Inside the Secret World of Nannies

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When I was first asked to delve into the secret world of nannies by my editor, I have to admit I was more than a little excited. Decades of watching Lifetime movies had led me to believe that nannies were scandalous women, living lives of luxury that a mere resume had allowed them to enter. And there was nothing that I wanted more than to dip my toes into the drama of their lives.

According to International Nanny Association, there are between 800,000 and 1.2 million professional nannies living and working in the United States. But if we’re being honest, before I started this assignment, I didn’t know a single one, nor anyone who employed one.

So naturally, I turned to Google — and it wasn’t long before I discovered a private Facebook group comprised of nannies from across the globe. With far less grace than I would have liked, I boldly asked them to spill all their secrets to me, and was shocked and delighted when they did. Soon, stories of their “mom bosses” and “dad bosses” began to pour out, and the veil on world heavily blanketed in nondisclosure agreements was suddenly pulled back for me to see.

At first, the tales were just as juicy as I’d hoped.

“I have a friend who is now married to her dad boss, and is the step mother to her nanny kids. It really is insane!” shared B.M., a 28-year-old nanny from Virginia Beach, Virginia. “And I just heard the other day about another nanny that is pregnant by her dad boss!”

I also spoke with Candida Vajana, a nanny who went to nanny school in the U.K. (it’s a real thing!) and even earned the prestigious “Nanny of the Year” award in 2017 from the International Nanny Association.

“We work and often live in other people’s homes, and spend long hours with their children,” Vajana told me. “We do get attached; it’s only normal. Being a nanny is walking a very thin line between familiarity, and professionalism, and it’s sometimes hard, if not impossible to do.”

But although Vajana has always kept herself firmly on the professional side of the job, it soon became clear that the blurring of those lines often sneaks up on the nannies themselves.

That fact was further proven when I heard from Ashley Paige, a 30 year-old-nanny in Austin, Texas, who found herself in the middle of her own Lifetime Movie situation not too long ago.

“It was pretty much the worst situation you can walk into as a brand-new nanny,” Paige recounts, looking back to when she first began working for a single father of three girls. She shares that the girls had sadly been abused in their previous home, and their father had just been granted custody.

“There were therapy appointments, court, home visits with CPS, supervised visits with mom and many tears throughout our first year together,” Paige explained. “But those three girls and I had a bond like no other; I loved them like they were my own adopted kids.”

However, Paige says things took a turn one night when her “dad boss” confided that he loved her — which was particularly problematic, considering they were both in relationships. Needless to say, she was shocked.

“I was married at the time, and it felt like I was in a soap opera,” she recalls. “Even though the feelings were not mutual, I was given the nickname ‘Nannygate,’ by [the girlfriend] he was dating at the time. Not long after, convinced that I had feelings for my dad boss, the girlfriend waited until I took my vacation week, and then replaced me while I was gone.”

Although I had quickly found myself in the middle of the very drama I’d been hoping to find, I soon learned that the most common blurring of professional boundaries came not with scandal, but with something else entirely.

We talk often about the overwhelming pressures of motherhood, the quest for perfection in parenthood, and the fine line between providing our kids with opportunities and over-scheduling them to death. But for nannies (especially those employed by wealthy families), many of those pressures can fall to them by default. And they’re often pretty powerless to stop it.

“It is incredibly easy for people to take advantage of their nanny and it can happen in the blink of an eye,” explains Alexia Kanteres, a 27-year-old nanny in St. Louis, Missouri. “There are arrangements made up front pertaining to time worked, but very quickly things spiral out of control; end times become later, start times become earlier, and overall time is just taken for granted. I think the craziest thing for me is the expectation that I will do anything, regardless of the request or time it would take to do it in addition to keeping the children alive.”

“I’m expected to do so many things other than care for the children, such as the time I was asked to spend my morning searching seven grocery stores for some kind of Chinese lettuce my boss wanted,” she continues. “I ended up finding it in an obscure international market 30 minutes away from their house. Yet even that isn’t as frustrating as the time I watched my boss volunteer to bake vegan cupcakes from scratch for her daughter’s preschool classroom, knowing I would be the one to actually make them. Not only did I do all of that, but I was expected to package them, deliver them, and not say a word about how the mom had nothing to do with any of it.”

