“Think of me as the wife you don’t have,” my nanny said in her interview, sizing up the state of our household. “I can see you need one.”
I met a lot of nannies after I had my second son. Most discussed previous feats and merits – all borderline preposterous. You potty-trained 15 children simultaneously? Challenge. You can go two weeks without sleeping? Please don’t drive our car. My children are the most charming you’ve ever met? One is throwing food; the other is pulling your hair.
This one was honest and refreshingly funny. I hired her on the spot.
In the recent revival of Gilmore Girls, our favorite frenemy Paris Gellar, now a mom, admits to crying when her nanny leaves at night. Even the high-achieving, robotic Paris can’t help but exhibit a touch of human emotion when juggling responsibilities in and out of the home. Deep down, we’ve all been there.
A good nanny can be a game-changer for the whole family. Unfortunately, no one knows where to find one.
I found mine through Julie Swales, director of the childcare division of Elizabeth Rose, a boutique agency that started in Beverly Hills. Over its 28-year history, the agency has placed nannies for everyone who is anyone in Hollywood (read: Tom Cruise, Britney Spears, Neil Patrick Harris, and many more I’m not at liberty to list.) Today, they’ve got offices in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco (headed by Swales’ sister, Sarah Steel).
Agencies are not cheap – most charge 15-18% of your nanny’s first year salary. Swales had no business helping me, a lowly Bay Area suburbanite. But as a working mom of two kids – both colic – under two years, no family nearby, and a husband who travels most weeks, I think she took pity on me. My kids screamed during our entire conversation and, okay, I may have teared up a little on the phone.
Swales compares the hunt for a nanny to dating – a compatible partner can be tough to find without someone you trust setting you up.
“Would you date someone you met on Craigslist?” Swales asked me. Good point – safer to pay for someone to screen out the bad fits.
Swales is the co-author of The Nanny Chronicles of Hollywood, a book which brands itself as an inside glimpse into Hollywood childcare but doubles as an instruction manual for working with a nanny. The book kicks off with a foreword by former client Sarah Michelle Gellar, who describes her experience finding a nanny as “definitely the hardest job I have ever had.”
If you just laughed at that hyperbolic declaration, you probably also laugh at the concept of 4:30 PM geriatric dinners. Once you have a few kids, I promise you will understand.
It’s worth mentioning that Swales is British, a culture which holds the nanny profession in high esteem. “Nannies are individuals who take care of children and nurture the next generation,” she writes. “How much more important can a job be?”
This respect for nannies is contrasted by an American notion that undervalues the profession as “something between an education and a job. Not a career.” Fun (yet depressing) fact: according to Swales, when Princess Diana was 19, she worked as a nanny for an American family and earned just $5 an hour!
Last week, I caught up with Julie to learn everything about finding and retaining a fantastic nanny. The best advice in the business – on the house.
What exactly is a nanny agency?
Think of us as a middleman: those seeking employment come to us just as those who need care. We work on behalf of each – both need to be happy for a placement to be successful.
What are the advantages of a live-in versus live-out nanny?
It used to be that a family could hire a live-in nanny and offer room and board as part of the salary. But many parents enjoyed the nanny being so readily available and inadvertently relied on her too much. Or in some cases, parents intentionally overworked a live-in nanny, believing her work hours to be “flexible.”
Today it’s hard to find a nanny who is willing to live with your family. Most can’t even be tempted by huge salaries. Keep in mind if you’re set on a live-in, you’ll likely end up paying even more on top of room and board than you would for a live-out position because your nanny knows she will end up working extra hours.
If you’re debating between the two, I personally see little long-term advantages of a live-in nanny. In my experience, the most long-term/successful placements are with families who understand that a nanny needs her own life and her own downtime.
An exception is when a nanny is relocating and wants to wait before committing to a long-term lease and/or wishes to save some money and get to know a new city before she decides where to live.
In general, though, gone are the days that Mary Poppins shows up with nothing more than a carpet bag of personal belongings, promising to stay with your family forever.
What are the best online resources parents can use to self-source childcare?
Care.com is probably the best online resource we’ve seen. However, it can be challenging for busy parents to sift through all the applicants, read between the lines, and identify red flags. I find very often that parents get sidetracked by something particular the nanny has written about herself. Don’t do this! You’ll end up missing other important aspects of an application and likely turn down a compelling candidate.
What are the top five questions every parent should ask a nanny in an interview?
(1) What sets you apart from other nannies – what’s your personal magic?
