by Paul Sullivan
Easing the Transition From One Nanny to the Next
Over the last 12 years, Donna Levin has come to know exactly what she needs in a nanny: someone on her way to or in graduate school who has an interest in children and a flexible class schedule.
But given that demographic, she also knows there is going to be a lot of turnover. Most of her nannies stay for a little over a year, she said, and the one she has now, a pre-med student, will depart in a few weeks.
“The current transition is one of those very positive yet painful transitions,” said Ms. Levin, who lives in Newton, Mass.
Like many people who employ nannies, she said other transitions have been rough. Some were because her children were really attached to a caregiver, like the nannies who loved the Boston Red Sox as her son, 12, does. She imagines her daughter, 5, will miss this nanny because they have a special bond over arts and crafts.
Lindsay Heller, who calls herself the Nanny Doctor, tries to foster open dialogue in what can sometimes be a tricky relationship. But there have been other times when the nanny left in a rush — or was rushed out — and Ms. Levin had to explain to her children why someone who seemed to care so deeply for them was gone.
This is the time of year when families and nannies typically part ways, as the summer nears an end and school is about to start. A lot gets written about the nuts and bolts of hiring and firing a nanny (including by me). But most of the focus is on issues that can be resolved if people remember the three P’s: Pay nannies fairly, pay their taxes and pay attention.
The more complex issues are how the departures are handled within the family. Younger children do not understand that the person who read to them, bathed them and snuggled them was being paid to do so. And, as a paid employee, a nanny is free to quit like anyone else.
What makes the transition difficult, of course, is that nannies work in the home and come to know their employers’ children as well as anyone. They are employees, but over the time the boundaries slip and they can seem more like a family member.
“I’ve sometimes been quite surprised interviewing employers about how much animus and negativity parents can bring to the situation of a nanny leaving,” said Julia Wrigley, university provost at the City University of New York and the author of “Other People’s Children” (Basic Books, 1995). “It’s the personalized nature of the relationship. They may have had the nanny for a long time and gotten comfortable.”
While the notion of finding a Mary Poppins who will be with children from birth to college is largely outdated, many parents cling to it. Most anyone with the means to hire a nanny and the desire to have the flexibility promised by one-on-one child care needs to realize that the nanny, however beloved, is going to leave at some point.
Ms. Wrigley, in her research, found that children largely acclimated to new caregivers. The toughest transition was the first time a child realized a nanny was leaving because it disrupted the child’s sense of permanence.
“I interviewed two sisters, and one of them, once her nanny left, she wondered if her sister would be the next to go,” Ms. Wrigley said. “She hadn’t figured out the boundaries of the family.”
Children who had many nannies grew jaded. “The child came to expect it,” she said. “They stopped investing so much in the caregivers.”
Still, most parents — and caregivers, for that matter — don’t want to cause unnecessary distress to children. Nor do parents want the previous nanny’s departure to complicate the job of the next nanny. It’s a difficult balance to attain.
A nanny is going to depart for three reasons: The children she was caring for are older and in school; she finds a better job; or she is fired. All three can be handled smoothly.
Lindsay Heller, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills who is known as the Nanny Doctor, said that in the best cases the nanny’s departure was known for weeks, if not months, and the children had time to ask questions and understand why she was leaving. Even better for the children is when the departing nanny stays for a few weeks to train the new one — though she said that is rare.
In good departures, maybe the nanny and the children stay in touch. If not, the children at least understand that it’s not their fault that the nanny is leaving.
(While it’s common to change nannies as the school year starts, Ms. Heller said that was a bad time for the children. “The change would happen ideally before the transition into school or months after that, because the transition into school is stressful,” she said.)
Most of all, parents need to take themselves out of what is usually a stressful situation and help their children through their feelings. “You need to talk about what the nanny did for us,” said Jennifer Kogan, who counsels parents and children around Washington. “She made us feel comfortable and safe and helped us with dinner and put us to bed. Those are all things that we’ll miss. But it’s important for nanny to go and help other people.”
Like employers and employees in any job, parents and nannies don’t always handle a departure in the most mature way. But children will look to their parents for clues about how to react and, more deeply, how to treat people.
This is where parents need to rise above their anger at a caregiver and remember that they, too, have probably changed jobs in their careers.
“Even if it wasn’t a positive experience, there was still a connection with your child,” said Ms. Levin, who is a co-founder of Care.com, a website that matches families and caregivers. “It’s one of those life lessons, like transitioning classrooms or teams that they’re going to go through.”
Ms. Heller said children could experience behavioral changes for up to six months after a caregiver’s departure. If they are toilet-trained, they may regress. If they are calm, they may start having tantrums.
“When the bottom drops out, and someone is not there, that can be a very scary time,” she said. “They didn’t choose this.”
To handle it, parents need to offer emotional support and help their children talk about their feelings, she said.
Ms. Kogan suggested that parents encourage their children to write to a departed nanny, even if the parents have no intention of mailing the notes. “Drawing for kids taps into some other part of them that, without words, helps them process things,” she said.
Since most people who lose a nanny under bad circumstances must hire another one, how the previous nanny left will determine how the new one is received.
In the short term, that will determine whether the children listen to the nanny and develop a bond that is essential for the person charged with not just educating a child but keeping that child safe.
For the parents on nanny No. 2, 3 or 10, the problem of second-guessing their choice grows with each one. Dr. Heller said parents had to do their best to train a nanny and then trust their choice. “If your child is reacting to the caregiver, it doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong nanny,” she said. “It means it’s a difficult transition to a new person. There is going to be some pushback.”
And while most nannies mesh with a family within three months, parents need to take the time to work with the nanny and the children, or they could find themselves in the same predicament again, sooner than they would like.