I never thought about nannies. I always knew that I wanted to have children one day, and I also always knew that I wanted a career. I just never thought about who would watch those children while I was having that career.
I first learned about nannies while still single, childless and working at a large magazine company in New York City. I loved my boss, Jennifer. She was well respected by just about everyone in the company. She knew how to play the political games amongst the way-too-prevalent old boys' club in the office, but most of all she challenged me in my own work and taught me so much. And she was fun. She also had two young children and made it look so easy. She had a nanny.
The first time I met her was when Nanny Louise brought Jennifer's 4-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter in to the office. Louise wheeled them down the hall in their bright red double stroller, and we all oohhed and aahhed over their adorableness. We hung out in Jennifer's office for a few minutes while her son played with the desk toys and Jennifer cuddled with her baby daughter. Then it was time for our weekly status meeting. Jennifer handed the baby back to nanny Louise. Before I got my notes together, the kids were kissed and strolled out of the office down the hall and off to wherever they went. It seemed like a great arrangement.
I wanted to be Jennifer one day -- a successful and happy working mom. A woman who had it all. And of course I would be her, right? I had a good education, solid job experience and I worked very hard. I was also in a serious relationship with a great guy who I suspected I would marry one day, and together we would have adorable children. Just like Jennifer's children, my future kids would get strolled in to my office one day by a smiley and loving nanny. I'd kiss them and play with them for a few minutes and then go about my day at work without a worry. It looked so easy and awesome. Then I had kids...
I never had a nanny cam. I didn't even consider getting one. I am generally a very trusting person, and I thought that installing a nanny cam would be a violation of our nanny's privacy. I also thought it would drive me crazy and distract me from getting any work done. I've heard stories of people watching their nanny cams all day long while at the office. Don't you hire a nanny so that you can go to your place of work and actually do your job?
I think that when you hire a nanny or really anyone, you need to establish a level of trust between yourself and that person, and you need to let go of some control. Having said that, I do understand that many people may feel otherwise. There is a reason that you can scroll through Amazon.com for hours searching through what seems like an endless supply of nanny cams. You can buy a nanny cam hidden in an alarm clock, a coat hook and even a water bottle. Spying on your nanny is big business. As our kids got older, though, it became apparent to us that we wouldn't need a nanny cam. The secret lives of our nannies came to us via other means.
My husband Neil discovered a little secret about nanny number three, Molly,* when I was in the hospital having just given birth to our baby girl, Rebecca. Rebecca arrived three weeks early and caught us all by surprise. I had worked a full day in my office less than 24 hours before I went into labor. Rebecca was a tiny baby. As Neil liked to say, "She wasn't fully cooked." And so she was kept in the NICU for several days. I stayed at the hospital a bit longer as well, as I had an emergency C-section because Rebecca ended up being breach. That left Neil in charge of our toddler Joey at home, and he was as happy as was I to have nanny Molly continue to work for us throughout my maternity leave.
One day, he returned home from a visit with baby Rebecca and me in the hospital, only to discover the back door to our laundry room wide open with the dryer on. Just as he was about to take a look outside through the open door, Nanny Molly came inside and swiftly shut the door behind her. She told Neil that she had the door open for some air with the dryer running at full blast, and she assured Neil that Joey was sleeping soundly upstairs. She explained that she could hear him all the while on the baby monitor from downstairs. Neil later told me that Nanny Molly reeked of cigarette smoke, and he knew she had been outside smoking just then.
Being almost as non-confrontational as I am, Neil did not say anything to Nanny Molly about the smoking. He was exhausted from his crazy-as-ever work schedule and taking care of Joey while baby Rebecca and I stayed in the hospital. Perhaps more than anything, though, Neil really liked Nanny Molly, and much like me, he didn't want to stir things up just then. Neil did go outside after Molly left that night to look for cigarette butts, of which he found none. He comforted himself and me, too, in saying that at least she had cleaned up after herself. Nanny Molly was just as neat in her smoking outside as she was in her housekeeping inside. So from that point on, we knew that nanny Molly was a smoker. We never had an incident again and assumed, but really just hoped, that she wouldn't smoke on the job again after being caught by Neil. We never knew the truth and never would.
The good news, or the bad news, depending on which way you look at it, is that eventually, your kids will get older and they will talk. They will report back to you on their day's events, from the most exciting things to the most mundane, including what their nanny did. I felt a bit like a secret spy when I first figured this out. Joey was 5 years old when he told me about the songs on the radio he heard while in the car with nanny number five, Alice.
One day while I was driving Joey to soccer practice, he asked me to change the radio to 97.1. Hmm, I thought. Joey's branching out. I was happy to get a break from the incessant pop music that my kids could never get enough of. I wondered what kind of music they played on 97.1. I figured it out pretty quickly. It was Christian radio. The station broadcasted very catchy and very pleasant music, but I didn't think it was so appropriate for my children, Jewish children, to be literally singing the praises of Jesus Christ. Although my childhood nanny, Mrs. Dougherty had taken my brother and me, two Jewish children, to church services with her and that didn't seem to bother my parents, the Christian radio bothered me.
I was happy that Joey let me know about his new radio listening habits. I talked to Nanny Alice and explained to her that I didn't feel comfortable having my children listen to that station. It was definitely an awkward conversation, but I felt it was a necessary one. I tried very hard not to offend nanny Alice, because I respected her religious beliefs, and felt that she should be able to listen to whatever she wanted on the radio, but just not when my kids were in the car. I likened it to Neil listening to Howard Stern (and he loves to listen to Howard Stern) with my kids in the car. I'm not sure that was an appropriate analogy, but I was struggling to make sense and not offend her. I'm pretty sure Nanny Alice got the point, as Joey never again asked for the station.
Joey and Rebecca also reported back to me on their lunch outings with Nanny Alice. One Saturday while running errands in the local shopping center, the kids asked if we could get Wendy's for lunch.
"No, kids," I said. "Wendy's is not so good for you. You know I don't like you to eat fast food."
"Alice lets us eat Wendy's," said Joey.
She does, does she? I felt so all-powerful in having my children unknowingly act as two little nanny spies. I asked more questions, treating my children as if they were eyewitnesses to some kind of crime, knowing full well that I may have been crossing the line. But then again, Nanny Alice had done something that she knew she shouldn't have. I got about as much intel from my hungry 5- and 3-year-olds as I could. It seemed that Nanny Alice had taken the kids through the Wendy's drive through for lunch on several occasions on days when they were home from school. She must have paid for their lunches with her own money, which I sort of felt bad about for just a minute. Nanny Alice covered up her tracks nicely. There was never any evidence of the fast food in our trash. I wondered where she threw it out.
I had to confront Nanny Alice on the issue. She back-pedaled as much as she could and explained that it was only on very few rare occasions when she was in a bind for food and the kids were so hungry while they were out. I let it go as best as I could. Nanny Alice came to understand that my kids could tell me everything, and that she really had to follow the rules -- hopefully all of them. I began to wonder less about what went on when I was at work, as I knew that my kids were turning into great nanny narcs.
This was an excerpt from Rachel Levy Lesser's new book "Who's Going To Watch My Kids?" Read more here.
*not her real name