Friday, January 12, 2007

been there, done that: the nanny edition

I'm used to having my name mispronounced, but this was a new one for me.

(On the phone with a cardiologist's office)
Hi, this is Dr. Au with Anesthesia, I'm calling to speak with Dr. Whosawhatsit about a patient.

Hold on, I'll get him on the line. What's your name again?

Dr. Au.

Dr. Alf?

* * *

Oh, did I mention? Cal talks now. I forgot to tell you even though I made a whole big thing about it a while ago. Don't misunderstand, though. He doesn't love to talk. He only talks when he's in a generous mood. And even then, mostly just when you ask him to say something, or to parrot back something that you just said. (However, note: NOT ECHOLALIA! Not! Even though saying the word "echolalia" is fun. Echolalia. Echolalilalilalia.) His preferred method of communication is still the point and grunt, or occasionally a hand sign or two. But his talk box is working at least.

Things he will say (sometimes) (if you ask him nicely) (and give him $5):
  1. Mama
  2. Dada
  3. Bye-bye
  4. Uh-oh
And...that's it. I never said he was Clarence Darrow.

* * *

So this past weekend, I was reading through the
New York Times Magazine and got to the cover story, written by a Times reporter who later found out years later that her child's former nanny was essentially a mentally unstable sociopath who had been convicted of assault and elder abuse in a nursing home in Ireland. The question posed in the article was this: how can we trust people? How well do we know the people that we trust? Despite the uncertainties, are there really any alternatives to trusting people with our food, our money, our children?

Well, the thing is, we don't know that we can trust people. And yet we do, every day. It's the only way to live a halfway normal life, not out in some bunker out in the woods wearing a tin foil helmet to keep out the mind-reading alien rays. I trust that the guy making my sandwich in the cafeteria isn't putting rat poison between the slices of cold cuts. Joe and I trust that our nanny is not going to cook our baby in a pot of soup while we are at work. My patients trust that I am sane. Are these safe assumptions? Maybe, maybe not. But we look at people and size them up and see how they act in context and we trust them every day, with our most valuable things.

Over the past 17 months, Cal has had four nannies. That might be a misleadingly high number, since we only really fired the first one--the other three were (and are) uniformly excellent, and two of them are still watching Cal on a regular basis. (Mary, our savior, and Cal's second nanny, has since resumed living her regularly scheduled life, after swooping in from on high and saving our asses for a couple of months last spring.) So our current situation is that we have one nanny who works basically full-time, Mondays through Thursdays, and a second nanny who works on Fridays only.

The reason we have two nannies is this. One, to have one person working five days a week would basically be imposing resident-like work hours on a person who is not a medical resident. (And, in case you haven't been following along with the home version of the game--those are long hours.) The second reason is that it almost always allows us a backup person. That is to say that if one nanny is sick and gives us enough notice, there's someone else who knows Cal well and can sub in relatively easily. It is hard to find emergency babysitting, as you know. There's always the grandparent option in emergencies, but that's not always ideal, and they're not always available, what with work and travel and whatnot.

The reason we fired our first nanny wasn't because we thought that she was hurting Cal or had the potential to hurt Cal necessarily, at least not deliberately (how's that for damning with faint praise) but because she really wasn't doing a very good job. I allow myself to see that now, that we've had more experiences with other (better) nannies, and if I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have tolerated it for the seven months that I did. Or maybe I would have put up with it, since I'm all non-confrontational like that. Maybe it was lucky that she gave us a reason to let her go. Who knows how long it might have stretched out otherwise?

See, what it all boils down to is The Guilt, which is what I was trying to explain to Joe with respect to why I was being so apologist in defending our first nanny for months and months and months, despite his repeated doubts. The reason I kept trying to convince myself and everyone around me that she was THE BEST NANNY IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was because that was the only way I could rationalize going back to work. How could I possibly leave the house otherwise? How could I knowingly leave my child in the arms of someone who I didn't think would take care of him and love him and nurture him while I was away?

We tell ourselves what we need to hear in order to get through the day sometimes, and we ignore things that complicate our perfect stories. I even look back on some of the things I wrote about our first nanny, how "loving" she was towards Cal, and how he "lit up" when he saw her in the morning, knowing that they were embellished even as I was writing them, but wanting to believe them so badly that it made them true in that moment. I've talked with many working mothers (mostly attendings in various departments--it seems that everyone has a "bad nanny" story, and most of the more senior mothers have a whole slew of them) and it seems that everyone almost uniformly falls into this trap of turning a blind eye towards the faults of a childcare provider, sometimes for years, until finally they are pushed to make a decision. Rookie mistake.

