When a nanny has to go

Caring for someone else's children is the ultimate test of professionalism. When a family's needs change, a nanny must go without a backward look. How does she cope? Deborah Holder offers a survival strategy for all

HOW CLOSE should a nanny be to the children she looks after, and how close is too close? When Mary Poppins raises her umbrella and heads for the clouds, she does it with a tear and a smile. The message, though, is a happy one - the children don't need her any more. As the perfect nanny, she loves them like a mother but equally knows when to hand them back and go on her way.

There is no other job quite like being paid to look after someone else's children. For the sake of brevity these professionals are referred to here as nannies, but the same issues are relevant to all types of child carers. The web of interdependent relationships that binds a carer, a mother and the children they share is unusually complex. A mother knows that the best nanny will be the one who cares about her children as much as she does, but she often feels threatened when she finds one.

For the nanny, job satisfaction will be determined largely by her feelings towards the children, but is also dependent on her relationship with the mother. The children will of course be happiest with a nanny they love, but they can only have her for as long as mum and nanny get on.

Expectations of the nanny are high; she is at the centre of the equation. For things to work out well, everyone relies on her emotional involvement with the children, while at the same time it is understood that the moment will come when she is no longer needed. The bottom line is, it's only a job.

On average, even good childcare arrangements last only a few years. Needs change: the kids start school, the family may move or the nanny's priorities change to starting a family of her own. Tara, now 31 and no longer working as a nanny, knows this all too well. "Patricia was almost three when her father moved the family to Scotland," she remembers. "It was a terrible shock. I missed everything about her: snuggling up in bed in the mornings, choosing treats together at the shop, bathtime, warming her pyjamas on the radiator. We went from spending 90 per cent of our time together to not seeing each other at all. It was like a bereavement. A few weeks after she'd gone I found one of her white socks in the bottom of my bag and burst out crying in the middle of the supermarket."

If Tara were a mother separated from her child, there would be all-round recognition and sympathy for her loss. But Tara is a nanny. Loving children is her job. She started looking after Patricia when she was only six weeks old, and for over three years she looked after her for five days a week from 7am until 7.30pm. "I got her up in the morning, gave her breakfast and put her to bed at night. I even went on holidays with them. The only time she spent time alone with her mum and dad was at weekends. I virtually brought her up." Though Tara always corrected her, Patricia often called her mama.

When the family moved, everyone promised to keep in touch but it was inevitably more than six months before Tara saw Patricia again. This was only for a weekend and another six months passed before the second visit. "The parents definitely didn't encourage it," she says. Tara was expected - by her friends, as well as by Patricia's parents - to move on without making a fuss.

Richard Woolfson, a child psychologist, works closely with nannies and says the question of separating comes up again and again. "It's a fairly common issue," he says, "though it's not one that nannies generally think much about until it actually happens." And if nannies fail to anticipate the problem, parents sometimes fail to recognise it at all.

"They expect you to be able to turn it on and off like a tap," says Linda, a 22-year-old nanny. "My employers demanded 100 per cent of my emotional energy but they didn't want to know when it came to leaving. The mother just wanted her kids back and me out of the way."

Linda believes the experience was worse because separation is not generally acknowledged as a problem for nannies, and because there was nobody she felt she could discuss it with. "Nobody ever warns you about this when you start nannying. Even other nannies don't want to talk about it. They'd rather not think about it because it's too upsetting."

Louise Davis, Head of Norland College for nursery training, points out that issues like this are taken on as part of NNEB training. "We talk about the kind of commitment that a nanny must be prepared to make - and we do talk about separating and how to handle it."

Davis, however, sees the children as far more emotionally vulnerable than the nanny. She believes that, in many cases, it is not the nanny who is hard done by but the children who are hurt when she puts herself first and leaves unexpectedly. As far as Davis is concerned nannies are both professionals and adults; any advice she has to give on making the break puts children first.

