The Mommy Wars: Nanny vs. Mom

As mothers, some of the biggest obstacles we face are the imaginary voices inside our head telling us "this mom or that nanny is doing a better job than we are." It is easy to feel nervous since we are doing a job for which there is no formal training.
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Woman talking to nanny at the doorway
Woman talking to nanny at the doorway

The other day I was in the pool changing area before swim class. Anyone going to childrens' activity centers, pools or parks in any metro area has realized that the landscape has changed. Years ago, there used to be three groups of women eyeing each other and comparing themselves to each other asking, "who is doing it better?" -- the working moms, the stay at home moms or the part-time working moms who can understand the issues felt by both parties. Because of the soft economy and the increase by mothers in the workforce, there is now a fourth group to which the others moms now compare themselves -- "the nannies."

In the pool changing area that day, there was a stay at home mom, a working mom and me all working furiously to dress our wet (and rambunctious) children. We were all sweating, fumbling and cursing under our breath trying to shove their sticky wet limbs in their clothes as they wiggled furiously against us. However, at the end of the room we all turned to notice a lovely blonde haired women singing and laughing as she dressed her four children (we each had three) with the utmost joy and ease. I just had to commend her aquatic dressing skills and how well she did with her children when she replied, "Oh I am not their mom, I am their nanny." "Oh great," said the attorney "now there is yet another group of women who will make me question my mothering skills!"

Being a mom is hard. I know this not just because I am a therapist who works with moms or a parenting coach who lectures to moms, but mostly because I am a mom. I realized many years ago when I started helping moms that one of the biggest negative forces to moms is watching other moms and then comparing themselves with inner conversations such as "she has him potty-trained already. Why don't I?" or "they don't even use pacifiers, yet I just ordered 20" or, "she never uses the TV and we can't live without it!"

In the last few years, I have noticed an interesting new string of conversations presenting themselves in my practice and at my lectures -- not only are moms comparing themselves to other moms, but now they are comparing themselves and sometimes pitting themselves against the very person there to help them be better moms...their nanny.

Of course, employee/employer dynamics have had struggles for years, however most people assumed in areas of domestic work, when the shift of power was so great there had to be little competition. Now however, times have changed and more and more moms are having mental battles, self-confidence issues, and even trauma which is ironically centered based upon the person they hired to service them. There are so many issues at play because there is no other personal/professional relationship quite like that of mom and nanny and the dynamic is ripe for constant internal debates around "who is mothering better?"

As a therapist, I have found the parent/nanny/employee/employer relationship fascinating. Think about another job where when an employee excels in their position (nanny running house smoothly and children are blissfully attached to them) that the personal lives of their bosses are directly affected. Imagine a principal hiring a new teacher. The teacher is doing well, grades are up and class is doing well and suddenly the principal examines the teacher's work and contemplates, " I as good of a parent?" The teacher would say, "What does my being good at my job have to do with you as a parent and why is our conversation even in the personal realm?"

Nannies on the other hand, are employees who do a professional job, but their services affects their bosses on a deeply personal level. How many jobs contain a situation where when the professional does such a good job that they may get fired because of their success? I have seen several instances of nanny's doing so well at their jobs that the moms have created fictional dramas just so that they can fire them. During a session I asked one mom bluntly "please be honest and tell me what you feel now that Sonia is here, the children are behaving better and the house in running smoothly? What is it about her that bothers you so much?" The mother looked up eyes welled with tears and said; "I cannot stop comparing myself to her and what she does better. This is what I have done for ten years and if kids are happy, house is well run, what is my role now?" Imagine in four months an employee innocently excelled at her duties unknowingly causing her boss's inner psyche to unravel.

Having worked with moms and nannies I am able to hear both sides of the story. A veteran nanny of 25 years has said to me "I like to be good, but not too good so that the mom begins to resent me. I had that with my first two families." Or the newbie nanny crying confused saying, "I just do not understand how I am working so hard, the children love me and doing everything so well yet the mom is so unhappy with me." When you put women together in a personal domain, with professional duties and "your duties" are "her children" a whole bunch of emotions can be mixed all around. It is a strange concept that a nanny's professional success is them being wonderful at "mothering her boss's child." This dynamic obviously causes tension between the women as it is hard to watch a child love another adult in a similar fashion to their parent and it is equally hard to watch another adult parent your child as good or sometimes better, than you do. When moms see moms or even other nannies "mothering" it is sometimes impossible not to compare or question their own mothering abilities.

As clinician and a parent I understand what the mothers and the nannies feel. There are many times when I have come home from work and the house is running in a calm, happy and organized fashion that I just simply could not attain. One night my children were bathed, dinner was cooking, cookies were being baked and my nanny had made an entire painted playhouse city out cardboard boxes! I thought, "I left to see just one client for only 60 minutes -- how on earth did she do all of this in one hour and why can't I do the same?" Some of those moments can jar you as a mom and take you off your game as you think "wow, why can't I do that?" And then if your let your insecurities get the best of your and your negative voice to get louder you can even say "jeez is she a better mother than me?"

It took some time for me to stop comparing myself to our nanny and understand what made us different to the children when we did some of the same "mothering," but now after almost 8 years I have come to appreciate all of her strengths and how they have no bearing at all upon my domestic weaknesses or who I am as a mother. In fact my youngest daughter calls my nanny "Mom-mia" instead of "Maria" This alone could send some critical moms straight to the psych ward, but instead of thinking "oh no, she loves her like me!" I see it as a beautiful representation of what Maria means to my daughter "a mommy when mommy is at work and a "Maria" when she isn't'." As I was writing this article I asked my wise 10 year old to explain what makes our "mothering" different to her: "I like playing in the basement with Maria, but I love just being with you. You made me Mom, you are my everything." Us moms sometimes forget that we do not always need to be "doing something better" sometimes just being with them is all they need.

As mothers, some of the biggest obstacles we face are the imaginary voices inside our head telling us "this mom or that nanny is doing a better job than we are." It is easy to feel nervous since we are doing a job for which there is no formal training. However, moms need to quiet these critical voices and separate fact from fiction because time wasted lamenting on "is she a better mother than me?" is time taken from the very children we should be mothering. Our kids are not tallying up "which mom did what" as there is no report card with scores at the end of this journey. All our children need from us is the unconditional commitment to love, cherish and guide them to the best of our ability and each of us does that in our own unique way. What I have gathered from every child with whom I have worked or every research study I have read is that children do not need the "best soccer mom" or "the most domesticated mom" or even the fantasy of "the perfect mom." In the end all they really want is simply quality time with "their mom" exactly as they are.