CHILDREN / Hiring the hand that rocks the cradle: Working parents are gripped by a new middle-class angst. What exactly is a nanny's status - and how far can she be trusted? Madeleine Marsh on an awkward alliance

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The Independent Culture
GUILT is an inescapable feature of family life, but the rise of the working mother has provided parents with a whole new area of self-reproach. Abandoning your little darlings for hours at a stretch is one kind of trauma, hiring a 'servant' to look after them quite another.

In the 1860s, when Mrs Beeton published her Guide to Household Management, it was expected that a lady should have servants and know how to manage them. Apart from the statutory half-hour when children were brought - fed, watered and polished - down to the drawing-room, they were looked after entirely by their nursemaids.

For today's parents, raised in the 1960s, 'servant' may not be a dirty word but it is certainly an uncomfortable one. According to researcher Michelle Lowe of Reading University, who conducted a recent survey into domestic employment, many professional mothers 'had a kind of middle-class guilt' about hiring someone to help out in the home. Over a third of the high-earning families interviewed in the North-east and South-east employed either a cleaner or a nanny. 'These aren't upper-class women used to the idea of employing someone,' Dr Lowe explains.

The majority of those who hire nannies do so not because it is what their class expects, but because it is what their jobs demand. Equally, Nineties nannies are not born into service, but choose to look after children as a career. 'A nanny is not a modern-day domestic,' says David Peck, publisher of Nursery World magazine. 'The word is often used far more loosely than it should be, but what we call a nanny is a girl who is trained or experienced in child care, a specialist in her field.'

A nanny may be a professional child carer, but how professionally is she treated? When someone else is doing the employing, it is easy to stand up for equal opportunities, fair wages and good working conditions. But when it is you who is paying someone to look after your children in your home, how simple is it to maintain these worthy moral principles?

The first to go is equal opportunities. Despite recent progress in legalising the male au pair, with few exceptions clients want female carers for their children. By far the majority of nannies are women - or, as they are more commonly referred to by parents, agencies and other authorities - 'girls'.

Advertisements in The Lady (a magazine whose very name conjures up the smell of starched aprons and silver polish) demand virtues of nannies that are not only professional but personal. As well as qualifications, experience and good references, applicants are required to be 'bouncy, energetic and fun-

loving'; 'adorable and intelligent'; 'kind . . . and well-spoken'. Some clients make specific requests for girls who can ride or ski, love cats or speak Welsh; most expect nannies to drive, and everybody wants a non-smoker.

Good references, clean lungs and a clean driving licence appear to be minimum requirements to make it on to a short list. There the sifting continues. 'The interview is crucial,' advises David Peck. 'All requirements should be made as clear as possible from the start. Amateur employers and amateur employees tend to gloss over the aspects of the job that are difficult to talk about - and that is sowing the seeds of potential resentment and difficulty.'

Although they were in the position of power, many mothers I talked to had encountered difficulties at interview. They found they were not only testing a candidate's abilities, but their own ideals and ideas about employment.

Caroline, 32, was interviewing nannies to look after her two children - a new baby and a toddler. 'This girl turned up from an agency,' she says, 'and I couldn't believe it - she only had one arm. Her other hand came directly from her shoulder. One of my first questions is always: 'Do you have any medical problems?' but I was totally thrown.'

When Caroline finally asked about the arm, the woman assured her she could manage perfectly well. All her references, which were excellent, confirmed this. 'She was a lovely girl,' says Caroline, 'a cut above the average nanny. She was well-spoken, dedicated, had an NNEB (a national nursing qualification), was perfect in every other way. I felt embarrassed about turning her down; I was discriminating against someone with a disability.'

But it is not only the more obvious physical factors that can lead to discrimination. Samantha, a working mother in her thirties, phoned a nanny's previous employer to see if there was anything she couldn't pick up from written references. There was: body odour. The nanny, who lived in during the week and went home at weekends, had never once been seen to take a bath during her employment. Samantha did not give her the job.

All aspects of a nanny's private life may come under scrutiny during an interview, particularly if she is going to live in with the family. 'I always ask if they are seeing anyone,' admits Caroline. 'Over the years, I've lost four nannies to boyfriends - and also, what the boyfriend is like can be very important'.

A common anxiety, recently reflected in the film The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, is that of the beautiful nanny who falls for the husband and wrecks the family home. 'I know a lot of women who say they would never employ a really attractive nanny,' says Ann, a divorce lawyer, 'and quite a few of my business clients come to me with that kind of problem. But I do think it's an advantage if, like me, you have two small boys. They like the pretty ones.'

For most employers, looks will only be a minor consideration. Age, however, can be very important. Contrary to what one might expect, many professional families do not want the middle-aged, more traditional nanny figure in her navy blue or slate grey coat - the kind who might have left her last post after 10 years of faithful service.

'We have had a couple of applicants like that,' admits Ann, 'and often they seem the most desperate for jobs. I wouldn't mind having them, but my husband says he'd feel embarrassed to have a lady older than himself living in one room all alone at the top of the house.'

