Saturday, May 15, 2010

Being nasty to Nanny

Letting a stranger into your home to mind your children can be a worry, but sometimes it’s the childminders who have to be wary of what lies behind the hall door. SUSAN DALY reports from inside the nanny state.

NOTHING about childcare is as simple as A-B-C. In Ireland there is no State register of officially-vetted childminders. The best a parent can hope for is to find a nanny whose role model falls closer to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins than Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

The lack of regulation also leaves the childminder open to abuse. When two former nannies wrote a tell-all book, The Nanny Diaries, about their experiences minding the offspring of wealthy New Yorkers, they lifted the lid on how some members of the monied classes treated their children and their staff. So fascinated was the public by this peep at how the other half live that the book was later made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

For all their riches and privileged social position, the parents in The Nanny Diaries were emotionally neglectful of their child, and poorly treated and poorly compensated their nanny. The mum spent all her time shopping; the father was too busy with his career and his affairs to care.

A nanny who works for a well-heeled working couple in south Dublin nods sagely when The Nanny Diaries are mentioned. Her current employers treat her well but at least three of her nanny friends in the area are desperate to change their job. One is looking after a child who is physically abusive to her – “a real Horrid Henry” – and another is trying to resist an ever-increasing workload, being asked to take the dog to the vet or to stay on late without notice.

“The girls are afraid to move because of the recession,” she says, “But they are also attached to the children.” The nannies interviewed here didn’t want to be identified – some out of fear of losing their jobs; others because they have to sign confidentiality agreements with the family.

Some of the mums she knows who employ au pairs or nannies don’t actually work outside the home. “I don’t know what they would be doing with themselves during the day,” she says, “You see them swanning around Ranelagh, going to the gym and out for their coffees and their lunches.”

One former nanny who has returned to college to study teaching still babysits for some of her ex-clients. “I think some people don’t want to come home until the kids are 18,” she says. “A few years ago you could name your price and get it for babysitting. These people always had charity dinners and balls and business luncheons.”

She paints a picture more in keeping with Victorian-era upper classes of the children being brought, freshly-scrubbed from a bedtime bath drawn by nanny, to be air-kissed by Mummy and Daddy as they sip their pre-prandial gin and tonics. (The parents, not the kids).

A friend of hers was once drafted in to babysit the child of a famous Irish musician. “My friend was French, so maybe they thought she wouldn’t recognise them,” she explains. “They were nice enough to her and paid double but they left the house without saying goodbye to the little boy. He was about two and sat rocking himself in a corner all evening. She found it very weird.”

Most nannies in Ireland are live-out but the long days they work extend beyond office hours. A group of nannies working in the salubrious seafront suburb of Clontarf on Dublin’s northside tells Weekend that a 10-hour day is the absolute norm. For that, they will bring home anything from e460 up to e600-e650 a week.

“The au pairs are worse off,” says one of the nannies. “They get paid between e50 and e100 a week for working full-time for some families, when they are meant to work about 20 hours. They are a sort of mother’s help, over here to improve their English. You can spot them a mile off in the park. They are always the ones who look miserable.”

Some of the misery is down to homesickness; some is down to the fact that many au pairs aren’t that interested in dealing with children.

One of the nannies mentions that some families use young foreign au pairs as full-time childminders while both parents work. “I think there’s a real downside for younger children,” she says. She recently intervened when she saw that an au pair whose charge was howling in anguish was unable to understand what was wrong with him.

“He was trying to tell her that he had a stone in his shoe and she was making him walk on it.”

Another claims that every au pair who has been through a few families will have a “horror story” to tell. “The unlucky ones are working 60 and 70 hours a week, babysitting, laundry, cleaning, eating the cheap food bought for the au pair to eat.”

The irony is that the term ‘au pair’ literally translates as ‘on a par’ – he or she is meant to be treated as one of the family.

The Irish nannies have their own problems. One relays how a former employer expected her to walk two miles with three children to do the grocery shopping – there was no car available – because the mother wanted her to shop at a certain organic butcher and a particular “posh” supermarket.

“What really got my goat was this mother who used to go on and on about organic food
and no treats and no TV, but then at the weekends, the kids told me they were plonked in front of the TV with crisps. Then I’m Bold Nanny when I try to get them back on track on Monday.”

