Recently, the New York Times Magazine ran a column by Adam Davidson all about the “bizarre microeconomy" of high priced caregivers in New York. After noting the truly jaw-dropping fact that one nanny, Zenaide Muneton, earns $180,000 a year ("plus a Christmas bonus and a $3,000-a-month apartment on Central Park West"), Davidson goes on to discuss an issue that's probably occurred to many Sunday Times readers: How, exactly, do you determine the worth of a nanny who earns more annually than a pediatrician?*
I started baby-sitting in sixth grade. I considered myself an experienced 12-year-old, having read every volume of the Baby-Sitters Club series. From there, I nannied full-time through college and have moonlighted as a baby-sitter on both coasts for anywhere from $12 to $20 an hour. I like to think I'm good at my job: I play with the children, make them dinner, put them to sleep, and then I go home. The cash is fast and the stress is minimal, with one caveat: moms. (I wish I could say the parents, but dads usually play a supporting role—if any at all—when it comes to nannies.)
Personally, I have more in common with moms who struggle to pay the bills than moms who spend more on clothes than I do on rent. But I’ll take a job with a Chelsea family from a nanny agency over a Bed-Stuy family off of Craigslist any day of the week, and not for the reason you think. More than the few extra dollars I might make, I've found that wealthy moms make better employers.
Any discussion about high-end child care must inevitably mention The Nanny Diaries, the bestselling novel about a New York nanny who spends her days catering to the whims of an ultra-rich Upper East Side family called “the Xs." The book paints a beyond-stereotypical portrait of wealthy moms as cold, uninterested in their own children, and totally dependent on their underpaid staff for every need. In the novel’s most memorable scene, the nanny is unceremoniously fired, without being allowed to say goodbye to her beloved charge.
In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Wealthy moms know how to manage their help because they have experience hiring, managing, and firing people in their homes. They pay a nanny agency to screen and vet potential nannies. They don’t rely on, say, their "gut" reaction upon meeting someone for a brief and often awkward interview. This may explain why wealthier mothers tend to trust me more and micromanage their children's care less. These moms know I'm there to do a job, so I'm usually given minimal direction up front and cash for a cab ride home at the end of the night. No one asks me about my personal life. If the children don’t like me, I can be replaced. There's an unspoken understanding between us: This is a job and if I don’t do it well, someone else will.
Working moms, on the other hand, act as if I'm a friend doing them a favor by watching their children. Any money that exchanges hand is just a nice gesture on their part. My shift often starts and ends with chit-chat (and sometimes complaints about the kid’s father). Moms looking for childcare on a budget go to free or low-cost sites like Craigslist or Sittercity.com. Even after meeting me, they have a lingering worry that they have not hired a high-quality, professionally vetted sitter but skimped at their children’s expense. That worry comes across as stress and guilt, and to make up for it, they then spend a good deal of time texting me obvious instructions ("make sure Eleanor pees before she naps") and fretting over what I should make for dinner. If the children don’t like me, ending the arrangement becomes as difficult as breaking up with a friend.
I'm not alone in my experience. Eryn Joslyn, a Los Angeles-based nanny, agrees that working for wealthy families has its privileges. “The parents seemed to really trust me. There wasn’t much micromanaging. I was definitely hired help. They never really asked much about my personal life, but that’s not part of the job.”
Another nanny, Brianna Fischer, worked for a lower income family who nickeled and dimed her time. “They’d try and pay me as little as possible. They’d come home and chat with me about what the kids did that day and then say, ‘you’re not charging us for this, right?’ I felt I should, because they wouldn’t let me leave until I’d told them everything about the kid’s day.”
This brings us back to Zenaide Muneton, the Times Magazine's highly compensated nanny. The reason she gets paid so much is that, like other high-end home care workers, she's probably not considered a cherished member of the family—nor should she be. Nannies are professionals, they earn that much money because they work hard and the children like them. Moms are doing no one any favors by pretending they're friends or that their jobs are favors.
Of course, none of that matters if the kids aren't happy. Are they? Most children put on a bit of a show when they’re left with the nanny, the first time or the 15th. In my experience, what makes or breaks a peaceful good-bye is how fast it happens. I’ve seen working mothers who won’t leave the apartment until at least one of her children is begging for her to stay. Wealthy moms, by contrast, generally feel less guilt about leaving. Maybe it’s because they are entitled and exist totally outside the fierce debates over whether mothers should work. The result is far less drama and tears from children who don't sense their mother's acute anxiety as she leaves the house, er, penthouse.
Correction, April 18, 2012: This article originally misspelled nanny Zenaide Muneton's first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)