According to Caroline, a good nanny is someone who is 'in her mid-twenties, flexible, cheerful, very affectionate, reasonably businesslike and doesn't have a complete drongo for a boyfriend.' And what can this good nannny expect to be paid? A nationwide survey of nannies' net earnings (exclusive of tax and national insurance) published in Nursery World in January this year revealed that live-in nannies were paid pounds 103- pounds 134 per week, while daily live-out nannies took home pounds 125- pounds 171. The lower figures represent what nannies might earn in the country; the higher ones represent average central London wages.

Domestic labour is traditionally part of the black economy, and however professional parents and child carers might be, informal cash- in-hand arrangements are not uncommon - even at the highest levels. Earlier this year, in the controversy that became known as 'Nannygate', President Clinton was thwarted in two successive attempts to employ a working mother as attorney-general. Both women had employed illegal immigrant nannies, and Zoe Baird - a lawyer earning dollars 500,000 ( pounds 384,000) a year - had also neglected to pay her domestic staff's social security contributions.

In Britain, an employer is legally obliged to pay a nanny's tax and national insurance. But many parents, even if they do not neglect the law, certainly bend it. The stories of two nannies I spoke to tend to confirm this. Rachel, 25, got her first live-out nanny job in Northampton at the age of 17. For looking after two children five days a week, 12 hours a day (7am-7pm), she was paid pounds 25 a week, cash-in-hand, while she continued to sign on for the dole, with her employers' compliance. The salary stayed the same for a year and a half.

Several jobs later, working in London and again living out, she is paid pounds 150 a week - although not as far as the Inland Revenue is concerned. 'I get half as a cheque and half cash-in-hand, so that my employers can say I earn a lower wage and pay less to the taxman. All my jobs, apart from the first, have been like that,' she says philosophically. 'It doesn't bother me, but it bothers my Dad.'

What bothers Sue, 22, working as a live-in nanny in London, is the question of holidays. In theory, nannies should be given three to four weeks' paid leave per year, not counting bank holidays. 'I've got a lousy eight days in my first year, then three weeks after the first year. The father worked it out, said it was all something to do with the tax year or something,' she says. 'I talked to the agency, but it wasn't any good. They needn't give me any paid holiday at all if they don't want to.'

'Time off is one of the biggest problems,' says Gilly MacWilliam of Kensington Nannies, a long-established London agency. 'Parents expect girls to work enormously long hours (a 12-hour day is not unusual) and then babysit on top of that, sometimes for no extra money.'

As in any working relationship, parents and nannies have to establish conditions of employment - duties, hours, pay etc - and as far as they are able, stick to them. They also have to find a balance between their private lives and their professional roles; when nannies are working and often living in the family home, this is not always easy to achieve.

The mothers and nannies I interviewed had all had to face a variety of problems. These ranged from minor disputes about untidy bathrooms and the rights and wrongs of chocolate biscuits, to serious crises such as divorcing parents and a nanny's unwanted pregnancy. A frequent complaint from nannies was that parents were too personally involved and anxious to trust the nanny's professional judgement.

Karen's employers won't let her take their 18- month-old child into the house of anyone they don't know personally, or invite them back to the home. Since both parents work full-time, they are not acquainted with the local mother- nanny network, consigning Karen and her charge to an isolated existence and freezing conversations in the park.

'Interfering mums, they're the worst,' says Rachel bluntly. 'The best thing is just to let the nanny get on with the job she's paid to do. If they interfere, they shouldn't have a nanny at all - they should be looking after the kids themselves.' Yet most parents would argue that it is their right and duty to 'interfere', if they think their child might be damaged by what is going on.

Though she didn't particularly approve, Samantha was not too bothered to hear that one nanny fed the children entirely on fish- fingers, spaghetti hoops and other food that came out of tins and packets. 'I gave them proper food myself when I was home,' she explains, 'and this girl was a lovely nanny. The kids were very happy with her.'

Samantha, however, did step in with all guns blazing when her first ever itemised phone bill informed her that a subsequent nanny had been spending an hour on the telephone each morning. 'It wasn't the cost, but the fact that she had been neglecting my baby and my small daughter. Now I only allow my nannies to make two-minute phone calls during the day, and I always check the bills.'

Though the mothers and nannies I talked to were delighted to have a good whinge about each other, most were now involved in satisfactory employer-employee relationships. All stressed the importance of three qualities to make the arrangement work: flexibility, fairness and a willingness to communicate.

'There is no such thing as a perfect employer or a perfect nanny,' concludes David Peck of Nursery World. With such an intimate relationship, which depends on individual personalities, there is always the possibility of embarrassment, exploitation and general difficulties on either side.

But while you can't change human nature, you can improve the laws that control it. There are few official guidelines and no financial assistance for parents. Anyone can call herself a nanny, and there is no governing body obliged either to assess her merits or qualifications, or to protect her interests.

'If we want to use more than half the potential workforce, we should provide child care help and tax relief on child care,' David Peck argues. 'It is critical that child care help should be of a high standard. We would like to see a National Register of Nannies, and general recognition that you would be very unwise to bring in someone to look after your children who has had no training or experience.'

(Photograph omitted)