I'm an expert by no means, and I don't want to turn this into a whole "us vs. them" discussion on hiring a nanny, as that gets sticky and the next thing you know there are people screeching at you that you are a CORRUPT ENTITLED CAPITALIST OVERLORD. But I also know that I had no idea what I was doing when we hired our first nanny, and I also know that we've interviewed lots of people since and are very pleased with the people we've ended up hiring. So with that in mind, here is some advice that I have cobbled together about the nanny-finding process:

  • References are important.
  • Um, like, duh and stuff. Make sure there are references, and call them. Ask how long the nanny was with their family, and why the nanny isn't working for them anymore. Ask how many times the nanny called in sick, or was late to work. Ask what kind of activities the nanny would do with their kid(s). Ask what kind of responsibilities the nanny had at her former job, just so you can get an idea of what she (or he, in the case of a manny) will be expecting if they end up working for you. Listen to what the former employer says, but also how they say it. You can tell the difference between gushing effusive praise and a qualified, careful "she was OK I guess" endorsement. That said, our first nanny came with a glowing recommendation, so references don't necessarily ensure anything.
  • Ask them what their expectations are for the job.
  • One person we interviewed last summer said, (and this is almost a direct quote), "I will feed the baby and keep him clean." Long pause. I asked her if she saw herself playing with him or reading to him at all in between diaper changes and meals. "I don't want to mislead you, so I will tell you now--no, I won't read to him." Well, at least she was honest about it.
  • If they ask you about money within the first five minutes, it's probably not a great sign.
  • Mind you, this point is not about how much you should be paying your nanny--you can go to the Urban Baby message boards and witness people eviscerating each other on that topic. This is about the nanny's priorities. I mean, look, obviously this is a job just like any other job, and they want to know how much they are going to be getting paid. I would want to know too, if I were interviewing for a job. And obviously they don't want to get into a whole song and dance during the interview if the pay scale isn't what they're looking for. However, we've had nannies ask how much the job pays before they even ask any questions about our child or what the job entails. Maybe it's just a matter of presentation and it's unfair to be all Judgy McJudgerson about someone who brings up money first thing, but I do sort of want them to be somewhat interested in the actual specifics of the job and our kid and our family, not just take any old job just because it pays a certain amount.
  • Spell everything out.
  • I think we didn't spell out things enough with our first nanny because we were trying to be too nice and create a "family-type" relationship wherein we didn't talk about such dirty things as contracts and monies. But if things need to be written out, then they need to be written out. Especially with respect to pay, vacation, sick days, responsibilities, and raises. Both for you and for them. I'm sure your nanny doesn't want to be surprised either by something down the line.
  • Have a trial period.
  • Found a nanny that you think might be right for you? Why not do a test run for a week before both of you commit to the whole nine? Have her come a couple of hours a day when you're going to be home. Then, if they're not mutually killing each other, leave them alone for a couple of hours to run some errands. Then a couple more hours. Simulate a work day by either being out of the house but readily available, or holed up in some baby-free room of the house. After the trial period, both you and the nanny can decide if it's a good fit. (You must absolutely pay the nanny for her time, though, even if the trial doesn't work out.)
  • Don't let the impulse to "be nice" rob you of your common sense. Look, it's normal to feel weird about employing someone to take care of your kid, to be their employer, to be responsible for their income, their livelihood. There is a strong inclination to want to be extra, extra nice to that person, not only because you feel some sort of middle-class guilt, but because this is the person who spends all day with your child, so it's better to be on her good side. But seriously, if that person is being sketchy or pushing the boundaries of professional behavior, don't just sweep it under the rug for...oh, seven months. For example.

I know it's not much in terms of advice, rather just stating the obvious. But believe me, you'd be surprised how much your grasp of the obvious will slip in situations involving your kid.

* * *

This past two weeks, I've been working in the Anesthesia pre-op clinic. It's a nice change, because I get to wear real clothes, and I get to say doctor-y things like, "step into my office," which actually means step into my office, and is no longer just the funny thing I say when I
walk into the bathroom. However, it is busy down here, and there are a lot of patients to see. Which is where the gigantic Diet Coke fits in.

Currently reading: This article about Momofuku Ando, the inventor of ramen noodles. Some guy invented ramen noodles? How strange to think about. I thought they just descended fully realized, foil envelope of soup, dessicated veggies and all, straight from heaven.

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