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Nanny Hell

My Valentine to Trader Joe |


| Is Anybody Out There?

February 15, 2006

Nanny Hell

Toddi Gutner

“See you tomorrow at 8am,” were the words I heard nightly from my full-time sitter of three years as she flew out the front door into the evening. Those were also the last words I ever heard from her.

Every working parent lives in dread of a day when their trusted nanny quits, or worse, just doesn’t show up one morning. We all try not to think about it, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid. You hear stories and wonder if it will happen to you.

What we thought was just a lousy way for our sitter to quit her job, turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare for our family. After three weeks and dozens of unreturned phone calls, we discovered the reason for her disappearance: She had stolen $25,000 worth of my diamond jewelry.

When I realized it was gone, I felt like my heart was ripped out of chest. More than the monetary and sentimental value of the jewelry (they were owned by my mother and my father gave them to me after she died), I felt a much bigger loss: Trust.

Was this the same vivacious, energetic 33-year-old single woman who had traveled with our family twice a year on vacations, who had asked my husband to walk her down the aisle before her wedding engagement broke up, who hugged and kissed my kids every night before she left and every morning when she came in? It couldn’t be. My mind, nor my heart, could comprehend such a betrayal.

Why didn’t she just ask for a loan if she needed money (which we had done before)? Where was she now? Did she still need money? Would she come back and try to kidnap my children for ransom? The questions ran around in my mind.

I couldn’t concentrate at work. I couldn’t hire a new sitter because I couldn’t trust anyone with my children. I contemplated leaving my job. Thank goodness my editor suggested that I take time off under the Family and Medical Act. I wasn’t even thinking clearly enough to request it myself.

When I left on leave, I had no idea how long I would be out. After three years with the same sitter, my two boys (nearly 5 and 6 at the time) were very attached to her and I didn’t know how long it would take for them to get used to her absence.

Reflecting back now after 2 years, the incident still causes me pain, but I can also appreciate several lessons I learned.

Be Honest: Most important was how we portrayed the incident to our children. They loved their sitter very much and the last thing my husband and I wanted to do was to speak badly about her—you know, like divorced parents who put down their ex-spouses to their kids. We didn’t talk much about her or the situation, but we told them she took mommy’s jewelry without asking so now she can’t work at our house anymore. They asked why she did it and we told them that sometimes good people do bad things and that when you do bad things, you get in trouble. That is a good lesson for any child to learn.

What we didn’t tell them was that she pawned the jewelry for cash to support a cocaine habit.

Avoid Inertia: We’re pretty certain the drug habit began in earnest the last few months she was with us. There were definitely signs that our sitter was burned out. She had become irritable and sullen, even with the kids. She lost her enthusiasm for the job and seemed confused and directionless. We tried to support her emotionally (I know, not our job) but we figured she was capable of making her own choices. As long as the arrangement worked for us and our boys, we were hesitant to change it. We didn’t want to have to break in a new sitter and thought it would be hard on the kids. But the reality is that no sitter stays forever.

Keep Boundaries Clear: Sitters are sitters, not family or friends. As working parents we want our children to bond with the sitters. For me, it’s because the perceived bond betwee the sitter and my kids assuages my own guilt. At least I felt they had someone else they loved and who loved them when their parents weren’t at home. Since that sitter left, I have become much more of an employer than a friend. Before, I gave my sitters a width berth to care for my kids figuring the independence was appreciated. Now, I direct the daily comings and goings of my kids. I tell my sitter on how the time is to be spent at home, what they are to eat, and where she goes with them when they leave the house.

Children Change, Needs Change: Our sitter did best with pre-school age kids and as my kids grew up, I think the job became too stressful for her. She needed to be in charge and had trouble being flexible. The job requirements changed as well. We needed someone who was willing and able to do homework, negotiate sibling squabbles and cook our dinner. Those were not part of the job when we hired her. We’ve since realized how important it is to review our childcare situation and what the kids need now.

Sure, the kids missed the sitter, but even better, mommy was home for a several months. To them, that was great. Our boys still speak lovingly of their old sitter, and I’m glad they have good memories. Kids are resilient. We have to remember that no matter how close our kids are to their caregivers, we are always the parents.

P.S. She was eventually caught and prosecuted. There was evidence to prove she had pawned the jewelry (though it could not be recovered). Because it was her first offense, she got off with a misdemeanor and three-years of probation. We also got a restraining order that forbade her to come near our home or our children. I now have a parttime sitter, a college student, who has been with us for a year. We did a full background check upon hiring her.

09:10 AM


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Thankfully, you had managers--as well as colleagues--who could offer you support and advice during a very difficult time. I can't imagine how you would have coped if you didn't take that time off to sort everything out.

Incidentally, I've been hearing some buzz about big companies that are offering more structured programs to help employees get through stressful situations.

Posted by: Lauren at February 15, 2006 11:22 AM

Toddi- I'd add another suggestions from my own experience -

* Encourage your friends and acquaintances who are at-home moms or work-at home moms to be honest in reporting back to you what they observe about your nanny, when she is out locally or at extra-curricular activities with your children. When I worked 4 days a week and had a toddler, I spent much of my 5th day at the playground with him. I often saw questionable behaviour on the part of nannies and often debated whether to call the parent/employer. I did twice, once to a warm reception (although it turned out it was the parent of a playdate and not a nanny I'd observed !) If one is opposed to Nanny-cams, anecdotal info. from other parents can be of great help!

