By Lauren Cahn,
Marina Krim was just taking her 3-year-old to swim class. She left her other two young children at home with their nanny, Yoselyn. When Marina Krim arrived home again, her children were dead -- Yoselyn allegedly had slashed their throats (although Yoselyn has since denied it; her court case is pending). It's been called one of the worst crimes of 2012, but to me -- a mother who trusted others to care for my own precious babies while I worked -- it ranks among the most terrifying crimes I could possibly imagine.
I would never blame the Krims, and I believe that their tragedy could have been any family's. At the same time, it provides us with an opportunity to revisit the process by which we hire and monitor our children's caregivers. It's something I thought about a lot between 1997 and 2007 -- the years during which I employed nannies to help care for my children. There were five to whom I will always be grateful for the wonderful care they took of my two boys. But it's the one who came before them to whom I am grateful for an entirely different reason.
I call the nanny who came before them: "Caregiver Zero."
And it was Caregiver Zero's astounding ineptitude and raging hostility that propelled me to learn everything that I needed to know about hiring the best possible nannies thereafter. I used to share the wisdom of my travails with other moms on the proverbial and literal park benches of New York City's Upper East Side.
And now I share with you the Seven Fundamentals of Effective Nanny-Hiring:
1. Your nanny is your employee.
Many moms will brag of how their nanny's like family, that their nanny loves their baby as if it were hers. But here's the reality: your nanny is paid to take care of your kid. She may really like her job, but if you stop paying her, she will leave. This is the first Fundamental you must internalize so that you are prepared to ask the right questions when hiring.
In the corporate world, a potential hire wouldn't be offended if asked to submit to a drug test or a psychological assessment. When hiring a caregiver for your young child, why on earth would the vetting process not be at least as strenuous? In fact, it ought to be more strenuous.
You're not trying to make a friend. You're hiring someone to take care of your baby. Interview accordingly. Don't ask leading questions that hint at the right answer. Ask open-ended questions and listen to the actual answers. Remain objective, and don't focus on whether you're coming off as likable.
2. You are your nanny's employer, but NOT an equal-opportunity employer.
When hiring a nanny, you can and should ask whatever nosy, intrusive questions you want -- examples include questions about her childhood, her parents, her marriage, her boyfriends, her tobacco usage, her alcohol usage and whether she uses illegal substances. Don't assume she won't answer. She may, and her answer may have you thanking her and wishing her luck on her job search.
When hiring a nanny, there's no such thing as discrimination. You have a problem with tall women? Don't hire one. You have a problem with short women? Don't hire one. There is no need to agonize and no need to explain. It's your baby, your home and your choice. And don't ever hire out of sympathy or guilt -- in fact, if a potential nanny inspires those feelings in you, show them the door. If you think you're being ruthless, then remind yourself that you are hiring someone to take care of your baby.
3. Hold your nanny to higher standard.
Sure, you've fudged a date to make it seem like you were at your job throughout the entire spring, rather than just until April. And you're not a bad person, right? Well, your nanny is not permitted this latitude. A nanny's job history need not paint her to be a Masters level early childhood educator -- are you a Masters level early childhood educator? No. What matters is whether your nanny is capable of telling a straight story.
When you first contact your potential nanny, do so over the phone, and ask her to list all of her previous jobs and to name all of her references. Write it all down. If you call her in for an interview -- and just because you spend time with her on the phone does not mean you have an obligation to do so -- ask her to fill out a job application that asks:
• Name/all names by which she has been known
• Address/all phone numbers
• Other residents at the address and their relationship to her.
• Name of spouse/partner/ex with whom she has children
• Names/ages of her children. If under 18, who takes care of them? If over 18, where are they?
• Every job during her adult life plus a supervisor's name.
• All child-care jobs plus references.
Now you can compare her application to the notes you took on your phone call. Since the truth only comes in one version, any discrepancy is a red flag regarding her integrity. You can also look at her answers as a window into her life -- who's in it, and is there drama? How will you feel if her angry ex calls your home demanding to talk to her? You can also see how her own children are doing. Do the adult children work? If she has young children in daycare, will you feel guilty knowing that she is at your house providing your baby with a one-on-one experience? Will you wonder if she feels guilty? If she has a baby at home, will you wonder how she will have the energy to take care of yours? It's every mom's prerogative to occasionally slack off, but you should expect more from the person you are paying to take care of your baby.