It was at this point that I had to pick my jaw back up off the ground, because from my own experience as a mother, I have days where I can barely get myself dressed and keep the kids fed, let alone run to seven grocery stores and bake cupcakes from scratch — all while wearing a smile that says, “I love my job!”

Dealing with the parents on your own is the absolute hardest part.
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When I questioned why she even did it at all, Kanteres’ answer was simple: “I think the majority of nannies end up loving the kids like their own; it’s hard not to. If you are truly dedicated to your job, caring for these kids takes a special place in your heart and it becomes so much more than just business.”

But at the end of the day, it is a business, and when I polled the group as to what employment benefits many of them received along with their salary, the list varied from extensive vacation and sick days to multiple club memberships, the use of a vehicle, and getting to vacation with the family. Yet as one 25-year-old nanny from Kalamazoo, Michigan pointed out, “most families don’t offer 401k options, retirement savings plans, or even health insurance. And while the work is wonderful, the lack of human resources isn’t. Dealing with the parents on your own, is the absolute hardest part.”

And that last part was a sentiment expressed repeatedly by the nannies I spoke to; they love their jobs, but there is just way too much expected of them.

As B.M. explains, “the most surprising thing about the job is how much time you spend with the kids from day to day. Some parents literally never see their kids.”

Another nanny was quick to add:

“You always hear on TV about nannies butting heads with their mom boss, and I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that a lot of moms get jealous that we get to spend so much time with their children, and know the ins-and-outs of their lives better than they do. I worked for one mom who didn’t even know where her kid’s toys and daily essentials were, and she would get upset and say things like ‘I don’t even know where the stuff is in my own house.’ I knew that she wasn’t actually upset with me, and it was easy to see her feeling the working mom guilt, but it was stressful.”

In retrospect, I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. Essentially, nannies are working a job that requires them to step into another mother’s shoes every single day; caring for her home, raising her children, and cooking for her family. It’s a lot for a mother to feel like she’s missing out on, and in turn, she may develop the tendency to micromanage everything the nanny does. If she can’t be there herself, then she’s going to make sure whomever she pays to be there in her absence is going to do a helluva job.

But how much is too much?

I was made to be the disciplinarian, while the parents came home and got to the be the good guys who never followed through.
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“It’s a lot harder than people play it out to be,” explains Brittany, a 27-year-old-nanny from Ohio. “You don’t really get breaks and sometimes it can be stressful dealing with children that are having a bad day, or even the parents that come home in a bad mood and criticize everything you’ve done wrong.”

Over-and-over again I heard from nannies who felt burnt out by the tasks that they were expected to do. As one nanny explained, “I was made to be the disciplinarian, while the parents came home and got to the be the good guys who never followed through.”

Flipping through my interview notes, I couldn’t find a single nanny who didn’t recall working for a family that left them feeling overwhelmed at the end of the day. And a lot of it has to do with the parents wanting to get “their money’s worth.”

“We are expected to spend every single second working, because those are seconds that families feel like they’re paying for,” relents one anonymous and exhausted nanny. “But in reality, what mom can handle that? What mom cooks, cleans, and cares for children in creative and entertaining ways, all day long, five to six days a week, without getting a break? What mom has a gourmet dinner on the table every single night, and always keeps a spotless house? Not any that I know of, yet us nannies are expected to do it day in and day out, and in the end, it’s the children that suffer because we get burned out.”

And that I can’t disagree with.

Nannies are very much like most of the mothers that I know. They work hard trying to keep their family happy, and care for their children in the best ways that they can.

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“I think what most nannies would like parents to know,” says the anonymous nanny, “is that we love your children. There is no way we can see them every day, and not become invested. But we also want to feel respected, and that means not taking advantage of us.”

I think Vajana, the Nanny of the Year, summed it up best when she said “a happy nanny, makes for a happy family.”

So yes, while I may have gone into this assignment thinking I’d be writing about all sorts of juicy “scandals,” the truth is, they didn’t seem to be any more prevalent than they are in most other lines of work. (At least according to the women I spoke to.) And while I did hear some pretty good gossip here and there, my biggest learning was ultimately a pretty heartfelt one: Just like so many parents out there, nannies simply wish that they’d stop being expected to be superhuman. Because at the end of the day, the job of raising tiny humans to be well-rounded, decent people is a tough and often thankless one. But the people who choose to make it their life’s work — whether paid or unpaid — all deserve a major pat on the back.

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