Raising Richmond: The ill-fitting nanny

There are lots of shudder-inducing stories out there about Nightmare Nannies who do unspeakable things to your house or your children. This is not one of those stories. Our nanny experience was more about learning the hard way that the only acceptable child care is exceptional child care.

I was pregnant with my first (and only) child while my friend was pregnant with hers, a situation which leads to all sorts of text exchanges that feature “OMG is this weird thing happening to you?” and “Thanks for the photo of your child that was born two hours ago, now tell me EXACTLY WHAT LABOR FEELS LIKE.”

Our child-rearing philosophies1 were aligned, so we decided to look into sharing a nanny. The idea is: he/she would hang out with the babes at one of our houses, and we’d split the cost.

We did lots of research on Care.com, and narrowed it down to two candidates after multiple rounds of interviews. One, I’ll call her “Donna,” was in her mid-fifties, had decades of nannying experience, and was relocating to Richmond to be closer to her family. The other, “Sarah”2 was in her early twenties and was working on all sorts of degrees for child development and whatnot. It was basically age/experience vs. energy/education. They both said lots of great things in their interviews, and we had a really hard time deciding.

In the end, we chose Donna, because we were nervous Sarah would abandon us if she decided to get married or be hungover or something. Also, Donna’s reference was so upset that she was leaving them (Donna had been taking care of their kids for years), she could barely get her words out. That seemed like an excellent sign. We wanted someone who would become a real member of our family, only one who would take orders from us (unlike the actual members of our families who loved our children to pieces but enjoy feeding six-month-olds entire sticky buns because “Grandmothers should give out treats.”)3

My husband, Cam, and I secretly disliked Donna from the start. I can’t believe I’m even typing those words, because it seems so ridiculously stupid to hire someone you dislike. We just couldn’t put our finger on what it was about her—something about her attitude and the way some of her answers to our interview questions had seemed to change based on our reactions. She also rolled her eyes a couple of times when talking about her former employers. But at this point, our friends had really done about twenty times more work on the search than we had, and we all were really tired of the process. We all said, “Donna seems super qualified and very responsible, let’s just do it.”

My friend started having Donna over two months before my maternity leave was up. I went by one day to get to know her better and to introduce her to my then eight-week-old, Archie. She spent the thirty minutes that I was there kvetching about all the “rules” my friend had for her daughter. Her favorite word was “whatever.” “She has me feeding her at this time of day, which I think is crazy, but whatever. New moms, right? She’s just really high maintenance, which I totally get, because I am too. It’s fine, whatever. What are you going to do?”

This new mom gaped and sputtered. Afterwards, I called my friend, who is neither high maintenance, nor crazy, and reported everything. We decided that Donna is just sort of a gossip and can’t really be taken seriously in that department.

A few weeks after we started taking Archie to Donna, I noticed that I would start to tense up on my way there after work. Evenings had started to become like this, mostly:

Me: “How was he today? This infant that I have just begun handing over to a stranger for forty hours a week and who I think about much of the time? This tiny helpless child?” (Some of this was unspoken but IMPLIED.)
Her: “He was OK.”

To be fair, sometimes “OK” was swapped out with “All right.” On exceedingly good days, I’d even get a “He was pretty good!” in a surprised tone.

Often, I would open the door and she would say, with nary a greeting, “Well, he didn’t nap well today.” Or “Archie had a BAD day today.” Those days were the worst. The look on her face was pretty grim, and she’d have her purse and coat before we’d even gathered his stuff together.

In the early days, we were really confused. He napped like a champ for us at home and generally smiled and cooed and was no trouble at all. Based on the limited feedback we could get from Donna, our child was an enormous burden. We started obsessing over what we could do to make things easier for Donna, racked with guilt that our Jekyll and Hyde baby was making someone’s life miserable.

Then, she started complaining about our friend’s kid (another easy baby). Then our friends. Their cleaning service came on Thursdays and disrupted the baby’s nap, a constant complaint that we could never get her to report directly to our friends. They didn’t want the babies to watch TV, so they were labeled “uptight.” She even said once to me, “If there’s one stain on [the baby’s] clothes, I know I’ll hear about it later.”

Donna began texting us towards the end of the day sometimes:

archie is sad today :(
warning, archie didn’t nap :(
any chance u could get off early 2day?

