by Leslie Morgan Steiner
One of the choice scenes from Sex and the City Two  takes place between Charlotte and Miranda, the two moms from the fabulous female foursome. Miranda gets Charlotte drunk because she senses Little Miss Perfect needs to open up about how frustrating motherhood and marriage can be.
“When I started thinking my nanny and my husband might be having an affair,” Charlotte confesses to Miranda a few drinks later in an Abu Dhabi bar, “My first thought was: I can’t lose the nanny!” The scene ends with Charlotte and Miranda making a tipsy toast to less-economically-well-endowed mothers who have to take care of their kids and their marriages without “help.”
However, in reality many New Yorkers and others across our country demonstrate far less appreciation for their childcare providers. In New York and elsewhere, in-home childcare workers go without basic workplace protection: they don’t receive paid vacation or sick days, overtime, or termination pay, according to “For Nannies, Hope for Workplace Protection ” as reported in the New York Times last week. If they are mistreated or paid illegally so that employers can avoid taxes, these vital workers have little recourse. Nannies – essential to all working parents, ‘cause it’s awfully hard to go to work without ‘em – are part of New York’s so-called “secret economy.”
Ok, first I need to say: I don’t understand how or why any parent would mistreat or underpay an employee who is caring for your children. Childcare providers, especially ones who care for infants and young children in the isolated work environment of your home, have almost unlimited access to and influence over your kids, and by extension, over you. They are valued employees; they are partners in childrearing in ways that many wives’ actual, legal, permanent partners are not (boys, if you don’t know the pediatrician’s number or leave the house before 7 am on weekdays, I’m talking about you). And many of these nannies are working mothers themselves: working moms, of all humans on the planet, know how hard their lives are, and we have a moral obligation to treat them as fairly as we demand our bosses treat us. (For background, please see Caitlin Flanagan’s inflamatory, incisive 2004 Atlantic Monthly article “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement ”.)
Parents who treat their childcare providers miserly undermine all working parents. For the record, 75% of parents work. This country needs a strong, thriving childcare economy in order for parents to toil away productively and for our kids to be well cared for when we are toiling. We won’t have this essential network if nannies are forced to work in subpar conditions as part of a Mafia-like shadow economy.
And here is the bonus for treating childcare providers well: not only are you being a fair and equitable employer, pitching in towards creating a bona fide public good for our society. But treating your nanny is better for you and your children in the short-term too. In other words, treating your childcare providers generously is unselfish and simultaneously self-serving. You will have less turnover among your nannies and babysitters. Nannies will want to work for you more than any other employer. They will help you willingly when you have an emergency or occasional unexpected need to work late. You will have a true partner in raising your children.
I’ve had years to watch and learn from others’ mistakes. One mom in the ‘hood, terribly type A, is wonderfully efficient at the part of childcare I find most challenging: screening and hiring the most competent, psychologically well adjusted, responsible, caring nannies imaginable. She’s not so good at treating caregivers well once they are hired. She requires them to work grueling hours, to stay late regularly, to cancel weekend plans when she needs them, to accompany the family on “vacations” that should be called what they are: business trips without breaks. I’ve heard her ream nannies out over a forgotten sweater, lost homework assignment, or lunch box left in the car. Not surprisingly, none of her fabulous hires stays more than 12 months.
Another successful corporate executive, a talented manager with hundreds of employees and millions of budgetary dollars, blithely told me the key is to hire nannies without children. That way, she explained, there is no conflict between your children and hers. Fewer sick days. No problematic loyalties. No problem working weekends.
I stared at her open-mouthed. “But that’s ILLEGAL,” I said. “Your human resources department at work wouldn’t dream of hiring with that criterion. You’d SUE someone if they asked YOU in an interview if you had kids.”
She looked surprised; she said she’d never thought of herself as an employer bound by state and federal laws.
Another friend from business school treats her childcare providers like Goldman Sachs analysts, not taking into account that she pays them less than 25% of what Goldman analysts actually earn. The nanny is required to live at her home six days a week, working from 6 am until the grownup dishes are done at 9 p.m. This mom cannot keep nannies for more than a few months, either, and she is always furious when they quit.
In frustration I once tried to talk to her about the impact of the revolving-door nannies on her children and possible solutions – like treating her employees with more equanimity and respect.
“At the very least,” I told her. “If you want to treat your childcare people like Wall Street analysts, you have to PAY THEM like Wall Street analysts.”
My friend shook her head. “But they’re lucky to be with my children,” she replied. Cue Psycho music and stabbing motion!
So go home, hug your nanny, and let her leave early if you can. Make sure you pay her legally, fairly, generously. Be a good employer, a good role model. After all, isn’t that part of being a good mom?