Posted by: M.Rudman at February 15, 2006 11:38 AM

The advice about being the employer is a good one. I was way too friendly with our first sitter. She disappeared on us after the holidays. We have a new person starting soon, and I've clearly outlined her duties, and having had the previous woman helped me define what I needed more clearly. So there was a silver lining to losing the first one!

Posted by: K Davis at February 15, 2006 09:20 PM

We too had one walk out unexpectedly during the holidays. Actually had a dinner party and we looked out the window to see her leaving the house with her bags walking up the driveway! She had shown up late for work (3 hours). I later found out she had car trouble but never bothered to tell me so when I was upset her only response was to leave.

The one before that would have stayed forever but as you alluded to needs change. She was great when our son wasn't moving around and taking lots of naps. I was commuting at the time but for some reason our son had all kinds of energy when we came home during the week but weekends he slept just fine. I gave in to the "nannycam" and found her sitting there in her PJ's all day watching Jerry Springer while our son was moved from exersaucer to bouncy seat, very upsetting. Fired her the next day.

Decided after nanny #2 that I would work closer to home (no longer commute) and kids went to child care where there are alot of eyes watching them and tons of activity.

Being an employer for those in your home..I have always struggled with that. But regaining trust is an even greater struggle..

Posted by: t lauder at February 16, 2006 09:52 AM

Hello Toddi. I read this article, and immediately felt for you and so appreciated your candor in describing to other working moms what you have gone through. Your advice is excellent - as a mother and a child psychologist, I couldn't agree more with the need to establish boundaries and to remain the employer and not a friend. Your story is one about the incredible reslience of your children (the resiliency of children is often amazing!) , but also the incredible resilience and survival for you and your husband as parents (which is often not written about or focused on enough!). Thank you again for sharing this incredibly personal story with other working moms. You have created an incredible bond which I am grateful for. Keep writing! I greatly enjoy your storiesl

Posted by: C. Linde at February 16, 2006 12:16 PM

Nanny nightmares are rampant. I myself have lost several nannies to the death of a parent. Notwithstanding that at work I was in crisis mode, I could not have been more accommodating or sympathetic to such a tragedy. And unfortunately, none but one were able to return to the country! It was not until the THIRD TIME it happened that I had to reconcile myself to the fact that this was an acceptable exit route for some Nannies to which a simple "Things aren't work out for me here - Goodbye" was elusive. I have become more skeptical, less sympathetic in the years to follow, and mostly, less involved. I no longer try to endear myself to my nannies on the theory that they will be nicer to my children (although any serious "discussions" that need to be had are done with my Nanny on Friday night before she catches the train so that she has time to reflect and cool off, and is not at work the next day resentful and potentially taking her anger out on my children). I now keep my relationship with my Nanny more business like. We exchange pleasantries and end it there. I am not privy to the goings on in her life, and as a result, it does not enable her to make her problems my own. I no longer make by the way suggestions to my Nanny by way of constructive criticism. I have learned that things I take for granted are not things that are inate to women in other cultures. Thus, I no longer expect my Nannies to be mind readers; I tell them exactly what needs to be done and precisely how I want things done. There is no confusion, no room for error, and no one ends up frustrated and angry. And finally, more than anything else, I am more involved in the management of my children and their schedules than I thought I ever would be in the office. And while it doesn't make me particularly happy to be involved in the minutia, it does allow my household to run more smoothly which in turn allows me to work more effectively. All in all, it ain't easy!!!

Posted by: j lennon at February 16, 2006 01:36 PM


Thank you for sharing this very personal story. Your family must have been brokenhearted at the loss of this person, whom you allowed into your family. Maybe your story, along with the comments posted, teaches us that we should not ever expect to keep the same nanny for more than a couple of years. If we enter the nanny/employer relationship with the expectation that it will only be for a short time, maybe we won't allow such a deep bond between nanny and child. Maybe the nanny who is outstanding with newborns might not be suited for school aged children. Nannies must experience burnout, like everyone else, and may need to move on after a couple of years. You and your husband seem like considerate and caring people who treated this woman very well and I'm sorry that you got burned like you did.

Posted by: Jenny at February 21, 2006 12:29 AM

Hi Toddi,

You hit upon one of the biggest problems for parents -- inertia. Because our kids are used to their caretakers, and the task of finding someone new is so daunting, we tend to ignore our gut feeling that things are not quite right anymore. If we working parents learn one thing from your story, it's that it's important to act quickly to either get to the root of a problem with a nanny or move to replace her or him quickly.

Posted by: susan at February 21, 2006 06:45 PM

We should never ignore those feelings that something is off or not quite right. Encourage open communication with the people around you. I have had mothers tell me that after they fired a nanny for doing X or getting caught doing XY, and told people in her neighborhood what happened- they were surprised to hear comments like "oh she was a maniac behind the wheel. I wondered how safe that was" or "You know she always had a lot of men over" or "She used to scream at the top of her lungs for those kids".

All warning signs!

To investigate!

Posted by: Jane Doe at February 25, 2007 01:06 AM

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