Who will rock the cradle?

You have to work, so someone else has to look after your children. But how can you be sure you can trust the most precious thing in your life to a complete stranger? Sally Staples says no nanny or au pair will be perfect, but offers some guidelines for finding the best help for you.

Today's nannies are not stout grey-haired figures in crisply starched uniforms pushing a Silver Cross pram through the park and teaching toddlers table manners. Now they are more likely to be Australians in jeans and trainers who will enliven your child's routine with football games, McDonalds and a lifetime addiction to Neighbours.

Thanks to the huge upsurge in numbers of working mothers, nannies are in such demand that trained ones can call the tune when it comes to employers.

There are plenty of modest couples offering a job with reasonable money and time off, but who are turned down by a nanny who can command a position in a wealthier family which includes her own flat, personal telephone line, use of the Mercedes, all living expenses paid and a salary of up to pounds 200 a week.

The rich families with two homes and an extravagant taste in holidays - which the nanny may well sample - do not necessarily make better employers but it is difficult for young girls to remain unimpressed by a glamorous- sounding lifestyle.

By the same token an untrained au pair who comes cheap is often not the wisest choice for childcare but is a real temptation for a family under financial pressure when both parents have demanding jobs and need help to look after their children.

The case of Louise Woodward has thrown the already precarious relationship of nannies and parents into something of an impasse. Employing a nanny is probably the most important decision a parent makes. They are trusting the most precious thing in their lives to a girl who is at first a complete stranger.

She may be competent and responsible. But she will not be perfect. Just as a secretary, a colleague or a friend may make mistakes, the chances are the nanny will, too. She may even tell the odd lie. If she is very young, being in charge of a toddler and a baby all day every day will test her patience to the limit. These are the facts and they are often glossed over by mothers who feel a deep sense of guilt that their children are being cared for by strangers.

And of course there are accidents. One mother vividly recalls being telephoned in the middle of an important business meeting to be told her daughter was in hospital after the nanny had shut the child's hand in the car door. This mother knew it was an accident, that it could have happened whoever was in charge and showed sympathy to the mortified nanny. But other mothers may have held an emotional grudge over the incident even though rationally they know the nanny was not at fault.

But how exactly do you choose a nanny? The cheapest way is to put an advertisement in The Lady magazine, the job-seeking nanny's Bible. The problem here is that you will have to sift through dozens of telephone calls and select perhaps six applicants for an interview.

For a busy woman this is often not possible and the current nanny is sometimes deputed to sift through the applicants for her successor - not always a happy option. Nor can the employer easily stipulate over the phone that she is averse to girls with body odour or ones who weigh in at 16 stone. When she has narrowed the field down to two or three, she will need to take up references.

The alternative is to let a nanny agency do all this for you at a cost of between pounds 300 and pounds 600. Most agencies are very good at listening to your description of the kind of girl you want. It they don't listen, try another agency.

If you believe it would complicate life having a vegetarian in your house you can tell this to the agency. If you would be bothered by a girl with green hair, tattoos and pierced nose and lip - say so. Things like this are hard to phrase in an advertisement and would make you sound like a prejudiced and fussy employer.

Many agencies run support groups for their nannies, putting girls in touch with each other if they are in the same area and inviting the nannies to report how things are going with the family. By acting as a go-between, agencies can sometimes nip problems in the bud before they grow insurmountable.

Nannies do need other nannies - even if it is only to grouse about their hours, money and working conditions - annoying for the employer but essential for the girl who needs to let off steam if she has to cope with toddler tantrums for long hours.

Lonely nannies are also vulnerable. One girl I employed from New Zealand began going to meetings at the Church of Scientology. She insisted it was only for a laugh and that she didn't believe in any of it. But the organisation played on her weaknesses and essential loneliness. Despite warnings from us, her family and other nannies, she became hooked.

Jennie Younger, Director of Investor Relations at Glaxo Wellcome, was set for a high-flying career when she began her family seven years ago. She knew her work would involve long hours and travel. She decided then that she needed to have a nanny she could rely on absolutely not only to look after the children but to run the house and on occasions organise her husband. She did not consider untrained teenagers as a viable option.

"Seven years on, Jan is still with us. She is my age, 41, and she looks after my three children. She is an absolute rock and is even moving with us from London to the country. We have been lucky but I was very specific about what I was looking for."

Once you have chosen your nanny the communication lines must be kept open. She needs the opportunity to raise problems just as much as you do. I well remember one German au pair sitting on her bed close to tears because her patience had been tried to the limit by the behaviour of my daughter who was intent on testing the new nanny to see how much she could get away with.

It was important the au pair told me this and that we made time to discuss it and ensure she would tell me if the situation was repeated. The discussion defused a potential explosion.

At least one London nanny agency boasts that it does police checks on all nannies. This may comfort a nervous employer but nothing can guarantee that a teenager, tired and frustrated with the sole responsibility of young children, will not lose her temper in a moment of anger.

Among the many nanny agencies some of the most reputable include: Nannies of Kensington (0171-937-2333), Regency Nannies (0171-225-1055) and Bellamy Nannies (0181-748-3838).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    The Richmond Fellowship: Executive Director

    £66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship:...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - North West

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - South West

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Administrator - IT - Fixed Term, Part Time

    £17340 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Come and join one of the UK's leading ca...

    Day In a Page

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent