Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

What Sucks about Being a Nanny


When friends hear the nanny position that has served as my main gig for the past year and a half is ending, the most common question I’m asked is, “But won’t you miss him?”


Him. The blonde-haired baby with whom I’ve spent all this time, the same child who calls my name as soon as my car pulls up, who kisses me on the mouth and tells me daily he loves me, his diction ridiculously clear for a toddler.


While the answer is, of course I’ll miss him, it’s also yes, but…as in yes, but that’s a function of being a nanny, a known part of the deal.  Even though it’s his transfer to daycare that precipitates the change, the expectation has always been that I’ll move on.  And it’s not like I won’t occasionally babysit or visit. Our relationship will evolve, I tell myself. I use the “there’ll be others,” line of thinking, the same kind of “countless fish in the sea” logic my mother imparts when I call home, heartbroken.


Which I kind of am, just a little.


That’s the problem with this line of work. I’m not sure I want to hop into another family, fall in love with a new baby that will also someday go away. I’m tempted to take a break, work an office job for a while, a job that requires less of my heart. This recent transition has brought to the forefront of my mind the complex and intimate reality of what it means to be a nanny.


I’m reminded of an overnight I did so the parents could celebrate their anniversary—a microcosm of the whole nanny-family relationship. We discussed what might be an appropriate rate for the occasion, and when a subsequent miscommunication occurred over payment, things got momentarily tense.   Most of the time, we pretend money isn’t a part of the equation at all. Because in childcare there is such an emphasis on personal relationships, which categorically de-emphasizes the financial aspect. We all pretend I’d do it for free. I can’t tell you the amount number of times my employer has forgotten to write my paycheck and I’ve have purposefully neglected to remind them—all so they can be assured finances aren’t my primary motivation for caring for their son. Because if I love him, it shouldn’t be about the money. And while I do love him, I also have to pay my rent. The negotiation of compensation is changed by the personal relationships involved.


Even so, the fact you’re being paid to inhabit the lives they live for free is strange. So we negotiate over how much the weekend will cost them…but carefully. This brings up another inherent challenge afforded by the intimate nature of the job—conflict avoidance. Because you spend so much time together, everyone tries to get along. Most of the time this isn’t so difficult. The employee defers to the desires of the person paying, but in a situation that hinges on fair compensation, the power imbalance can lead to the employee being taken advantage of. Nannies want to keep their employers happy, but part of that is being consistently happy yourself. It may be worth sacrificing a few dollars to avoid a fight.


On the evening of the overnight, I brought my toothbrush and a change of clothes in a tote bag and went through my well worn babysitting routine, the same I would use on any other Friday night. Only after he was in bed, I knew they weren’t coming home. The house felt different without them.


I felt strange taking off my clothes—it was my workplace, after all. No other adults were in the house, yet I felt a distinct discomfort disrobing. I returned the towel and washcloth they’d set out for me, unused, choosing to shower when I got back to my house. Sleeping in their bed—though it was made up in clean sheets—felt intrusive. I didn’t want to touch their stuff, these people I knew so well, whose child I had helped parent. The intimate role I play only extends as far as they let it, really, and this was new. By six in the morning when he woke me, the bed had lost its strangeness and in the morning light the house again looked familiar. We ate breakfast and things started to feel somewhat normal again, if only slightly in the way they might if the parents had disappeared entirely—though in this case, I knew they were returning that afternoon.  The job always involves stepping into someone else’s life, it’s just a matter of how much. That is what being a servant is, leaving one’s own life to attend to someone else’s.


The baby I take care of is now a toddler; I specialize in infants. There’s no incentive to remain in the job long term, no room for career growth or potential for further earnings. I stayed on the job for as long as I did because of the personal relationships, which will continue to serve me in the form of references and memories. It feels strange to boil down so much of the experience into a pat reflection on my resume, a list of activities I performed and an accompanying date. There’s no room to include love on a resume, even though that’s what makes the job so priceless.

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Kellen has watched other people parent for years. She has worked as a babysitter, infant teacher, nanny and in continuing education and quality improvement for childcare providers. She aspires to be a foster parent someday.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsTeresa   |  Wednesday, 06 March 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I was a nanny for years, and YES to all of this. Such a complicated relationship, such tricky negotiations, so much awkwardness about the close proximity of love and money–which makes it sound kind of like prostitution, doesn’t it? Lots of joy, too, though, and a pretty good crash course in the buddhist concept of non-attachment.

    I’m still in touch with the children I took care of as infants and toddlers–they’re in junior high. A couple summers ago, they visited me and my toddler son in Mexico, where I now live. The older girl said to her brother, “You better be nice to Teresa. She raised you!” Indeed.

  2. CommentsSusan   |  Saturday, 22 November 2014 at 2:48 pm

    I am shocked by how much I love being a nanny! I never expected to love this job or look forward to going to work each Monday morning. Yes, it is hard work – hard physical work as well as tapping into a supply of patience I never knew I possessed. But I love it. I love the little boy who has been in my care since his birth and want the best for him. Yes, the job will end but I know that what I have given him — making him feel secure, engaged, “heard” and loved at all times — will stay with him even if he forgets me. That is the gift of being a nanny.

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