I often joke that I was raised in the bosom of Island Women. That’s because my parents divorced when I was very young. With my dad out of the house and money tight, my mom needed to work—and her job required a lot of travel, which meant she also needed help taking care of me and my sister. Until I was 10, we always had live-in help, a.k.a. “The Nanny.”
The star in the role of the nanny changed from time to time. While two of our nannies actually came from England (one overdosed on a bottle of Bayer aspirin, and the other liked her tea and crumpets at 4 p.m.), most of the women in my life came from The Islands. We started off with Cherry, who hailed from Jamaica and cared for me from birth. After that, the sequencing is a bit hazy. There was Gigi—she had a nice smile and was born in Trinidad. Gigi was followed by Desiree, a native of Guyana, who made very spicy chicken and spanked us with her slippers. She's also the one who forced me to eat my vegetables. Guyana isn't an island, but it's darn close to Trinidad.
Rounding out the group was Marion, formerly a cook for a wealthy Main Line family. Marion made great cakes, was deeply religious, and weighed about 300 pounds. (I just called my mom, who told me Marion was from the South, but she definitely had a take-charge Island attitude.)
The result of being cared for by so many people is that I’m pretty comfortable dealing with my son’s nanny. (In New York, the politically correct term is actually “caregiver.”) But I still agonize over some decisions like how to handle raises and vacation time. In fact, the writers of the Working Parents blog spend a lot of time talking amongst ourselves--as well as with you--about childcare issues. What should you do if your nanny gets pregnant? What do you do if they steal from you? How to fill those empty hours when your kids get old enough to attend school and your caregiver has nothing to do?
Enter Jessika Auerbach, author of And Nanny Makes Three: Mothers and Nannies Tell The Truth About Work, Love, Money, And Each Other. Auerbach is the mother of four children aged 5 to 15. She has employed at least 16 nannies while residing in New York, Sinagpore, Hong Kong, Holland, and probably a few other places I've forgotten. For her book, she interviewed dozens of caregivers as well as the people who employ them. The end result is look at the intricate, important, and messy relationships we have with our nannies.
Earlier this week, I interviewed Auerbach, who currently lives in Singapore, about the book and her experiences as an employer.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve got four sisters, and I always grew up with somebody in the house helping. I was under the mistaken impression that the relationship between women was one I knew something about. I thought I had it covered.
Then I had my first child, and I realized there was no relationship that could compare with whoever it was at the time that was helping me with the childcare. It’s a one-on-one relationship with another woman, which is intense, complex and difficult. And it takes place in the most intimate place in your life: in your home with your children. It’s about love, care, and your children being safe, but for your childcare provider, it’s also her job. If you are lucky, she’ll end up doing her job, but the money is incredibly important.
How did you become the nanny expert?
The longer you do it, the more people you interact with, the better at it you become. There is always some sort of back and forth: Are you making the right choices? Should you be there more? Should you be there less? With every nanny/babysitter I went through the process of struggling to find the right balance.
What makes a good partnership between a caregiver and an employer?
The most important thing is the choice of the person you hire. My No. 1 piece of advice would be to trust your gut. People have a tendency to look to other people for advice—they’ll focus on the nanny’s qualifications and references. But you might not click with the person who has the best reference. It’s a mutual thing. Your personalities have to mesh.
What steps should you take when you are ready to hire a nanny?
Set the ground rules. Write a detailed job description before you embark on this relationship. Think hard about what it is that you want. Are you someone who thrives on being organized, or it okay for the nanny to make snacks, plans and playdates? You need to make those responsibilities clear when you hire. One of the things nannies hate most is changing the rules half way through.
You can also draw up a contract. Most nanny agencies have good templates. There’s a good one at The International Nanny Association’s website. A contract has to address all the things that ultimately are going to be sources of conflict over time such as vacation and sick time. One of the other things nannies tell me is that if I’m sick and I can’t come to work, it’s massively unfair that I’m not paid.
What are other nanny pet peeves?
Other than being presented with a sink full of dirty dishes, don’t be late. Many nannies have told me it is okay for a mother to be 15 minutes late after work, but it is never okay for the nanny to be late! You have to respect each other’s time.
Any other tips?
Don’t be cheap. It’s not worth trying to figure out what is the least amount of money you can get away with. Pay the most you can possibly afford.
And Nanny Makes Three will be released by St. Martin's Press in May.