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Nanny Regrets: I Ignored the Warning Signs

Many moms, including me, have had—or are having—nanny drama. But how many moms can say their nanny had a self-described “nervous breakdown” on the job?

Unfortunately, I can.

After I had my first child, I was working full-time in a corporate job and planned to return to the office after a three-month maternity leave. Naively, I assumed I’d find a great daycare near my house. After touring several and putting our name on the wait-lists, no spots had opened by the time my daughter was born. And, to complicate matters, my company asked me to come back to work a month early for a big project.

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Cutting my maternity leave short meant I’d need to find a good nanny—and fast. Since I didn’t know more than one or two friends with babies, I went through a reputable nanny agency in the area. Looking back, I shudder at how little I knew about what I was getting myself into. If Craigslist was around, I might as well have used it to find childcare.

The people at the nanny agency were professional and reassuring. “We’ll have no problem finding you somebody fabulous,” they told me. I interviewed several nannies, but didn’t feel like any of them were right for our family. Then, one girl I really liked stopped by my house, unannounced, to tell me she was pregnant and couldn’t work for me. As she lingered, holding my baby, she launched into a story about how her boyfriend didn’t want her to have the baby. I thanked her for coming and called the agency, pleading for them to find me somebody right away.

Well, one reason I should have cared was those moms were trying to let me know something was off about Mary’s behavior.

Help arrived. I hired Mary, a mom of two teenage girls who had lived with a family in Los Angeles for three years. She had moved about 10 minutes from my house and had lots of experience with babies. I went back to work full-time.

Everything was fine. At first.

Slowly, the problems started. Mary preferred not to socialize with other nannies or do play dates. She badmouthed the other nannies in our neighborhood, saying they were “low class.” As I got to know some of the moms on my street, they’d mention that Mary wouldn’t come to their homes or their kids’ birthday parties. Working crazy hours, Mary’s lack of interest in the “nanny network” was the least of my problems. Why should I care whether my nanny liked their nanny?

Well, one reason I should have cared was those moms were trying to let me know something was off about Mary’s behavior. It would take me another two years to realize that Mary was letting my daughter watch endless hours of Sesame Street each day, despite my request that she not do this. My daughter was becoming withdrawn and obsessed with TV.

Then, the real problems started. One day, Mary showed up at my house on a Saturday morning with her teenage daughter. She asked to borrow $1,000. Not wanting her to quit, we gave it to her. It happened again. And again. I clearly hadn’t set any boundaries. So, I sat her down and explained that we wouldn’t be loaning her any more money. I also told her that she needed to maintain a separation between her personal life and her work life.

That was expected of me at work. Why shouldn’t it apply to my nanny?

Having someone come into your house daily to take care of your infant is like nothing I’ve ever dealt with. It’s incredibly personal and, for me, stressful. I'd made a huge mistake by not setting ground rules upfront. I should never have expected her to understand the unspoken corporate rules I lived by.

But, I had made an even bigger mistake than not setting firm boundaries. I hired Mary despite the fact that her previous employer refused to return my calls for a reference. The agency told me the woman was traveling and not to worry.

Huge red flag!

In the end, my husband called Mary to his office and fired her. She was in the middle of what she called a “nervous breakdown.” Her constant complaints about going though menopause didn’t register with me. When she told me she felt “crazy” and that her uterus was going to explode and that she’d broken her rib lifting my daughter out of the crib, we gave her a week off and paid for her doctor’s visit. When I came home to find her sitting on the front steps with her car on the street, my daughter strapped in the car seat, I was horrified. Finally, when she stopped speaking to me and would only address my husband, he gave her severance pay, had her sign a waiver and fired her. About a year later she started calling our house. After telling her to stop, we never heard from her again.

Don’t assume your generosity ($20/hour for one kid, paid vacations and bonuses) will be appreciated.

I was an emotional wreck those few weeks after we let her go. I took time off work and put my daughter in preschool (she was 2). I ended up sharing another wonderful nanny with a family at our preschool. I’ve had two nannies in 11 years. I wish I’d never hired Mary.

Here’s what I learned:

1. You must talk to the nanny’s previous employer. If they avoid your calls, assume there is a problem.

2. Gently but firmly establish rules and limits for the job you want her to do. I never wanted a nanny who was part of our immediate family. I wanted a person to come to work, act professionally and leave at the end of the day. That approach isn’t for everyone. I have friends who want their nanny to be a part of their family and stay in contact long after their kids no longer need her. That wasn’t for me. I didn’t want a friend or another relative, and I should have made that clear, in a nice way, at the start.

3. Never, ever loan money to your nanny, unless you want to set up an unworkable precedent that blurs every boundary possible.

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4. Don’t assume your generosity ($20/hour for one kid, paid vacations and bonuses) will be appreciated. It may be resented. If you feel taken advantage of, you probably are.

5. If your friends or other moms try to hint to you that there is something wrong with your nanny or they way she cares for your child, don’t be defensive or brush it off. Ask them questions. Find out if they are being gossipy or if there is something they are seeing that you are not.

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