Hypocrisy is not just for the holidays. One live-out nanny said The Nanny Diaries really chimed with her experience of parents wanting their children to be brought up in a “cultured” manner - which they themselves were not willing to back up. Putting on a mock crystal-cut accent, she says: “I thought the part in the book was really true where the parents want the children brought to museums, or want you speaking foreign languages to them but at the weekend they do nothing of the sort themselves.”

Although tales of mean mommies abound, there seems to be less contact with fathers – a rebuttal of the celebrity example of daddies seducing their children’s nannies.

“I’ve never heard of that happening here,” says one nanny, although another relates how one father insisted on telling her every detail of the row he had had with his wife the night before.

“It made me so uncomfortable,” she says, “It’s bad enough having to be privy to these people’s lives every single day – there is such a thing as too much information.”


Amanda O’Donnell and husband Brian know that a happy relationship with their au pair is vital to family harmony. “We think these girls are very brave to venture over here on their own and it can be daunting so we try to make them feel welcome,” says Amanda.

The family has hosted ten au pairs since son James, now 5, was one. (They have three other children, Daniel, 10, Ellen, 8, and Emily, 1.) Their current au pair Laura Movella is due to return home to Spain.

“I think the time I was here, four and a half months, that is enough,” says Laura, 20. “Longer is not good for the girl and the children. It is too hard to leave.”

The live-in nature of the au pair arrangement means accommodating a person who is essentially a stranger. Amanda says her au pairs always have their own bedroom. “In the evening they tend to be in the bedroom on their laptop,” says Amanda, “They need that space, and so do we.”

For Laura, who has made friends with other au pairs in the area, this arrangement suits. “I like to go out, or I like to keep in contact with my friends in Spain.”
Amanda works three mornings a week from her home office. “I try to free up the afternoons then for the children, and Laura can head into town or meet her friends.
It is handy if you have to pop out in an emergency, to have someone here, but generally I am around.

“She sometimes meets other au pairs for a drink in the pub around the corner or goes into town but the only thing I would ask is that she ring if staying over with friends. Because these girls are part of our family for a time, we feel a responsibility towards them.”

For her part, Laura says the flexible nature of her time with Amanda and family means she has had a chance to tour Ireland – she spent last weekend in Belfast with friends.

It is also key that both the family and au pair are clear on what they expect of each other. “We have a list of their duties so they know what to do,” says Amanda, “It avoids misunderstandings. We had one girl who was obsessed with cleaning the bathrooms and we tried to tell her she didn’t have to do that – we don’t expect the au pair to do our housework. She might help with the children but not scrubbing the bath!”

Some of the family’s former au pairs are still in close contact with the family – one is returning to Ireland to attend Ellen’s Holy Communion ceremony – but Amanda says that not all are suited to the job.

“You get an inkling and you give it a week,” she says, “We had one girl from Italy who just wouldn’t talk. She shuffled around the house at weekends in slippers and I couldn’t hack it.”

Amanda insists that signing up with a reputable agency – she uses SK Dublin Au Pairs ( – is vital as they can respond quickly when a situation is not working out.

For her part, Laura says au pairs have to be prepared for the fact that living with a family is challenging. “It won’t be all the time happy and flowers,” she says, “Some people come here and they are spoiled and don’t think they should have to work. You don’t own your own life but you do it for a little while to learn your language. You get used to the family and they get used to you.”

PATERNAL LOVE: What do daddies find so sexy about their children’s minders? Jude Law cheated with his kids’ nanny; Robin Williams married (and divorced) his and Ethan Hawke got his pregnant. Rob Lowe has been accused, twice, of “inappropriate behaviour” by his children’s nannies.

TELLING TALES: There were ructions in the Brangelina household in 2008 when it was reported that a former nanny was to write a tell-all tome about how life chez Jolie-Pitt included chocolate pizza for breakfast and skinny dipping at 2am.
Suzanne Hansen lifted the lid on parenting Hollywood-style in her 2006 book You’ll Never Nanny In This Town Again about her scary boss, celebrity agent Michael Ovitz.
The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan and her husband were cleared of breaching a contract with former nanny Joy Fahy in 2004 – but not before Fahy told the court that O’Riordan was obsessed with ironing.

CINDERELLA SYNDROME: The jet set lifestyle can have the celebrity childminder up till all hours. Lisa Marie Presley’s childminder claimed last year she wasn’t paid overtime for minding Presley’s baby twins seven days a week. Two of J-Lo’s nannies to her twins also quit in record time, reportedly because of long hours.
Nanny Angela Jacobsen parted ways with Madonna last year, shortly after complaining on her Facebook page that she was being worked round-the-clock.


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