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Buyer Beware

This is not the Nannygate story you may expect. I am not about to tell you that if you hire a live-in nanny, your lovely Normal Guy husband is going to morph into Jude Law, schtupping the sitter when you’re not looking. I will, however, tell you that the nanny could drive a wedge in your marriage, simply by making it easy for one parent to take his foot off the gas.

Moms often see the nanny as a stand-in — a valued, caring stand-in in the best of circumstances. Ideally, a live-in au pair or full-time, in-home daycare provider allows both spouses the freedom to focus on work, errands and other tasks, allowing quality family time in the off-hours. “My au pair makes bath time a game, whereas I see it as a chore,” says Andrea, a pediatrician and mother of two in San Francisco. “So I delegate that. And if she’s cooking, and my husband and I are playing with the kids, or vice versa, I see it as a win-win.”

But increasingly, I’m hearing about dads who see the nanny, at least subconsciously, if not overtly, as a parent-substitute. Even Andrea told me that she noticed her surgeon husband, Lance, is completely hands-off in the diapers, feeding and bathing arenas, but much more involved in playtime now that they have the au pair.

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“Every single father I know says he’s an awesome dad,” my friend Carrie, who is a mom to two boys in Scarsdale, NY, remarked recently. “But hardly any of them are hands-on with the kids when they’re home. They’re deferring to the moms and nannies.”

The dad’s perspective is interesting; none I spoke with copped to being bad, out of it or otherwise detached. Instead, they saw the sitter as an essential ingredient to both relieving their guilt for not being available to do certain tasks and for not wanting to do them, either. “I’m off the hook for a lot of the diapering-feeding-bathing, but I play with my kids more, because the sitter is there,” says Lance. “It’s like getting to eat ice cream without having to eat the broccoli.”

It’s true, too, that when talking about raising children we don’t hear a lot of dads say they feel guilty or conflicted about working or having childcare, or that they feel obligated to spend an extra hour with the kids rather than go to the gym. In fact, Carrie told me that when she asks her husband to skip his workout and come home early, his response is, “Why should I come home when the nanny is there?”

And friends, there’s the rub.

“My ex-husband used to ‘joke’ that the nanny was there to do his 50 percent of the job,” says Lori Freson, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Southern California. “I was resentful, but at the same time happy that I had someone to help, or I would have had to do 100 percent of the parenting myself.”

Whether it’s willful or natural attrition on the dad’s part, whether they step back because they feel marginalized or they choose to marginalize themselves, is unclear — but the effects can be stunning. Caroline, a graphic designer who lives on the Upper East Side, says she hears the other moms at her daughters’ private school talk about intimate family time they share with the nanny, rather than with their husbands. “I can’t believe what I hear,” she says. “They say — in a very matter-of-fact way — that the sitters, not the dads, do bedtime with them — and then they and their nannies go watch TV together. It’s baffling. Why aren’t they spending those after-bed hours with their husbands?”

According to Freson, while some women prefer that setup, this pattern of lack of involvement by one parent often leads the other to feel pressured to do everything. “As you can probably guess, this can cause a great deal of serious resentment in a relationship,” she says. “Personally, I never understood why my partner didn’t want to be more involved in our children’s lives. After all, isn’t that why you have children in the first place?”

I’ve been there. Even though my husband never deferred his parenting role to our sitter, and he made a point of being around more when my job called me out of town, there were things we both chose to delegate, perhaps to a fault. There were the transactions of daily life — carpools, haircuts, grocery runs — that our fantastic sitter managed seamlessly. And now that we’re nanny-free, I can see all the ways in which he’s stepped up, things he does that I never realized he allowed the nanny to handle once upon a time. He says the sacrifice is more mine than his — that I’m doing more running around than ever — but I see it differently. With the nanny, he had to think less about the daily operations in the moment, but he was still equally involved in the master plan. Without the nanny, he will rearrange his day to relieve my “two places at once” problem — one child’s karate lesson vs. the other’s orthodontist appointment.

Could it be that we got something “right?” Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, Ed.S., LMFT, a marriage and family ”¨therapist in Westchester, NY, and the author of A Short Guide to a Happy ”¨Marriage (the gay edition is due out this month), says, yes, it really is about setting up the boundaries ahead of time: talking as a team, with the childcare provider, and explaining that while it may appear that one parent isn’t as hands-on, day-to-day, there is a behind-the-scenes plan to make sure everyone’s on the same page.

Between mom and dad, that behind-the-scenes teamwork needs to be, as with everything related to child rearing, consistent. “Parents need an ongoing, efficient means of sharing information [about the kids],” says O’Neill. “Taking 20 minutes every day, no excuses, to discuss your children — preferably in person, but if one is away, use the phone.” Furthermore, Freson advises that if couples skip these important conversations, they’ll miss out on opportunities to improve communication and set an example for their children.

Caroline, a graphic designer and mom to two girls, says her salvo is to be “under-nannied.” The sitter works for the exact amount of time it takes for mom to commute and work. “It forces my husband and me to engage in conversations about our girls’ schedules and their emotional lives,” she says. “Not that I don’t have moments when my husband starts to tell me about all the cool blogs he’s reading, and I think, ‘Blogs?! When do you have time for that? Why don’t you make the brownies for the freakin’ bake sale?!’”

However, Freson is careful to point out that in some families, this is a model that both parents enjoy. “Some wives are totally fine with it, or might even prefer it,” she says. The most shocking example I’ve heard of was that of a divorcing mother of twins in Los Angeles, who exclaimed to her nanny: “We get custody!” By “we” she meant herself and the nanny.

The real danger to the marriage is when expectations are not communicated, Freson advises: “Couples must discuss what the role of the nanny will be and what their roles as parents are. It is important to be on the same page to avoid feelings of resentment.” Regardless of where you stand in your own nanny war, it’s important to note that parenting styles can be deeply ingrained before you even have a child together.

“Each of us had a different upbringing and have different ideas and beliefs about the roles of parenting and families, how to do it, what it should look like,” Freson says. “Most of us simply assume that if this person wants to marry you and have children, that you must want the same things. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Find out how your partner was raised. What is/was his or her relationship like with his or her own parents? What are you partner’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs about family and parenting? If more people spent time really, truly learning the answers to these questions beforehand, I really believe we would see happier couples and less divorce.”

Not surprisingly, the dads who were willing to speak with me were in marriages that work because they’re on the same page about child rearing with their spouses. Most of the dads I spoke with see the nanny as one ingredient that makes their happy marriage possible. “Having a nanny gives my wife the ability to have some balance — part-time career work and raising our two kids,” says Edward, a sales executive in Boston. “The sitter helps with the tasks I don’t have bandwidth for during the workday, and then we’re both more relaxed, so we get more quality family time.” But they all agreed that taking the nanny out of the equation would create more stress and more guilt for them.

So what do you think? Dads, do you ever feel pushed aside in favor of the nanny — and then reluctant to reclaim your turf? Moms, do you feel like it’s just easier to co-parent with the sitter while you sulk, silently, about your husband’s lack of involvement? Do either of you feel that having no nanny would result in more work for one of you, more guilt for the other?

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