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
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The Independent Culture
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. !