(2) What do love about working with children?
(3) How would you handle a situation where you and the parents disagree with an approach?
(4) What is the most challenging situation you have had with a family and how did you handle it?
(5) How do you take care of yourself? Do you eat well, exercise, have hobbies?
What are the best qualities a new parent should look for in a nanny?
(1) Joy. We interview candidates in person and look above all for joy on their faces when they talk about children, both those they’ve cared for in the past and children as a whole.
(2) Curiosity. I look for a natural willingness to be curious about children, their developmental age stages/needs. And curious about expression, verbal and non/verbal.
(3) Authenticity. SO important! A nanny who knows herself, likes herself, values her worth, and is honest such that you can read her.
(4) A team player. Someone who will pitch in when needed – do the dishes even though there might be a housekeeper, etc.
(5) Easygoing. Someone who can roll with family changes, last minute travel, and family drama – everyone has some. Someone unflappable and not overly sensitive.
What are a few red flags parents should look for in an otherwise qualified candidate?
I would place less importance on specific red flags or even assets, as a good agency will have done a full background check before sending you any candidates. Instead, try to think about whether as a parent you connect with the nanny. Ask yourself if there is a place of common interest and genuine synergy. Take me, for example: if I were looking for a nanny, I would hire someone British because I would want us to have as much in common as possible.
But one red flag – if a nanny is introduced to your children during an interview and doesn’t engage with them – I’d worry. How a nanny reacts when she initially meets your children is very important.
What (other than salary) makes for a compelling offer?
Reasonable hours are of the utmost importance – sometimes even more so than salary. When a client is both honest and reasonable about how many hours they expect the nanny to work, it tells the nanny that she is to be respected.
What’s one surprising thing you’ve learned from so many years working with nannies and families?
That there really is someone for everyone! But really, I still don’t understand why Americans don’t take the nanny profession more seriously or treat their nannies with more respect.
Parents often grumble about the high price tag for a good nanny, complaining about the lack of decent candidates. I always ask them, “Well, would you raise your daughter to be a nanny?” Their response: “God, no!" And that’s the heart of the problem, right there.
Parents love a nanny; kids don’t. Deal breaker?
This depends on the age of the kids, of course; but as a general rule, if your kids seem to dislike a nanny you love, don’t hire her. It will be an uphill battle. In our opinion, it’s most important that the nanny connects with your kids – even more so if you and your partner work all day.
Is separation anxiety common with a new nanny?
Children mimic their parents. If Mom is having separation anxiety because she has to go back to work, the kids will pick it up. We are so often talking with parents about projections and how to keep their own issues out of the child/nanny relationship.
We suggest a break-in period for a new nanny. We encourage an extended trial, even up to several weeks. A trial can be part time and will help children familiarize themselves with the new nanny.
We trust kids, though, and we like to take our lead from them. They don’t have all the disappointments and heartbreaks that their moms have. It’s common, for example, for a mom to feel betrayed when a nanny leaves. She very often will project all of this onto the child. If Mom demonstrates confidence and a positive attitude about a new nanny, in a majority of cases kids won’t even think of being worried.
What’s your best advice to keep a healthy working relationship with a nanny?
One very surprising thing parents should know is that nannies don’t naturally take care of themselves. It’s a bit ironic - they are in an industry of caring for others, and yet it seems their own care gets lost somewhere. Make sure your nanny has plenty of downtime to regroup.
Nannying is physically AND emotionally exhausting. Prize her. Remember there is no HR department, no flow charts, no reports to show how well she is doing. Instead, there’s an implicit expectation that everything will/should run smoothly. Set boundaries and clear rules.
In our experience, the success of happy long-term relationships between a family and nanny comes down to the following:
(1) Boundaries and respect.
(2) Clear and regular communication.
(3) Reasonable hours. If you don’t really need the nanny there, have her go home, even if you’re paying her for the time. It will pay dividends later.
(4) Good salaries and perks.
Both Swales and her sister have degrees in psychology. Before becoming a mom, Sarah was a British nanny, an international baby nurse, and a Montessori teacher. Their backgrounds give them a unique perspective on matchmaking.
Finding a nanny is legitimately like finding a life partner - what’s perfect on paper is almost never the answer.
“A nanny is an experience – not a resume, or even a person,” Swales once told me. Does your house run smoothly when she’s there? Are the kids happy? Are you happy? Forget qualifications; go with what works. It’s the best piece of childcare advice I’ve ever received.