That last one happened several times, as our friends occasionally would come home early and whisk their daughter away on errands, leaving Donna alone with Archie. I started to get really tired of explaining that I may own my own company, but that still means I have a lot of work to do. Sorry. :(

Then Donna started calling in sick. She had strep twice in one month—something neither of our children ever had. The flu once, food poisoning, that kind of thing. Then her daughter decided to get married suddenly, so she was out for a few days. In our contract, we’d given her two weeks paid vacation, with the stipulation that one week could be whenever she chose, but that she “should make every effort” to have her second week align with our own vacation. Despite what she claimed were her best efforts, she ended up taking a trip the week before we left, getting another week free out of the deal.

Our evening routine at home began to involve so much Donna-hatred that we had to tell ourselves to stop. Finding another nanny would be such a hassle, and just because she was not great with us, didn’t mean she wasn’t great with the kids.

Things got more frustrating, until I was making our poor friends really uncomfortable on a regular basis with my constant Donna Sucks campaign. “She just sucks, man. I think she likes kids and hates adults. Or hates kids and is in the wrong industry. Or hates everything. I can’t tell.” They, being exceedingly generous people who believe there is good in everyone, would urge us to be patient.

It’s important to note that throughout all of this, our children seemed to love Donna. They would reach for her as soon as they saw her and never once cried when we left them. Unlike my friends, though, I had an arrangement with my mother where she watched Archie every Friday, so we could save money. I started noticing how different I felt when I picked him up from her place. The adjectives she used to describe him were “wonderful,” “happy,” “adorable,” “godlike”…stuff like that. She’d take pictures and actually tell me what they’d done that day (usually walking around the neighborhood and eating those sticky buns). I understand that she’s his grandmother, and she’s crazy about him, but she’s also 70, and looking after an infant-then-toddler was surely exhausting the heck out of her. She just wanted me to feel a little more connected with the eight hours I’d just missed.

I’d also had the opportunity to compare sitters. During all of Donna’s sick days and vacations, our friends tended to just stay home with their kid. We opted instead to take Archie to a sitter who came highly recommended. Her name’s Minnie, and she tells you every day how great your child is. The difference was starting to wear on me. The more Donna was out, though, the more we went to Minnie. We were paying both of them at this point, but we still weren’t sure what to do about it.

In the end, of course, Donna screwed us over. She called us one night and said that in a week she’d be taking another job. After just returning from a week-long vacation. Our contract with her stated that she had to give us three week’s notice, but what could we do? Small claims court? Insist that she honor her commitment? I’m not sure I wanted to be on bad terms with someone who was taking care of my child.

Maybe her move was because she’d just asked for Valentine’s Day off with four days’ notice (“because, you know, it’s Valentine’s Day”), or maybe it was because we’d started to catch on that she was playing us off each other.

According to Donna, it was because she wanted better hours and more money for fewer kids. Weirdly enough, her new employer called me for a reference. Same amount of money. Same hours. Twins.

I was honest without trying to sound spiteful when I spoke to this new mom. My friend and I had realized that Donna’s original reference had probably been speechless because of the way she’d been left high and dry. If she’d just told us that, life would have been a lot easier. I tried to pay it forward by telling her all of this and the million more things I won’t bore you with.

I have no idea how Donna is doing. She never expressed any sadness about leaving our kids, which possibly stung the most of all, so we’ve never bothered to keep them in touch with her.

We’re all much happier with our current child care situations. While Donna certainly didn’t put our children in danger, abuse them, or steal things, she did spend over a year causing us unneeded stress before leaving us to scramble for ourselves. If you don’t have a child yet, you have no idea how much constant negative feedback from your babe’s caregiver will eat at your brain. You and your child deserve to find a caregiver you BOTH truly love—it’s that person’s responsibility to be truly lovable or hit the road.

I urge you to listen to your intuition if it’s trying to tell you something. Take the extra time to find someone who fits your family perfectly, and if it doesn’t work out, peace out of that relationship. You’re in charge, and you’re completely within your rights to fire someone who is not making the grade.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. “Don’t feed them chemicals and please keep them from death.” 
  2. Honestly, I can’t even remember her name, so if that’s really it, Sarah, I apologize. 
  3. Sorry, Mom. 
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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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