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 ½ 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 ½ 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.

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