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THE NANNY NETWORK, INC.

Parent By Proxy

¢ For Americans who bring nannies into the home, issues arise about control, rules and cultural differences.


SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

It seemed simple enough. Chitti Keswani and his wife did not want their baby watching TV.

Their nanny, however, thought TV was fine and said so as she continued to cuddle up with Rahul to watch children’s programs.

“She said she knew how to handle kids, so she would handle them her way,” Keswani says.

The Los Gatos parents, fed up with the nanny bossing them around, fired her.

When the nanny-parent relationship works, family life runs smoothly, with parents able to focus on work — knowing their children are well cared for. Their nannies feel valued, financially and professionally. But negotiating the relationship can be a delicate process, fraught with potential misunderstandings, tensions and power struggles.

In addition to the issue of control, there is the intimate nature of nanny work.

Nannies are parents by proxy, who often spend more time than parents with children during the crucial early years. The parent-nanny relationship can blur from employer-employee to the nanny as friend and quasi-family member. The relationship can be further complicated by many Americans’ mixed feelings about domestic help and the fact that nannies frequently possess vastly different backgrounds — culturally, ethnically or socially — than their employers.

Nannies (the name has roots in 18th-century England) are employed in a sizable number of households, especially in the Bay Area. According to the Urban Institute, 4 percent of respondents nationally choose to have child care in their home rather than taking their child to another home or a day-care center; the figure rises to 7 percent in California. Santa Clara County ranks fifth in the nation in the amount its households spend on babysitting and nannies (see sidebar).

Feeling pressure to provide the best environment for their child, parents, particularly mothers, are often anxious about how much control they have in their child’s early, formative years, says Cameron Macdonald, whose book, “Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs and the Social Construction of Mothering,” is due out next year from University of California Press.

“People get incredibly fearful,” says Macdonald, who interviewed 50 nannies and 30 working mothers in the Boston area. “None of the employers were unreasonable. But they would do things like impose rules on nannies such as, `You can’t leave the house.’ ”

For many parents, hiring a nanny makes them employers for the first time, and they are often naive about what is involved, says Susan Stimmel, president of the Nanny Network, Inc., a nanny matching firm in Walnut Creek. For example, some employers add extra duties such as cleaning but without extra pay, or decide not to pay the nanny if the employer takes the day off. Complicating the situation, nannies might be reluctant to complain because many often do not have financial security or job options ready.

Child-care experts also point to confusion on both ends about where work ends and personal relationships begin.

Growing up in India with servants, Kiren Khanna of Los Altos, a marketing professional at Cisco Systems, is comfortable with having household help. But she has found managing a relationship with her son’s nanny, Simona, who lives with the family, more complicated. Khanna and Simona, both in their early 30s, see their relationship as a partnership. They talk about their clothes, weight and, of course, child rearing. “I almost accept her as my friend,” Khanna says. There have been misunderstandings, which have been cleared up quickly. Recently, Khanna talked to Simona, who is from the Czech Republic, about boundaries, after the nanny jumped into a conversation Khanna was having with friends.

But there was no top-down reprimand. “I said what I wanted to say,” Khanna says, “and then I listened to her.” Simona, who declined to give her last name, said she is happy at the Khannas’ home. “They accept me at the same level,” she says.

Nannies from different regions and countries bring other issues to the table. Often the nannies have left desperately poor situations and are taking care of children here to support their families overseas. “It brings the whole globe into our living room,” said Arlie Russell Hochschild, a University of California-Berkeley professor and co-author with Barbara Ehrenreich of “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy” (to be published in December by Henry Holt & Co., $15, paperback).

In this setting, ethnicity can become a commodity, Macdonald says. Parents might rely on stereotypes to reassure themselves about the person watching their children: “Women from Latin America are so buoyant.” “She’s from Nebraska, and girls from the Midwest are so wholesome.” “She’s British like we’re British.”

“It makes people feel comfortable about their hiring decision,” Macdonald says. “But it often stops people from getting to know the person and testing their assumptions.”

After they fired the nanny who watched TV with their son, Keswani, a director at Sun Microsystems, and his wife Sanjivini, a pediatrician, chose Hua Lu, who worked with them for four years. She helped Rahul go from baby to toddler to kindergartner.

Last month, Lu suddenly moved away. With a new baby on the way, the Keswanis had to again look for a new nanny.

This time, the couple chose Charlie Perrecone, 36, from Los Altos Hills, who has more than 10 years’ experience as a nanny. One selling point: She gets close to the families she works for and still sees some of the children she used to take care of.

Different parenting styles can be a sore spot, Stimmel and other experts say. Nannies often have a lot of practical experience, whereas the parents have read a lot of parenting books.

Stimmel advises nannies to do what the parents want. But she understands their frustrations, such as when a nanny has set limits and withstood a child’s temper tantrum, only to have the parent give in. “It can negate what the nanny has created,” Stimmel says.

Mary Ohanessian Sumner of San Jose knew the family she had joined was going to be difficult. They asked to interview her not in their home, but at a nearby park. Bells on doors alerted the mother, who worked at home, to Sumner’s movements. Several rooms were set up with video cameras, known as “nannycams,” to monitor Sumner’s care of the family’s son.

Sumner wanted the family to feel at ease with her and arrived one day with her 8-year-old son.

The plan backfired badly. The father sent her a long e-mail with a list of rules. His boy was not allowed to play with children the family didn’t know. Strangers were not allowed to enter their home. Sumner quit.

Ritu Saini, a manager of market intelligence at Cisco Systems, said she has learned to let go of what happens at her Saratoga home with her two daughters and her live-in nanny, a 65-year-old woman from the Philippines.

For example, Saini has asked her nanny not to give her 3-year-old daughter milk in the late afternoon. But Saini wonders if the nanny has given in to her daughter’s demands because “she loves my daughter so much.”

“You have to learn to let go of these things,” says Saini, who is expecting her third child in December.

¢ Published in The San Jose Mercury News on Friday, October 10, 2003 

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Last modified:  February 5, 2009