My whole family is close. Really close. I still talk to my father and brother almost every day, and also to my aunt, my late mother’s sister. When I was growing up, my grandparents were over at our house all the time, and my father has been known to pop by my grownup house for a quick visit with our kids or a weeknight family dinner. My grownup nuclear family of four is equally as close as my original one. There are no secrets among us, and we are always there for each other no matter what.
Over our years of employing many nannies, we’ve developed close relationships with a few of them. Some more than others. I tried to keep each relationship as professional as I could, but that was easier said than done. Even though a nanny is technically an employee, she is given the task of caring for the people most precious to you: your children. She sees you at your most vulnerable times, and she becomes a part of your most intimate family relationships. A nanny may see you breastfeed your baby, she’ll change your childrens’ diapers, and she’ll care for your sick children when you need her most so that you can go to work. Somewhere along the way, a nanny can and will start to feel like family. The lines become blurred for better or for worse.
My friend Suzanne the social worker always had trouble with those blurred lines. She invited each of her nannies to her childrens’ birthday parties because she thought that was the right thing to do, but she always felt funny about it. Suzanne didn’t want her nannies to feel obligated to attend the family parties. After all, each nanny spent plenty of time with her children during the work week. She also didn’t want them to feel obligated to buy her kids presents, or have to play with them during what should have been their off duty hours. Suzanne sometimes wondered if she should pay the nanny for the time she spent at the birthday party, but she thought that might offend her too. It was a slippery slope. And so every January and every August, without fail Suzanne invited her nanny to her childrens’ birthday parties. Suzanne often found that the nanny accepted the invitation, but usually canceled at the last minute. That was fine with her. Suzanne knew she was doing the right thing by sending the invitation. She understood that the nanny felt obligated to accept and then understood when the nanny ultimately decided not to attend the party.
While Suzanne often felt like an older sister or mother figure to her nanny Rori, it was nanny Rori who in many ways brought Suzanne’s baby son Ryan into her own family as a surrogate son or little brother. Suzanne’s older daughter Charlotte was in school for a big chunk of the day while Rori cared for little Ryan. Rori often brought Ryan back to her parents’ house where she still lived. In the summer, Rori took Ryan swimming in their family pool, and around the holidays, Rori and her mother took Ryan to meet Santa Claus at the mall, and even had a stocking for Ryan hung on their mantle. Suzanne was happy that Rori felt so close to her son, and much like city moms Jane, Alison, and Nina, Suzanne was amused by Ryan’s secret life with his “other family,” as she called them.
Stacey’s third nanny Mariella became very close to the family. When nanny Mariella gave birth to her first child while still working for Stacey and Phil, it was Phil who drove Mariella and her new baby boy home from the hospital. Mariella’s fiancé could not take the day off from work at his new job in construction, and since Phil worked from home, he was available. Stacey and Mariella had worked out a deal during the pregnancy by which Mariella would take a couple months maternity leave, and would then return to work with her baby. On the day that Mariella went into labor early, Stacey scrambled to find a backup sitter so that her husband could pick up her nanny and nanny’s new baby from the hospital. Stacey recognized the unusual situation they were in, but they loved nanny Mariella. She felt a bit like family, and as Stacey explained, “That’s what you do for family.”
Our fourth nanny, Julie, felt very comfortable around us. She was also very close to her family, and by extension, we got to know that family and inner circle fairly well. Julie’s boyfriend Nick sometimes came along with her when she watched our kids on a Saturday night. Nick was great with Joey, and we didn’t mind that he was there. Julie told me all about her aunt, her mother’s sister who was diagnosed with cancer a few months into her working for us. Julie was about the age I was when my own mother was diagnosed with cancer, so I think she looked to me for advice. I was generally happy to offer it as best as I could, but I was also pretty pressed for time in my comings and goings before and after work. My main concern was making sure nanny Julie was taking good care of my kids.
One Friday in the early afternoon Julie called me at my office in tears. Her aunt had taken a turn for the worse, and she really wanted, actually needed, as she told me, to go see her that afternoon. I was about to walk into a meeting at work, and I really couldn’t leave. I tried to be as understanding as possible, and Neil happened to be working at a client location that was pretty close to our house. I knew he didn’t have that many pressing meetings, and so I called him and asked him to go home to relieve Julie because of her sick aunt.
Neil was definitely hesitant to leave work, especially since he recognized better than I did that Julie was our employee. She was responsible for caring for our kids for the agreed upon hours so that we could go to work and do our jobs. But he also knew that I was in a bind. I was almost always the one who came home when there was a childcare issue. That was our understood arrangement, and it made sense and usually worked for us. Neil made more money than I did, his office was much further away from home than mine was, he traveled a lot, and he had little flexibility. But it was his turn that day, so he went home and took over for weepy Julie. Neil later told me how awkward it was for him when he got back to our house, as he wasn’t really sure how to console her. He was not thrilled about having to do this. I understood where he was coming from, but I didn’t really have a choice.
I know that a tougher boss may have told her nanny that she had to stay at work for the rest of the day, but I felt bad for nanny Julie. She felt like more than just an employee. Nanny Julie’s aunt recovered from that tough day and hung in there a lot longer than anyone had expected. I tried to limit the personal talk as much as I could during the mornings and evenings, but that wasn’t so easy with Julie. I was also partially to blame. I always wanted her to feel comfortable around us. Perhaps she became too comfortable.