4. Vet those references.
At a minimum, you need to check references to confirm that your potential nanny actually worked where she says she worked and when she said she worked there. If the reference is a parent for whom your potential nanny worked as a nanny, treat it the same way you treat your interview with the nanny: you are not making friends, you are eliciting information and not hinting at the answer you desire. If a parent says anything bad about your potential nanny, dig deeper because it will often be the mere tip of the iceberg. If a parent only has wonderful things to say about the nanny, that's great, but dig deeper anyway -- ask what the nanny's biggest weakness was. Before you're through, you should also ascertain whether you and this other parent share similar parenting values. Be thorough, be tough. You're hiring someone to take care of your baby. You should know what you're in for.
5. Hiring is strictly probationary.
If you've gotten this far, invite the potential nanny for a trial-day (and pay her). Spend the entire day with her even if your plan is to never be there when she is there. You can learn a lot about a person by spending an entire day with them and a baby. Her personality and work ethic will reveal themselves.
After you have hired a nanny, you may also begin to tell yourself that she is the best nanny ever, that you are lucky to have her, that you couldn't possibly entrust your children to anyone else.
Every nanny I ever hired eventually left, even the ones I thought that I could not possibly live without. In fact, their leaving was inherent in who they were: all of my nanny's after Caregiver Zero had plans to do things besides be nannies. One went on to be a special education teacher. One lives in Prague with her two children (one of whom is named after one of my children).
And be prepared: sometimes, you will need to fire a nanny. I fired Caregiver Zero, and even though I truly despised her, it was difficult. Just try to remember, your nanny is your employee, and you have hired her to take care of your baby.
6. Consensual Surveillance.
One question I always asked of potential nannies was, "Would be it okay if I videotaped you occasionally to monitor your performance?" None ever objected, and if one did, I wouldn't have hired her.
It was what I saw on the videotape of Caregiver Zero that led to her firing. There I am at the door, saying goodbye. You hear the door shut, and within seconds, Caregiver Zero is at the window -- watching for me to leave. There she is, muttering "bitch" as she saw me cross the street. That should have been enough for me to turn off the tape and fire her. But I watched a little more, and what I saw was even worse: As soon as she saw that I was really gone, Caregiver Zero, who talked a good game about singing and reading to my baby, deposited my baby into an infant seat on the floor and spent the rest of the day on the phone while my baby fussed and cried.
I taped every nanny after that - with their global consent - and happily, what I saw was completely different from what I saw with Caregiver Zero. I saw caring. I saw singing and talking and reading and kindness. And I never saw even a moment of hostility.
But truth be told, I had a hunch that I would be upset when I watched the video of Caregiver Zero. And I had a hunch I would like what I saw when I taped the others. And that brings me to my Final Fundamental of Effective Nanny Hiring:
7. Trust your gut.
I never knew exactly what I was going to see when I watched my videotapes. But I always had a gut instinct of what I would feel when I watched. Before I watched Caregiver Zero, I was filled with a feeling of dread. Before I watched my other wonderful nannies, I was giddy.
I'm not a psychic, and you're probably not either. But my gut instincts tend to be right on the money. When I say "gut instincts", I am referring to feelings that are based on data which is either incomplete or which we have not yet fully processed. When I say "trust your gut", I am advising that you acknowledge your feeling even if you don't have all the data - or have not yet processed all the data - that would explain the feeling. My facts can be incomplete, and the assumptions my mind makes out of them may be wrong. But my gut instincts almost never fail me.
And this is true across the board with my friends and the nannies they hired and sometimes fired. What they felt was their best guide. The "factiest" facts in the world weren't as accurate as their feelings.
And so I recommend that you too listen to your gut.
This is true in the interview stage, and it's true after you've hired a nanny, and it's true no matter how long a nanny works for you. When you feel something is "off" - and you could possibly grow to feel this way after years of feeling that everything is perfectly fine - you may not know the facts that support it. But you don't have to know the facts. Because your gut is telling you all you need to know.
And you know what you need to do.