"The nanny should prepare them in advance for her departure, tell them what is going to happen, why and when. Explain that they're going to have a different relationship - birthday and Christmas visits, letters, whatever. She should never have made unrealistic promises in the first place, like saying `I'll never leave you', and she shouldn't make them about the future of the relationship either." First and foremost, says Davis, a nanny must remember that she is working in partnership with the parents and not as a surrogate parent, or in partnership with the children. "This is a safeguard for everybody in terms of keeping the right balance."

Richard Woolfson, on the other hand, is happy to take the nanny's side, empathising with her as an individual rather than a professional. "It's not so much an occupational hazard," he says "as an occupational necessity. The nurturing relationship that a nanny has with her charges is a very important part of the job - and of the children's development. There has to be a degree of warmth and closeness, an emotional connection between the two. The problem is that there's a price to pay for that, and it's at the point of separation."

The best way for the nanny to deal with separation, according to Woolfson, is to accept the situation and plan ahead. "Above all, make sure you have alternative employment lined up," he says. "The fact is that the nanny will cope. She'll be upset, but she'll manage - and she'll manage much better if she's leaving one job on Friday and starting another on Monday."

Secondly, says Woolfson, a nanny has to be honest with herself and the parents. "Too often as professionals, carers are expected to adopt the old stiff upper lip and this doesn't help anyone. She needs to admit to herself, `I know it's the right thing to do but I'm feeling miserable', and to say to the family: `I'm really sorry to be going, and this is going to be difficult for me. I'll be thinking of you a lot'." Then, rather than pretending it's not happening, which is what everyone might feel like doing, have a nice send-off. "Go out for a meal with the family, break open a bottle of wine and then," says Richard Woolfson, "move on."

Keeping in touch with the children is fine, he says, "though the reality is that when a nanny moves to the new job she quickly becomes absorbed in it and may not have as much time as she'd imagined to keep in contact with the family. Contact will help," he concludes, "but essentially she has to move on."

Sadly, this kind of arrangement works only when the relationship between nannies and parents ends amicably - and many don't. David Peck of Nursery World (a magazine for carers) says nannies frequently stay too long in unhappy jobs because they are attached to the children and don't want to leave them. "Severing the relationship is very difficult," he says. "They don't want to hurt the children, and with the emotional involvement of a surrogate mother they would rather hurt themselves." In the long term, this is doomed to failure and only serves to postpone the inevitable and exacerbate the problem. The job becomes stale and the relationship with the parents deteriorates further, often ending in confrontation - the worst outcome.

Ella, 26, worked for a family in Newcastle for one-and-a-half years. "Jack was five months old when I started. They were going to go to Hong Kong, and I was going to go with them. But their plans kept changing, and in the end I went ahead on my own. They did come eventually and I worked for them again in Hong Kong for about eight months, which was probably a mistake. I had a love-hate relationship with the mother. She's quite a difficult person, very strong-willed, and we just didn't get on. There had been problems with other nannies, too, so I don't think it was just me. Eventually I handed in my notice on Christmas day. There had been a bad atmosphere for months, and the final weeks were awful."

Ella assured Jack, then three, that they would still see each other. Though they did initially, she hasn't seen him now for two years. "I still think about him. He was very precious to me but you have to get on with life. I got a job in a Chinese school afterwards for about a year. I didn't fancy nannying again right away. It can be emotionally draining going from one job to another. I know nannies who love the job but say they can't do it anymore. I don't think you can be good at your job and then move on and forget. You want to know what's happening in their lives, and it's hard to get used to the idea that you're not a part of that life anymore."

Breaking the bond will always be painful, says Richard Woolfson, but is often worse if the nanny feels she is leaving the child in an unhappy situation, something outside her control. He believes the best possible outcome is where the nanny has had a chance to prepare herself and the child for separation, and the child she is leaving behind is happy and stable. "Then she is moving on in a positive way, and the child is emotionally ready to cope. It doesn't remove her own pain of separation, but at least she knows the child is happy." Just like Mary Poppins. !



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss