The Nanny-Mother Relationship
Working moms’ tense relationship with nannies
Editor’s note: Wendy Sachs is a former award-winning TV producer and author of “How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at-Work Moms.” She’s also the executive editor of Care.com, a website for finding nannies, baby sitters, pet sitters, special needs care and senior care.
(CNN) — It all started with a bowl of spaghetti.
The cold, congealed noodles had sat neglected in the back of the fridge for days.
The working mother of three despised leftovers lurking behind the milk. She had repeatedly reminded her nanny, who had worked for the family for years, to keep the fridge clean.
Annoyed at finding the half-eaten spaghetti on a Friday, she yanked out the bowl and left it in the sink for the nanny to clean. The weekend went by, and the bowl sat defiantly in the otherwise empty sink.
The nanny had washed all the dishes, except for the one covered in marinara, which now had the consistency of dried Play-Doh.
By Monday evening, the mother could stand it no longer and told the nanny that if she didn’t clean the bowl, she would lose her job. The nanny stated flatly, “Where I come from, we scrape off our own dishes.”
This scene played out recently in a Connecticut suburb in a home where the mom is always waxing poetic about her fabulous nanny — one who makes her life possible. Both names have been withheld to protect their privacy.
The nanny survived the spaghetti dispute, but she was eventually fired.
The mom/nanny dynamic may be one of the most emotionally and morally charged relationship a woman will ever have.
It is often fragile and fraught with unresolved issues.
And for working moms, the relationship can be even more delicate. Loaded with guilt for leaving their kids, and stressed out that things aren’t being done their way, the moms dance a nanny tango that is rarely graceful.
I know — I’ve been there.
In nine years, I’ve had 10 nannies. I go through nannies the way some women go through men. And my nanny dramas are legendary. From predator mom-on-the-playground nanny-poaching to up-and-leaving without even a note, I’ve lost child care.
Stealing another woman’s nanny is like sleeping with her husband — maybe even worse. Robbing a working mother of good child care could more quickly destroy the fabric of a family than a one-night stand. I’d consider letting my husband have a fling faster than I would want to lose a good nanny to another family.
So after having a spectacular run of bad luck with keeping long-term child care, I started to throw in job perks, including round-trip plane tickets back home for Christmas, a free gym membership and even tutoring.
With an athletic, soccer-playing, blond college girl from Utah, I paid for various, pricey diets — from the all-organic cleansing to Weight Watchers. I even rewrote all of her English papers, just so she would pass her course.
Then there was the curvy Colombian who suddenly decided to take a job at a car repair shop three months after starting with us.
Then came the Rastafarian, vegan yogi with dreads down to her butt who had me running to Whole Foods for soy milk the first night she arrived so she could drink her organic tea in the morning. She never finished the milk because she failed to return after her first week, leaving a closet full of clothes behind.
Then there was the Czech nanny who told me she didn’t like my children. After four days in my house, I deposited her in another town with garbage bags full of her clothes.
Like any relationship, the mom/nanny one can suffer most by inconsistent communication, lack of respect or unfair expectations.
But the intimacy of having someone in your house — sometimes even living in your house — who not only cares for your children but also sees the piles of bills on your kitchen table, and all your dirty laundry, can blur the boundary between employer and employee. And it makes sense. When you are trusting nannies to help raise your children, how can you not get involved in their lives, too?
However, here’s the rub: We want to know our nannies, but we don’t want to know too much. While we may love them like family, too much information can make us feel squeamish and guilty.
The caste system of caregiving in our country also makes many of us uncomfortable.
Most moms employ women who are less educated and affluent than they are. But changing diapers and playing with blocks are no longer enough. With half of all mothers today working, we are demanding more from our nannies than we did decades ago. We’re not looking for baby sitters, but instead we want partners in caregiving.
Most moms don’t try to take advantage of their nannies by underpaying, overworking or abusing the relationship. The moms I know have done everything from lending money to securing green cards, to teaching their nannies to drive and even representing them in court.
Because so many moms are completely dependent on their child care so that they can keep their own jobs, they don’t want to nitpick or create any tension. They would forgo a tidy kitchen and even accept a crusty bowl of spaghetti once in a while, if they know their kids are happy, engaged and loved.