to them all enthusiastically and they just scowled at me for a minute until one of them said, “francesca?” spoiled little bitches.

  • Aupair Info Girl

    Brilliant post. But for au pairs there are several problems. Some people want au pairs to be not so much nannies as cleaners and occasionally baby sitters. Which is not what they’re supposed to be, obviously.

  • http://molokovellocet.tumblr.com/ -w-

    I used to nanny for two ignored little rich kids with a social-climbing mother and an absent father who was a well-known chef (never EVER home). The things those little boys would say to me were heartbreaking. They wanted me to come to their school so everyone could see they had a best friend. They told me I was their best friend EVERY DAY, I was genuinely the only person who gave a shit about their ideas and what they had to say. I don’t think I could ever do it again because I felt such a bond with those kids and it made me sad their parents couldn’t see how great they were and just showed them off at inappropriate events where children were not welcome. 

    • Maja

      :((  Such cases make me so, so sad :'(   How can people not see what they’re missing, and the damage they’re causing? :/

  • ashley

    this was a great post. i agree with basically everything you said.
    i’ve worked in several daycares and currently work in a children’s resale shop, so i’ve always been around kids. i’ve found it ultimately rewarding but i won’t lie – there have been times i wanted to slap the shit out of some little bastards.
    i nannied four children for a few months this year. the mother paid me under $200 to spend roughly 60 hours a week with them. this usually included dropping off and picking up the two oldest kids from school or their dad’s several times a week and doing all of her cleaning and laundry. if i would have known her in social circles i would have thought she was great, but around the third time she came home with beer instead of diapers i lost all respect for her and found it pretty unbearable on a moral level.
    i loved the kids, though.

  • Soumya

    I speak here as a mother of a young boy, who had to be looked after by a nanny. When I hired her – and let me tell you she was the best – there were people who expected me to treat her like a shit. Why? Here was a woman, a widow, with no children giving all her affection to a child who wasn’t her own. Why shouldn’t I respect her? That is the least you can give the person who is filling up for you as a mother. It not just about getting help raising the child, it’s also about what the child learns from the parent in its crucial years – to respect a fellow  human being. Isn’t that what really matters?

  • http://twitter.com/kathurrrzey Kathy U.

    I was at one point in time, a pediatric nurse. i dunno if it’s the same – children who wont take their medicines and demanding moms, who expect you to do everything and know everything, why their child wont eat this or that, why you should be the one changing their childs diapers not them.

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