Whether or not the allegations in the Rob Lowe nanny scandal turn out to be true, one thing is for sure: for movie stars and mere middle class families alike - hiring help to work in your home is a tricky proposition.
And when it comes to finding the right person to care for your child, it seems like a miracle every time a family gets it right.
As a consultant to expectant and new parents (www.VoilaBaby.com!), I often help families determine their childcare needs, occasionally even finding nannies for clients.
Hiring a nanny is not unlike marrying a lover without first having the chance to date. But it's easier to get the skinny on a lover because you spend time together. A nanny, on the other hand, is left at the door when you kiss your kids goodbye in the morning. All you can do is hope for the best.
One couple in my Los Angeles neighborhood who thought the woman watching their twins was "the most wonderful nanny," discovered that Ms. Wonderful had been dumping their 7-month-olds at an unlicensed daycare for four of the five months she'd worked for them. Apparently, the nanny had done the same with her previous employers' twins for five years.
More typically, the problems are subtler, yet nagging - like the nanny whose thong underwear routinely peeks out from her jeans. Or the nanny who sneaks sugary snack foods into the toddler's mouth, ignoring mom's wishes. And then there's the nanny who takes the invitation to eat on the job as license to mow through everything in the fridge and pantry, daily.
How do you choose a person to invite into your family? How much should you compromise? And what -- or who -- is good enough to care for your precious children, and to entrust with your secrets, maybe even to see you nude? (In addition to the more serious charges filed in Jessica Gibson's countersuit against Rob Lowe and his wife, including groping, flashing, and just generally icky vulgarity, Gibson charges that Cheryl Lowe walked around naked (gasp! in her own home?!)? Rob Lowe, in a blog here, pre-emptively called Gibson's charges lies and accused her of trying to extort $1.5 million from him.)
Under the best circumstances, getting accustomed to a new nanny can take time, not to mention painful compromise and the hard work of building trust. After reaching the other side of that mountain, if there are lingering doubts, it often is difficult to put them into perspective, and even harder to decide to start all over again, and risk a greater evil that may lie in the unknown.
Many families just accept the quirks and the small discomforts and keep hoping for the best. They put up with nannies who bond with their kids and do a "good enough" job, though they know that even if the nanny is shaking her head yes, she may not actually understand the words coming out of her employer's mouth.
One friend has a nanny who's been nicking small objects, a habit likely carried over from her former position, where she acquired a pair of La Perla panties that my friend found in her own underwear drawer. The nanny called them hand-me-downs. But, retailing upwards of $70, and in perfect condition, the story doesn't add up, especially since other personal items have started disappearing: stationery, a trinket box, a Marni sweater.
And even when it works well, there are still complications. There's the beloved nanny with a habit of borrowing money (how do you say "no" if she's otherwise perfect?) There's jealousy, when mom leaves for work and baby doesn't notice because she's too busy giggling with the nanny. And there are the burdens that come when you do find a nanny you love. She becomes part of your family, but that means her family becomes your problem too, and when her children are sick and she can't work, you can't work. Or when she's yearning for her far-away home -- the husband and children she left behind to earn more here -- you may find yourself making a trip to the immigration lawyer.
But maybe those are good problems to have. Certainly far better than a lawsuit covered on the Today Show.
So how do you find your forever nanny? "Every family is unique and has unique needs," said Lindsay Heller, AKA The Nanny Doctor (www.TheNannyDoctor.com), a clinical psychologist who consults with families nationwide to help them find and keep in-home childcare. And if need be, she helps families recover from bad childcare experiences.
Heller recommends taking these steps:
Define Your Family Identity
"Include things such as culture, backgrounds, values, foods that you like to eat, that you don't eat, if you are vegetarian, or kosher, pet peeves," said Heller. Make clear what is important to you; If you are big beach people, you don't want to consider candidates who can't swim. Don't wait to find out the day of the Halloween parade that your nanny finds pint-sized ghouls and goblins offensive and won't even dress your little spider man that day. Make clear what is important to you.
Write Out The Job Description
Type it out. Spare no detail. Confront your own reality, this is no time for embarrassment, own up to wanting someone who will both to hand wash your skivvies,
Screen Resumes Before Interviewing
Do not interview every candidate who comes your way. Insist on a resume. "It really shows how together a person is." Gaps in employment should be looked at as red flags, Heller says. And if you hear the words "family emergency" make sure that's not code for 90 days in county lock-up.
Conduct A Thorough Background Check
Many services are available online. Also be sure to obtain as lengthy a driving history as possible. If you hire a placement service, be sure to eyeball the background check before your nanny's first day. Ask references for other references, adults who have seen the candidate on the job. Those third party references probably won't be primed for your call.
Type your questions and ask every candidate the same ones. Show restraint: "I don't care how much you love her, or him, don't ever ever ever offer her the position during the interview or the trial period," said Heller. Take some time to reflect.
This is like dating. Everyone (or at least the adults) will be on their best behavior, but you should be able to learn a lot about the nanny anyway. Be sure to conduct the trial during the days of the week and times of day when you want your nanny to work, Heller suggests. Don't try to simulate a weekday job during weekend hours, your household and your neighborhood are hardly the same.
Don't let a problem fester and don't act before learning the facts. If you sit down at dinner one night and your Jewish toddler starts making the sign of the cross, discuss it with your nanny before you start imagining her park bench proselytizing. "Stick with the facts," said Heller. "Stay away from words related to judgment, shame, the emotional." So, if you come home from work and there's a new hole in the wall, you say, "Ok, so there's a hole in the wall."
She's not your BFF, and even if she becomes like a "member of the family," she's still being paid to be there. It's up to you to set the boundaries.
Empower Your Nanny
It pays to be nice. "Use language that is educating and empowering. That's really important in regards to maintaining your nanny," said Heller. "Clearly, if they feel like you're mean or terrible, they don't want to be there. That affects their job performance." And in a moment of emergency, Heller says, "You don't want your nanny to be afraid of you."
For more tips, visit the International Nanny Association www.nanny.org.