Exactly how nannies help powerful women do it all

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

When New York went into lockdown two years ago, Sarah, not her real name, moved to the countryside. She would have taken refuge in her small apartment had it not been for her job as a nanny for the young son of a famous actress. When her employer’s family left town, Sarah and her husband also packed up and went to live in a rental house near theirs – provided by Sarah’s employers – so she could continue to work. take care of his charge. “We all got a lot closer,” she says. “My husband and her husband were chopping down trees in the woods and shouting politics.”

The actress was still doing interviews and play readings online, and Sarah gave her the space to focus by spending hours outside with the boy, catching frogs and covering herself in mud. When his employers really needed space or time to rest, she could always take him to her house down the street. At first, the adults took turns running the school from a distance — “So nobody killed anybody,” Sarah says kindly — but eventually she handled that for the most part, too.

Back in town, in closer neighborhoods, the nannies prepared lunches for themselves and their charges and went out for walks, or they facilitated the sometimes difficult transition when a parent, coming out of his bedroom-office to have lunch with the children, had to confine themselves again. Rebecca, who works as a nanny for a wealthy New York family, would reframe the potentially busy time after lunch as an opportunity for her and the child to do another activity. “Rather than the emphasis being ‘And then mom goes back to work,'” she says, “it’s ‘And then we go outside.’ Even if they were just going to take out the trash.

By squeezing work life and family life into the same space, the pandemic has provided many examples of how nannies enable women to raise children while pursuing high profile careers. Too often, the important work of nannies is relegated to the background. When COVID-19 disrupted the daily routines of work and childcare, it highlighted the crucial role nannies play in the flow of daily life for many parents. “I think people thought they could work from home and not have as much childcare, but I think they’re realizing the hard way that it doesn’t quite work that way,” says Julia Gaskell , who runs the placement agency within UK-based Norland College, which specializes in a nanny training program involving a three-year degree and a one-year probationary position. At this point in the pandemic, Gaskell is seeing an unprecedented demand for Norland nannies, including from relatives in the United States.

For high-profile clients as well as those with more modest lifestyles, nanny jobs take many forms. Some nannies live with the families they work for and others come just for the day. Some spend years caring for the same child, while others focus on maternal care or temporary positions; before Rebecca landed her current job, she worked for 11 different families in a single year, spending time in London, Switzerland, Dubai and New Zealand. Gaskell has seen an increase in London-based families sharing the cost of a single nanny as well as an increase in wealthy families hiring teams of nannies for round-the-clock care. (Rebecca is a graduate of Norland, as Prince George’s nanny.)

Alice, a New York-based nanny from Norland, employed by the female CEO of a publicly traded company, typically works 12-hour days with weekends off. (Her employers are “very aware” that she has her own life, she adds, and give her notice if they ask her to work late or on weekends.) She drops the kids off at school , picks them up and transports them. to their various courses and activities. In the evening, she makes sure they have free time (coloring or playing cards), prepares dinner, helps with homework and debriefs the parents on the day of their return. If her employers are out late, she puts the children to bed and stays late or leaves if another member of the house staff is around. When the mother travels for work, Alice coordinates FaceTime calls between her and the children.

Over the years, Sarah’s boss worked on projects that required her to be off set for six months at a time, and during those times Sarah facilitated daily FaceTime chats between mother and son. She was also posting anecdotes and videos in a group chat with the actress and her husband to keep everyone up to date with the little moments in their son’s life, like the chaos of a football game played between young people. children or the triumph of understanding the free stroke in swimming class. “I sometimes felt bad because she had missed out on beautiful things, but she gave her such an exceptional life,” Sarah says.

When the actress returned from filming, Sarah moved into the role of childminder. “She missed him,” she said. “She would dig into it, and I would fall back and be an assistant.” Sarah did the laundry and cooked dinner, paving the way for her employer to spend quality time with her son.

Although nannies spend most of their day with children, they work within the ecosystem of a family and, in addition to managing the behavior of children, nannies must also manage the feelings and conduct of parents. . “You know about things in families that no one else sees,” Gaskell says. “It takes a lot of tact and professionalism to deal with an arguing mum and dad or a mother-in-law who is very critical of the mother. You might be aware of infidelity in marriage or abuse. Anna, who worked as a nanny to a wealthy family in New York, says her employers had ‘no problem’ fighting in front of her – and the woman confided in Anna about her husband and in-laws always present, driving her mad. “The kind of politeness decreases after a certain point,” says Anna, who is not her real name.

In some situations, nannies are very aware of how their work fits into the dynamic between two parents. Janine Cunningham, a former nanny who now works at nanny agency Smart Sitting, says that in previous jobs she has had a friendly but distant relationship with the high-powered women who employ her, instead associating with their husbands to meet the needs of the children on a daily basis. “I felt like I was supporting the dad and the dad was supporting his wife,” she says. Sarah feels like she’s also helping out the actress’ husband, who doesn’t have a full-time job. “Dad doesn’t have to be alone while mom goes away and has this glamorous life and he’s stuck at home with this kid, doing this hard job of raising him,” she says.

The work of some nannies extends beyond childcare and extends to more general household chores. It can be one-off – offering to pick up groceries when they’re already at the store to stock up on items for the child – or it can be built into their day. After Alice drops the kids off at school, she settles “more into a house manager role”. She schedules dental appointments and medical appointments for the children, organizes family vacations, flights to ski lessons, and makes sure that all repairs in the apartment are handled. “Everything that happens in the house is taken care of,” she says.

Depending on the family, of course, tasks that aren’t strictly child-related can be a slippery slope with the potential for overstepping boundaries and offline demands. On days when the woman Anna worked for had to leave the house early for her part-time job, Anna arrived at her employer’s apartment at sunrise because the husband did not feel comfortable being alone with his children. Anna remembers him getting out of bed one morning and asking her to separate egg whites for him as she tried to deal with several screaming children. “I was like, I don’t know what my job is totally, but that’s not it“, says Anna.

For Alice, whose Norland degree focused on early childhood development and learning, helping her boss pursue an executive career aligned with her own professional ambitions. “I really love my job,” she says, noting that she didn’t expect to stay with a family for as long as she has in her current position, which she has held for seven years. She enjoys troubleshooting children’s behaviors. Why does a child not sleep at night? Why do they throw their food on the ground at every meal? — and could see herself working as a full-time consultant to families and caregivers on issues related to sleep, routine establishment and food preferences.

Not all nannies love their jobs so much, of course, and employers can easily overreach or create an abusive work dynamic. As Cunningham points out, nannies mostly work alone and without an HR department; she aims to be a resource for them when problems arise, but many nannies lack this kind of support. At the agency where she works, it’s Cunningham’s job to tell parents they need to pay their nannies at least $30-35 an hour on the books, give them sick and paid time off , provide night stipends and their own rooms when they travel together , and put money toward their health insurance. But ultimately, many of these benefits are non-enforceable and are decided by each nanny’s employer. What they accept is between them, explains Cunningham.

When Sarah started nannying, she was pursuing a career as a theater actress. Although her job as a nanny for a movie star has made it harder for her to find the time to do plays, she doesn’t blame her boss: she loves the kid she works with and, besides, there is not a lot of money in the theatre. She switched to voiceover work, which is less time consuming and more flexible – good for her job and for starting her own family. Enabling her employer’s career feels pretty good, Sarah says, and that support is a two-way street. “What she gave me was this feeling that I didn’t even realize I needed,” Sarah says, “which was security.”

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