What nannies really get up to

MICHELLE HURLEY
Last updated 05:00 02/03/2014

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If employing a nanny labels you as solidly middle class, complaining about her brands you insufferably so. But if both parents work long hours, then sometimes having one is the only way sanity lies.

It started well, as you would hope. A country girl, now in her 40s, her arms had held more babies than mine ever had.

She was returning to nannying after a stint as a veterinary nurse (an animal lover, even better!) and if her references were a little old, they were nothing but glowing.

She seemed a little shy but happy to get out and about - photos of the younger of our two daughters, aged 15 months, at play group and the park pinged regularly into the message bank of my phone.

Our elder child, aged four and at daycare most of the week, took a bit longer to bond, perhaps disappointed that her new nanny preferred jandals to sparkly ballet flats and had a tattoo on her wrist rather than pink polish on her toes. But she was kind and the girls liked her.

There were little things. She was often late, arriving with an apologetic: "Traffic!" Her cooking wasn't flash. A few sick days here and there, but she was kind, and these things were minor.

There was a boyfriend, we gleaned, and a move with him to a new house more than 30 minutes from ours. And then the late arrivals became later, and the sick days began to accumulate.

To be fair, she was often clearly sick, with a chronic cough that announced itself each morning. And she was kind, I told myself.

One morning I returned home unexpectedly, half an hour after having left. I'd forgotten my phone. When I put my key in the door and walked down the long hallway, the house was dark and felt empty.

''The park,'' I thought, ''or the library - that's right - it's Thursday''.

As I reached my daughter's bedroom, I noticed the door was shut. Curious, I turned the doorknob. Sitting in her cot, with a dummy in her mouth, was my daughter.

Confused - her nap time was not for another three hours and I had left her a box of birds not 30 minutes ago - I backed out of the room, wondering where the woman paid to care for her could be.

Boots off, flat on her back, snoring violently on the couch was where I found her. A chocolate milk and a blueberry muffin lay untouched on the coffee table beside her. It was 9am.

Stunned, I backed away a second time to get my daughter.

"Boo," I whispered, "are you tired?"

She pulled the dummy from her mouth.

"Nup!" she shouted in glee, bouncing up and babbling a string of nonsense.

It was enough to raise the nanny from her slumber. And it was enough for me to sack her.

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Our children are a couple of years older now, but we still use a nanny. Friends ask why we don't put the younger one in daycare - at the very least, it's regulated.

Nannies are flexible, for one. It's a rare nanny who won't stay back for half an hour when you need to finish a task at work. A nanny buys you ''you,'' in some small way - a facsimile of yourself.

Someone to stick on a load of washing or to pick up the milk. A nanny means you can come home to children fed and bathed. But most of all, you hope, a nanny buys your child more love. It's a relationship of unequal power, but one in which you both are vulnerable.

The parent sets the terms: the pay, the hours worked, the duties and the relationship's tone. Often the deal is verbal, with no contract and little recourse for the nanny if she should displease her employer.

She is part of the family. She knows what size knickers you wear; she noticed you and your husband polished off another bottle of wine last night. She laughs along with you at your child's bloody-mindedness.

Until the day she is not wanted. Then, if it has ended badly, she's discarded like an outgrown toy.

Many a time have I made a jealous calculation about whether it was me or the nanny who could claim the most hours spent with my younger child; finding myself discounting the hours she naps during the week, lest the nanny comes out the victor.

Each time I receive a photo of my child in thrall to the swing at the park, a small surge of resentment rises in my chest.

For this is the uncomfortable truth. Though we want our freedom, to work as well as be mothers, we crave the closeness we had when our children were babies. And though we want the women we pay to look after our children to also love them, we shrink from the thought that our children might prefer them. Too often, a nanny cannot win. Too close, and we resent her; too cavalier - as ours was - and we despise her.

- Sunday Magazine

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