The strangest relationship: nannies and working mothers

Conflict of expectations

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A frisson of fear is shuddering through the world of working mothers. Louise Woodward may not be the nanny from hell, certainly no pre-meditating murderess, but she is alarmingly like nannies and au pairs many of us have employed and relied on over the years. The vengeful Eappens with their unreasonable demands and expectations are also uncomfortably like many bad employers. For, one way or another, the relationship between nanny and mother is often a contract made in hell on both sides. It brings out the worst in people, for there can be few other working contracts where the wishes and aspirations of employer and employee are so radically at odds with one another.

With my youngest child now twelve, I have finally escaped from over twenty years of dependency on nannies. They have ranged from the two who will forever be family friends to a short sharp unpleasant episode with one who lasted just three weeks: we spotted her a year later in a television documentary about inmates of a mental hospital.

There are an estimated 100,000 nannies and au pairs working in British households. Britain has the highest number of working mothers in Europe and also has the least state provided nursery care. The Professional Association of Nursery Nurses was quick yesterday to point out that anyone can call themselves a nanny, for there is no register of the approved or qualified, as there is for child minders. But it's doubtful a register would make much difference.

It is a curious and uncomfortable fact that so many professional women's success depends on the educational failure of another category of girls, most of whom left school with too few qualifications to earn enough to leave home except as a nanny. It is not exactly a class gap for most of these girls are middle class under-achievers. It's an opportunity gap. It is also a difficult collision of aspirations.

The pages of The Lady, that bizarre magazine that survives mainly on the nanny trade, tells the pitiful story of eager, desperate parents using every means they can to attract the perfect person for their precious children. "Mary Poppins Wanted!" a lot of them write, pleading for a saint. They fill their ads with words describing the charms of lovely Daisy and sweet-pie Ben, looking for a gentle, responsible, caring, humorous angel who will love their charges as if they were their own. Impossible dreams, in other words.

Desperate nanny-seekers feel it's a sellers' market. An experienced nanny in London usually wants her own car and even a flat. With pay at around pounds 250 gross a week, that's not a bad wage with no food, heat, telephone or rent costs for someone without qualifications. On the other hand, nannies fear exploitation and are full of horror stories of monster families expecting them to scrub floors, cook family meals and work weekends for pay as low as Louise Woodward was getting. They feel its a buyers' market. Each deeply suspects exploitation by the other.

Who chooses who in nanny interviews? Mainly I've felt I was anxiously selling the charms of myself, my house and children to sceptical choosy candidates. Once terms and conditions have been agreed over the phone you settle down to the interviews. (Many never turn up for the interview at all, wasting days off work.) Then you ask them daftly useless pro forma questions like, "Do you like children?" "What are your interests?" "Tell me about your previous jobs." All their references look much the same, and you gaze at them helplessly wondering how you can tell if they are kind, bright, careful and honest; not daring to ask if a tattooed boyfriend lurks in the background who's a bouncer they met in a night club recently. After five or six interviews a kind of desperation sets in. How do you know? Considering the high-powered personality and aptitude tests often applied to relatively unimportant jobs, it's astonishing how little you have to go on in choosing someone to whom to entrust your children for most of their waking lives.

According to the Eappens, Louise Woodward spent two hours on the phone talking to a friend when she should have been caring for the children, couldn't get up in the mornings and was generally unwilling. They thought they'd employed an "English nanny". Did they fantasise about upper class English uniformed nursery life, with a nanny devoted to a life-time in service? Few nannies are in it as a vocation. It's a way to get away from home to big city, bright lights. It is freedom, not servitude they crave. The work is an unfortunate by-product, not a career. Social life is what they live for and nannying is the means to that end. The brighter they are, the more likely it is that nannying is only a temporary phase in their life.

Hardly surprising that these arrangements are often a recipe for mutual disappointment. They can work, but only if both sides manage a modus vivendi in which you acknowledge each others wishes and compromise both ways. The Eappens harsh written "contract" was dreadful. So was their decision to leave an inexperienced teenager so long with such tiny children. But that goes on everywhere. Mothers who want to work often have no choice. The poorer the mothers, the worse the choices open to them. But this is one area where even well-off mothers are often faced with pretty poor choices in child care.

Now wait for the avalanche of articles telling mothers they are irresponsible and they deserve harm to come to their children if they are so selfish that they choose to work. Why have children if you don't want to care for them? As it is, working mothers manufacture quite enough anxious guilt of their own without any help from others. In the wake of this case, not enough questions will be asked about how children should be cared for, who should care for them, how it should be organised or paid for. Where are fathers? Why do we all work too many hours? Where are the creches and nurseries nearly all parents need?

Why, even now, are these issues so low down the political agenda? At least Harriet Harman has insisted that we have something called a national child care strategy, but we still don't have the child care, nor a government committed to putting money into it. Most children are still cared for pretty haphazardly, informally, with a hotch potch of often unsatisfactory arrangements. The fact that even the middle classes can't solve this problem satisfactorily ought to make it a pressing political priority. If it was a men's issue it probably would be. But child care remains a mother's problem even when she works the same hours as a father. And it is a serious problem.

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