Your child's life in their hands

Parents have never been more anxious about who looks after their children. But mothers instinctively know when the relationship is right.
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"THE ONE good thing to come out of all the horror of the Woodward case was that people are checking much harder now," says Maggie Dyer of the London Au Pair and Nanny Agency. The trial of Louise Woodward has increased the clamour in the UK for a register of nannies and a professional nanny's qualification, but it is still a largely unregulated area.

Maggie Dyer advises parents to see as many nannies as they can. "New parents tend to put too much emphasis on how well they get on with the nanny. But it's a co-parenting relationship. The most important thing is how well the nanny gets on with the child."

When the match is right, mother and nanny both know it instinctively. And both describe it like love at first sight. "I wanted someone who would be an emotional surrogate, who would give my twins the impression of caring for them and loving them, who would make them feel emotionally secure," says Anna. "It took me three months to find her.

"Margherita walked in and was immediately right. The first time the children met her, within minutes they were crawling all over her, but she didn't seem to mind. She was very quiet and patient and would sit and read for hours. She would plait my daughter's hair, and taught my son to tie his laces, which took about four months.''

Publisher Lyn Tattum found a nanny by advertising in The Lady. She wanted someone who lived nearby but not in the house, and the woman she found actually moved to be near her. Seven years later, Belinda Allen is still with the family, currently looking after a seven year old, a four year old and a baby (the average time a nanny stays with a London family is 18 months). Such a long-term working relationship takes some negotiation: "We made it up as we went along," says Lynn. "I've always been very careful that she doesn't feel put upon: I don't like to ask her to babysit too often when she has been looking after the children all day."

A good nanny becomes immersed in family life, but if the children get too attached to her, their bond can make a mother feel threatened. Mothers who already feel guilty about leaving their children with another adult all day are likely to feel threatened when the children get fond of the nanny.

"The nanny's never in competition with the mother," says Maggie Dyer, "but I've seen a lot of families let nannies go because they're getting too close to the children."

In Britain, child care is not considered an important job, and the sample job adverts posted by nannying agencies are revealing. Many are looking for someone "fun'', "flexible'' and "easy-going''. Certainly, at pounds 160 per week in exchange for "sole charge'' of a five year old and shared care of a seven and a three year old, the nanny would have to be "fun''.

It is not much comfort for her to learn that the family is "informal''. When it comes to elastic arrangements, the flexibility is usually on the nanny's side.

Middle-class parents in Nineties Britain are uneasy with the notion of domestic staff. The bleak reality of payment introduces a sour note to a relationship based on mutual trust and affection. When the nanny's children are ill, for example, whose children take precedence?

Antonia, who returned to work on a part-time basis after having two daughters, was surprised to find herself defending what some see as an over-generous arrangement with her nanny. "I consider it a high-pressure job looking after children all day. She gets paid pounds 220 for a four-day week, whether I need her or not. But it's beginning to rankle now that we're strapped for cash. My sister thinks I'm crazy not to use her more: she'd have her running around doing the shopping, cleaning, washing-up. People say `That girl's exploiting you', but I know the hidden depths to it.

"I do as much as I can for her because the whole system operates on good will. She's never quibbled or refused to do something. I want the relationship between her and my children to be as good as it possibly can. The closer the nanny is, the better. You've got to have everybody pulling in the same direction.''

When a nanny gets on well with a family, the job only comes to an end against everybody's will - either because the children go to school, or because the mother becomes pregnant again and can't afford to keep a nanny during her maternity leave. For Margherita, leaving Anna's family after four years was heartbreaking. "I always tell myself I'm going to keep my distance, but you can't. I spent a week crying. It was like breaking up with a boyfriend.''

Anna managed to find another carer for the twins. She is anxious that the children's relationships with adults should not be continually interrupted. "When Margherita left, they did grieve a lot, they really missed her. But then again, they end up with more people to love and who love them."

`She wanted a slave, not a nanny'

FRAN, 23, looks after three children, aged six, two and nine months.

Rose, 27, has been a nanny since she was 18, and currently looks after a year-old boy.

Kelly, 20, looks after two children, aged five and 18 months.

Fran: "There was one interview I went to where there was a baby of three months. Everything had to be done just right. She wasn't allowed to go swimming because of the germs, she wasn't allowed to go to the park because of something else. The mother was 35, it was her first child. I got in there and thought: `No, sorry, I don't like you.' "

Kelly: "I had an interview, they wanted me to work 55 hours a week and to pay me pounds 140 for it, and they expected a hell of a lot more than just nannying. `I expect this to be polished and I expect this to be done.' I thought: `No way - you want a slave, you don't want a nanny.' "

Rose: "The first family I worked for got everything they could out of me. They said: `Can you wash the kitchen once a week, wash the kitchen floor, do all our washing not just the kids' washing, do the ironing while the little girl is asleep...' When I left that job, I thought: `I will never be treated like that again.' "

Fran: "In the family I work for, the grandmother hates me. She can't see why she can't look after the children. She resents the fact there's a nanny. She's round every night and takes over from me. And she's looking round for anything - `Right, what's all this? What hasn't she done? Those knickers aren't ironed properly.' And if she finds fault, she'll be bending the mother's ear."

Rose: "I worked for one family where the mother, who was in her late thirties, was a primary school teacher. James had no manners, he was seven and would only eat with his fingers.

"She said that was fine because he was expressing himself. I had to put up with it. She had all these right-on ideas, which is fine, but James was so obnoxious."

Fran: "The mother always comes in at meal times, which is the worst time because as soon as the two-year-old sees or hears Mum, the knife and fork go down and the horns come out. I go to get the door and when I get back, she'll be on the dinner table. `You can't tell me off,' she'll say and start flicking peas.

"The mother's told me she dreads coming home. I've heard them all screaming - Mum, the children, all of them. The little girl's banging a glass on the table and that smashes everywhere. There's no discipline. I have smacked them because they drive me to that point...

"At the beginning, I nearly left several times. The older one didn't know how to socialise and used to have panic attacks if I took her to a friend's house. `Take me home, I don't want to play,' she'd say. I used to go home in tears sometimes as she just drove me mad.The woman I work for needs a nanny to bring up the children because I really don't think she wanted children in the first place. It's hard when you see kids being brought up like that, but you just have to do the best you can.

"You know they'll be in therapy in 10 years' time."

Rose: "I work for a high-flying executive who is always jetting off. The little boy feels he is missing out, and he'll do anything to get her attention. I am just there for him."

Kelly: "Nannies are never allowed to be ill. If the kids have got a bug and the mum and dad catch it, they'll be off work, guaranteed. But if I catch it, I'm there."

Rose: "I feel I've got to go in no matter what, even if I'm dying. You know there's no one to cover for you if the grandma and grandad don't live locally. I had food poisoning once and went to work."

Fran: "You want to take a day off but you're working out all these little ways you can get the children through their day, and you think: `I might as well go in.' "

Rose: "By the time they reach school age, you just have to start again with another family. The parents don't want you to leave, but they can't afford to pay you.

"When I left my first job after five years, I felt I'd achieved all the things I'd wanted to do with her. It is rewarding because you are a big part of their life."

Fran: "I couldn't handle my children crying for another person. I don't think I could accept someone else having a strong relationship with them.

"I'm getting so close to the older one, it's quite scary. I think now is the time to leave, before she gets any closer. I love her to bits.

"The trouble about leaving is, how is someone else going to bring them up? How are they going to treat them, will they deal with them properly? That's the thing that's holding me back."