Finding Nanny: Confessions of a working mother

A mom shares the perks and trade-offs of having a nanny fill in for her absence

Mother and her child with nanny

In the last couple of weeks of her life, my mother gave me some very sound advice. As I sat with her in the bed set up by the hospice nurse in my parents’ bedroom, we had some really good conversations. We talked about big-picture stuff, wondering how and why she got sick so young, what it meant to be a good parent and the course that our family’s life had taken. We also talked about the little stuff and the day-to-day worries of life. Even though she was so sick, my mother still focussed on what she knew best—being my mother.

I tried to take her mind off of how lousy she felt and talked a lot about baby Joey. I mentioned my concerns over the very real possibility that our first nanny Amy would leave one day, and one day soon.

“Rach, your nanny is replaceable,” she said in a very soft voice. “Joey knows you are the mother. Don’t ever forget that.” That was some of the best advice that anyone has ever given to me. I thought about it a lot over the course of employing many more nannies. I still find myself giving that advice to other working moms.

Mother was right

My mother was right. When nanny number two, Ellie, and nanny number three, Molly, came in and went out of our lives within the course of one year, I tried to keep that advice close to my heart and to my mind, but it was hard. I was very worried about two-year-old Joey when we began the search for nanny number four. I thought for sure that I had screwed him up for life with the revolving nanny door in our house. I wondered if he would develop trust and abandonment issues? He must have been wondering who he should listen to, who was in charge, who would stick around? Who were all those ladies taking care of him?

I thought for sure that I had screwed my son’s life with the revolving nanny door in our house

In reality, though, Joey only had one thing on his little two-year-old mind: Bob the Builder. You know, the animated contractor from the popular television series on Nick Jr. and later PBS. Joey became obsessed with Bob, Wendy, Scoop, Muck, Dizzy and my favourite, Farmer Pickles. He couldn’t get enough of the show and all of the mini action figures that made up the construction crew. I happened to mention his fascination with Bob to Joey’s preschool teacher one day in the midst of explaining my worries about finding a new nanny that Joey could connect with. The teacher suggested that when I hire the new nanny, I buy some Bob the Builder action figures and give them to the nanny to give to Joey. Then, she explained, he would feel at least some kind of connection.

I liked it. And so, after we officially hired nanny number four, Julie, I gave her a few new Bob characters to give to Joey, explaining my strategy. My husband Neil thought I was a little nuts. Nanny Julie probably did too. I kind of thought I was. Regardless, the plan worked. I introduced nanny number four, Julie, to Joey as a big fan of Bob the Builder.

“Look Joey, Julie likes Dizzy too!” I explained to him as I could actually hear the desperation in my voice. Joey seemed content. Bob or no Bob, I think deep down Joey was secure enough to know that although he had new nannies coming and going, I would be there every single day for him. Although I didn’t care for him all day long, he knew I was the mother, and that I wasn’t going anywhere. I sensed this in the sweet smile I got from him every workday when I came in the door. He was happy to see me, but he also knew he would see me. I was the mother, the only one.

Nanny Alice in my wonderland

On an intellectual level I understood that my kids knew I was their one and only mother. That didn’t change the fact that it sometimes hurt on an emotional level when I let the nanny take over to care for them, especially on those occasions when it seemed like my kids were better off with the nanny than they were with me. Joey and Rebecca took direction from nanny Alice way better than they ever did from me. I was green with envy as I watched Rebecca sit still and not make a sound as nanny Alice brushed out her knotty hair one morning. Brushing out Rebecca’s hair always brought on a fight between the two of us, and Rebecca never let me put her hair up in pigtails. Nanny Alice did her hair in pigtails, braids, French braids, whatever hairdo she fancied. I was amazed. Rebecca looked adorable. I was happy that she looked so cute, but also jealous that she would only let our nanny make her look that cute. Who was I? Just the mother…

I was green with envy as I watched Rebecca sit still and not make a sound as nanny Alice brushed out her knotty hair one morning

I arrived home on the earlier side one evening to find the kids setting the table for the dinner that nanny Alice was making for them. I was impressed. My five- and three-year-olds were taking part in preparing for dinnertime in a very real way. I was happy that Alice had them helping out like that. Then I wondered, Why didn’t I think of that? If I had, the kids probably wouldn’t have been as agreeable to the whole idea as they were with nanny Alice. She made taking care of my kids look so easy and so fun. It was never that easy for me.

Nanny Alice sometimes sensed my envy, and she was very understanding about it.

“Rach, it’s my job to have fun with the kids. I am getting paid to do it,” she said one evening to me. “You have to take care of the kids and do everything else too. I can just focus on them,” nanny Alice explained. She did have a point. When I was with the kids, I also had to do laundry, shop for grocery, make dinner, make the family plans, check my work emails, and try to be a good wife, friend, daughter, and sister. Nanny Alice could, for the most part, just focus on taking care of the kids for nine hours a day, three days a week. I appreciated her honesty with me, and perhaps even sympathy for me. She validated my insecurity on the issue, and I never really considered myself to be insecure—about anything. I thank my mother for instilling me with a strong sense of self. I guess it didn’t translate so well into motherhood though, at least back then.

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My share of fun

My jealousy of nanny Alice’s ease with my kids only grew as I began to feel more and more that I was missing out on the fun stuff that she got to do with them as they got older. I couldn’t attend their preschool back-to-school picnic as it was smack in the middle of a workday when I was running a meeting. Nanny Alice was happy to go in my place, and I appreciated that. She had been with us for a couple years at that point and knew the children’s friends, their teachers, and many of the other mothers and nannies. Alice had fun at these events. She took lots of pictures for me of the kids getting rides on the pony and playing in the little bounce house. I loved to check out their painted faces [Alice’s too] at the end of the day when I got home, but I secretly wished that I was the one there with the kids helping them to choose between the mermaid and the fish, or the soccer and the basketball face paint designs.

Excerpted with permission from Who’s Going to Watch My Kids?, by Rachel Levy Lesser, published by Turning Stones Press.

A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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