March-April 2009 | Features

Practically Perfect in Every Way?

Finding the right nanny or au pair can be challenging.

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Kelly Murray of Chevy Chase wondered a few years ago why certain personal items were disappearing from her home—until she discovered that they’d been stolen by her German au pair. “I could not figure out where my bras were going to, until one day when I went down to her room,” says the mother of six young girls.

Stolen clothing is just one of the inconveniences that Murray and her husband, Sean, have dealt with over the years as au pairs and nannies cared for their daughters. The couple have had several good experiences with caregivers, but the ones who caused trouble left a bad taste. There was the young Brazilian au pair who vanished without a trace shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. “She just left in the middle of the night. She didn’t say a word to us,” Kelly Murray recalls. “All of her stuff was gone. It was very odd.”

And Murray hasn’t forgotten the au pair from the Czech Republic who didn’t know how to drive. “She was literally with us for one month,” Murray says. “In that time, she had three accidents—and she left our kids at the library.” As Murray and other Bethesda area parents have discovered, finding a caregiver isn’t easy—luck often plays a big role. Tales of bad nannies and au pairs often make the rounds at school bus stops, such as the story about the nanny who put tar paper on windows to keep out evil spirits, or the one about the au pair who was arrested for drunken driving.

It seems like almost every parent has heard of a bad experience, but there are many who speak glowingly about nannies and au pairs who are so beloved that they are considered part of the family.

“I was really, really lucky. Unbelievably lucky,” Leslie Stein of Rockville says about the young Norwegian woman who took care of her three now-grown sons. After a series of nannies, including one who went home to Colombia for a visit and didn’t return, Stein found Bjorg Elin Hakegard Jakobsen, an au pair whose primary responsibility was Stein’s youngest son, Andrew, now a senior at Wootton High School.

“I knew she was good because my son wanted to be with her more than with me,” Stein says. “She was just unbelievable. She played with my son and collected acorns for hours on end. He adored her.”

Parents sometimes rationalize that a beloved caregiver is too valuable to lose— even if his or her actions warrant dismissal. Cindi and Mike Pollack of Bethesda found themselves in that position a few years ago, when they suspected that their longtime nanny was stealing small items from their home.

Cindi Pollack says she only became aware of the problem after the nanny also began working for a friend, and the friend asked whether Pollack had noticed anything missing from her home. Pollack, who says she’s not very organized, recalled that some items—a T-shirt, a raincoat and a new tie—had vanished and that she assumed they’d been lost or thrown out.

“It was the kind of thing that was very random,” she says, adding that the two families overlooked the missing items because they were worried that they wouldn’t find another nanny who would be so attentive to their children.

“You sort of turn a blind eye because your kids’ safety, health and welfare are most important,” Pollack says. “We used to laugh about it. I was really careful about putting stuff away.”

Finally, when a long-missing watch was found in the nanny’s handbag, the Pollacks decided that enough was enough. They confronted her, and she quit. “It was heartbreaking,” Pollack says.

Wanted: Mary Poppins

The right match is key to a successful relationship between a caregiver and her employer, says White House Nannies owner Barbara Kline of Chevy Chase, who founded the Bethesda child care placement agency in 1985. “Someone who is taking care of your children is the most important person that you’re ever going to hire,” she says. “It’s a [much] harder job to stay home with children than to go to work.”

Hiring nannies or au pairs is a popular choice for parents looking for in-home child care. Nannies may work full time, part time or live with the family, and usually contract to work a set schedule. In the Bethesda area, they are paid between $16 and $20 per hour, according to Kline.

Au pairs, who come from other countries, offer greater scheduling flexibility because they live with an American family for one year under a program run by private sponsoring agencies and supervised by the U.S. State Department. The average weekly cost for an au pair can be between $300 and $350, depending on the agency and its fees. Au pairs can apply to extend their stay for an additional year. Some families, like the Steins, make their own arrangements to find young women who want to work as au pairs, outside of the State Department program.

Every parent would love to find a Mary Poppins, that silver screen ideal who provided loving care with a firm hand—and a bit of magic. Reality, of course, is usually much more mundane.

“The most important thing is trust for the nanny and the mom,” advises Melba Bustamonte, a nanny for a Chevy Chase family. “The mom trusts you to take care of the kids. It shows in how you do it every day. If the kids are happy with you, the mom will know.”

In fact, trouble between nannies and their employers is less likely connected to negligent child care than it is to disagreements over duties, personality conflicts or nanny burnout, nannies and parents say.

Kline has seen and heard it all from caregivers and parents. “Washington is such a unique place. All the power brokers are here,” she says. “For me, the most amazing fact is you have all of these really incredibly bright parents and yet there’s this incredible disconnect in their homes. Their houses are completely disorganized. They were running the country, but couldn’t run their own homes.”

Carrie Taylor, a nanny who cares for a nearly 1-year-old Silver Spring boy, left a job caring for a toddler because of a conflict with a high-strung parent. “The dynamic between the mother and [me] was challenging,” Taylor says. “Lots of times it was the basic tone of voice, a lack of tact. There are certain things you say and don’t say, things you don’t say in normal conversation. I’m a sensitive person and I had to develop a really thick skin.”

Common misconception

When it comes to au pairs, troubled relationships often are the result of misunderstandings over job expectations. Host families complain that some au pairs arrive expecting a vacation without any work obligations.

That attitude is not uncommon, says Paige Connelly, a local child care coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair, an agency based in Cambridge, Mass. Connelly works with au pairs and families in Rockville, Potomac and North Bethesda.

“That is kind of the way that agencies promote it, to experience American culture,” she says. “But they also definitely make clear that they’re [going to be] caring for children. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way the au pairs see it.”

When Jakobsen was living with the Steins for a year, she met au pairs with precisely that attitude. “Sometimes, the au pair sees the year away from home as a time to do ‘whatever they want’ and the ‘job’ is more an obstacle, something they just have to do to be able to stay there, and therefore [they] are not really motivated to really do what they are supposed to,” Jakobsen wrote in an e-mail from Norway.

The most successful relationships occur when the hosts accept the au pair as another family member and there’s some give and take, host families and au pairs say. Jakobsen described her relationship with the Stein family as “a rare one” that succeeded because the family opened up its home to her. Years later, they remain in touch. The Steins attended her wedding in Norway last summer, and Jakobsen and her husband are planning to visit the Steins this spring.

“They let me take part in all their family gatherings, let me meet their friends and their family and treated me like another family member; and they also trusted me with everything,” she wrote.

How to choose a nanny

It’s clear that finding the right child care can be frustrating. And in the Washington area, where powerful and well-educated parents set high expectations, the search contains an additional element: Who will be good enough for our children?

A review of online ads in the D.C. area reveals families who seem to be searching for Super Nanny. Adventurous, creative, caring, engaging, active, fun, nurturing and proactive are just some of the qualities being requested. For some employers, a college degree is required. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to want the best for your child,” says Kline of White House Nannies, adding that educated nannies are the “gold standard” for her clients.

“I think people have high expectations for themselves. Consequently, they have high expectations for the people around them,” Kline says. “I don’t think the lowest common denominator is what you want for your kids.” So how does a family find that ideal match?

Placing ads, working with an agency and using referrals from other families can produce successful results, local families say. And e-mails frequently pop up on neighborhood and school Listservs from families recommending nannies who need new jobs.

Kline says families hire a service such as hers because they don’t have the time or ability to thoroughly screen candidates, including performing criminal, driving and other background checks.

Melissa Silverman, Carrie Taylor’s current employer, says she turned to Kline’s agency because she was planning to return to her full-time job at a biotechnology company after her son Charlie was born last summer.