When I worked for the large magazine company in New York, I always knew where I stood with my bosses, and I’m pretty sure that my direct reports knew where they stood with me. Things were laid out very clearly, and there was a direct chain of reports from the most junior position to the most senior one. We had a whole human resources department dedicated to making sure this was the case. This is often not the case for nannies and the families who employ them. In fact, it some- times becomes unclear as to who is the nanny and who is the boss.
If it had not been for our third nanny, Molly, Joey might still be soothing himself to sleep with a pacifier today as an eleven-year-old fifth grader. Molly was the one who told me it was time to get rid of the pacifier, even though Joey only used it in the crib for his afternoon nap and at night right before he went to sleep. I knew she was right, and I let her take charge of the pacifier situation. Nanny Molly managed to get through two days of Joey napping without the pacifier. I had to stay strong at night and just let him “cry it out,” as per Molly’s instructions.
On that second night, however, I couldn’t take the crying and running up and down the steps as I was then six months into my second pregnancy. So I caved and gave Joey the one lonely pacifier that I found buried in a pile of his stuffed animals in the corner of his crib. As nanny Molly got Joey dressed the next morning while I tried to sneak out the door for work without getting busted, I heard a “Rachel” from upstairs. I knew I was in trouble. Nanny Molly found the contraband pacifier in the crib, and I had ruined her two days of hard work. Like a child whose hand had been caught in the cookie jar, I confessed.
Even though I was the employer and nanny Molly the employee, she was clearly the boss in many situations. That was fine by me. I needed someone to take more control at home, and Molly liked being that person. I was stressed at work as I was getting ready to take a maternity leave, and I was also worried about how Joey would adapt to life with a new baby sibling. Nanny Molly made that time much easier for me. I knew Joey was testing me as he knew big changes were coming as my belly grew. Nanny Molly was firm with Joey, but she still had a fun-loving and playful way with him. She also ran our house like no one else. I sometimes look at our house today and wonder how organized it would be if nanny Molly still worked for us or, rather, I worked for her. Nanny Molly was a good boss.
My good friend Kate from graduate school also employed a bossy nanny named Rita. Kate moved to California after getting her MBA in Michigan. And after working for a few companies, she went on to start her own home design business and later a home products startup. Kate and I were in the same section in business school, which meant that we took all of our classes together. We were not the typical MBA students in that we did not have the traditional finance, accounting, engineering, or economics backgrounds that many of our classmates did. We both came from creative sides of business and felt a little overwhelmed when our professors quickly reviewed balance sheets in accounting class and the Capital Asset Pricing Model in finance. Lucky for us, we befriended another student named Daryn who had a hardcore engineering background. Daryn taught us everything. We couldn’t have gotten through business school without her. She was our boss, and a good one at that. Kate, like me, liked having a boss in most every situation. We liked having someone to tell us what to do, whether it was putting the credits to the left and the debits to the right on an accounting balance sheet, or getting a baby to sleep through the night.
And so much like I did with nanny Molly, Kate and her husband John hired bossy nanny Rita after their daughter Logan was born. Nanny Rita often interrupted Kate’s workdays with phone calls or text messages wanting to know when she would be paid next. Although Kate had clearly laid out the details of the work relationship, including a pay day every other Friday, Rita still took it upon herself to take charge and insist on getting paid whenever she needed the money. Kate needed nanny Rita and didn’t want to deal with the payment issue or with finding a new nanny. So Kate complied with the on demand pay schedule, although she sort of felt like she was being extorted for the money.
Kate gave birth to Logan during a very busy time in her career. She was commuting between California and New York while working with another design firm in New York. The hours and travel were crazy, especially since Kate had a new baby who she was still nursing. Kate was passionate about the business and suspected the New York firm would soon buy her own business. Eventually they did. Kate knew that she wouldn’t be commuting like that forever, but she had to do it for at least a few months. Kate was determined to make the bicoastal situation work, and she needed nanny Rita to help her do that. So nanny Rita traveled with Kate and baby Logan from California to New York and back every week.
When Kate was at work in New York, nanny Rita watched Logan using their hotel as home base, and when they were in California, Rita adjusted to life as the West Coast nanny back at their house. In many ways, Kate was more dependent on Rita than Rita was on Kate. Kate felt like she was working for the company in New York and for her own nanny. When Rita came to Kate and asked that she get paid New York City rates (which were just slightly higher than California rates) for her time watching Logan in New York City, Kate reluctantly agreed. Kate and John thought this was a ridiculous request as the difference in the rates was so minimal. They were already paying for Rita to fly business class back and forth across the country, and they always made sure nanny Rita had her own hotel room separate from Kate and baby Logan while in New York City. They didn’t really have a choice though. The precedent had been set early on by nanny Rita. And nanny Rita got what nanny Rita wanted.
Rita had the upper hand in the relationship. Kate and John were both extremely busy running and trying to grow their own businesses in the midst of having their first child, and so they let Rita run the show. It was a good thing that John was a Microsoft Excel wizard because he had to develop an elaborate spreadsheet to keep track of nanny Rita’s multi-tiered payment schedule, which changed from week to week depending on the travel hours. Kate often wondered when exactly the payment rate should change? At the moment they crossed over into New York airspace? Or perhaps it was when wheels touched down at Kennedy Airport?