Anne Arnold was fresh out of college and a nanny. She thought she could handle 15-hour workdays and being one of the six servants in an Italian manor. It was when she suspected the family of laundering money that she decided there were easier (and less dangerous) ways to become fluent in Italian. 'The Nanny Diaries,' brought the seedy underbelly of polite society to the forefront through the experience of an au pair.
While Hollywood tends to exaggerate, it turns out the nanny profession is full of true horror stories, the kind that could provide the movie industry with unbelievable plots for years to come.
Not Quite Like 'Mary Poppins'
The expectations aspiring nannies have going into a job are often quashed when they learn what their living situation will entail. Working in someone's home can often mean sacrificing your privacy and personal space. The Runaway Nanny, an anonymous blogger, found that she'd be sharing her bedroom with two children and had been given a total of three drawers for her clothes only after she arrived at the family's home. "My first thought was to not even bother unpacking, run down to my car and drive away as quickly as possible," she wrote of the twin bed and tiny closet that she'll be using for the rest of this year.
The workplace of a nanny is anything but traditional, and employers seem to cross the line easier when the workplace is their own home. Anne Arnold had only barely started before leaving her first post in Bologna, Italy, when she discovered the reason the family needed a new nanny. "The husband had come into the previous nanny's room during the night to seduce her. I left a few days later to work for another family," says Arnold.
Although the second family had a bigger pool and paid more, Arnold found her personal freedoms would be under a literal lockdown. Iron curtains, six inches thick, sealed the windows at midnight sharp. She would need to wake up her employers to disengage the alarm system if she was not back to the house by then. The security precautions were to protect the original Renaissance art that blanketed an entire wall, a display of wealth that set off early warning bells for the new nanny.
Money or Respect?
Many nannies are attracted to the perks of working for a wealthy family or just looking for summer employment. According to The Nanny Network, a nanny can expect to earn $9 to $12 per hour starting out, up to $18 to $20 per hour with more experience. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that salaried employees at daycare facilities will have a lower starting wage, closer to $6.75 to $10.01 per hour. A live-in au pair often receives weekly pay that begins at $350.
A decent wage still can't compensate for potentially abusive situations. Arnold struggled with a boss who scolded her with contradictory instructions on consecutive days and who offered precise directives on every task down to ironing the lace on the girl's socks. Arnold attributed the vacillating moods of her employer to a belief that the husband was likely cheating, an explosive situation that Arnold was powerless to acknowledge and yet made her work environment unbearable.
She hit rock bottom on a family holiday to Scotland when one of the children refused to stop jumping on the bed. "We don't have to listen to you. You are my mommy's slave," said her six-year-old charge. While still trying to process that comment a day later, she brought the children into the kitchen to discover the children's father and two other men sitting around a table on which three suitcases sat stacked with various currencies. As the men counted and exchanged bills, the family's grandmother yelled "Tutti fuori!" (Everyone out!) to Arnold and the children. Shortly thereafter, Arnold called a cab, headed for the train station and ended her career as a nanny.
Right at Home
Despite the adventures of Arnold, the allure of being a nanny still draws thousands of young women looking for the chance to care for children and avoid the drudgery of office work. Brooke Grant returned to Kansas City from her first summer in college and agreed to be a nanny for her mother's co-worker. She hoped it would be a laidback summer.
She got her wish, and that summer still remains one of her fondest memories. The two children, an 11-year-old girl and seven-year-old boy, were polite and took to Grant immediately. On the rare occasions that they misbehaved, she found that the children's parents respected her position as a disciplinarian. "The parents were laid back. They were really supportive and stepped in if I needed help. I lucked out," says Grant. The eldest daughter helped out around the house, and was often away at day camp or swimming lessons. Her younger brother wanted to spend the entire summer by the pool, so Grant would often take him to a nearby house where her best friend was a nanny to a girl of the same age. "It was the greatest summer job ever," says Grant, "We were getting paid to lay out every day and watch kids that were really well behaved."
When Nannies Grow Up
A decade later, Grant is a parent and has begun to look at nannies from a very different perspective. Her daughter is only five months old, and Grant can see how the care your child is receiving can be your biggest priority. "I'm a little more understanding of overprotective, neurotic parents. I think I would try and make sure the nanny was doing what I want them to be doing with my kids. It would be hard not to check in," admits Grant.
The biggest concern for parents is that nannies act differently when parents are out of sight. Technology has led to nanny-cams hidden in teddy bears and a whole industry geared toward keeping an eye on child caretakers. Nannies behaving badly in public have even inspired a Web site, I SAW YOUR NANNY, a blog where readers submit tales of nannies gone wild.
Accordingly, the nanny industry features a lot of turnover. Whether someone is fired for cause or leaves after a summer to return to school, opportunities are available for those looking to work with children. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 1.3 million people were employed as childcare workers in 2004.
If you're looking for a chance to travel or spend a summer in a vacation town, nanny positions shouldn't be hard to find. For those who aren't ready to live with a family or don't have time for a 24-hour commitment, part-time employment with a neighborhood family is always an option.
Prospective nannies should make sure they understand the demands of the family and what the living situation will entail before heading to a place far removed from their support system. It's one thing to not have a place to store your clothing, but quite another to feel like you're working for someone who is breaking the law.
Be sure to bring your diary, because who knows when Hollywood may come calling.