We’re just coming out of another round of hiring a part-time nanny/babysitter, and I’m struck again by how challenging and sometimes ridiculous the recruiting and ramp-up process can be. Unless you’re paying a service upwards of $2000 to help you find the right, professionally trained and background-checked match or are on the market for one of the round-the-clock celebrity super nannies who make more than you do, you’re navigating the process on personal recommendations and instinct and then leaving your most precious possession in their charge while you’re not there. Harrowing.
Of course, the match-finding and settling in with a new family can be a challenge for the nanny too, and usually with very little context: kind of a worst case for starting a new job. So with both sides doing their best to find the best fit and then fit in, what are some of the things that a nanny can do to make the process go more smoothly? (I have some thoughts for the families too, also based on my errors and successes – those are for a future post.)
Just a quick caveat: I know a number of these suggestions fall into the category of “basic professionalism” but I’ve been surprised by how often they’ve come up as issues. Maybe it’s because the job feels highly personal and therefore casual, or just because the basics are often overlooked over time so they bear repeating. Whichever it is, I hope this is helpful!
1. Be honest in interviews. This process is already difficult enough without the addition of interviews with candidates who have misrepresented their availability or are really looking for something different than what we’re offering. This isn’t to say you should never interview for a job you might not keep forever: we happily hired a wonderful sitter over the summer knowing she would be taking a teaching job this fall. We loved her and, knowing she would only be with us briefly, we were able to set our expectations accordingly. Just try to be clear about where you are in your search and plans. It’s a good place to start with a future employer.
2. Be someone I will want to hang out with. I know this sounds a bit vague and personal. What I mean is, “Be interesting, attentive and courteous.” Don’t misrepresent yourself, but, assuming you are not naturally an offensive jerk, your best bet is to be sincere, focused and have a real conversation with me at the interview. You’ll be hanging out with me and my child, after all: we want to like you, so show us what there is to like. (See here for more on this point re: hiring. We also heard this from an admissions director of an exclusive preschool recently, so I’m definitely not alone in prioritizing this vague qualification!)
Punctuality and absences
3. Be on time. Bonus points if you can be 5-10 minutes early. Babysitting is not one of those new-industry jobs where showing up approximately on time is fine. This is a job where I am counting on you to show up on time so I can show up somewhere else on time. I will absolutely book enough buffer time to get my little one settled and me out the door and where I’m going, but I will not continue to hire a sitter if I have to book (and pay for) the extra time his/her chronic lateness requires to make sure I get there on time. It is just too hard on my nerves, those ten minutes of wondering if you are going to show up at all! It just starts the shift and the day off on the wrong foot.
4. Texting to confirm your shift ahead of time is a great habit. We’ve recently had two sitters who confirmed by text every time they were scheduled to come. It is wonderfully reassuring. Of course, if you’re the full-time nanny, this isn’t necessary but for one-off date nights or part-time nannies where schedules seem to be constantly shifting and parents may be juggling a couple of different caregivers and two parents’ schedules, it is a huge relief to get a, “I’ll see you at 5PM this evening,” at 10AM that morning.
5. Get in touch the minute you start to feel ill or think you won’t make your shift. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and it’s now an upfront policy with everyone we hire. Calling ten minutes before you were supposed to be at work to say that you’re feeling unwell and won’t be coming makes me nuts! It’s not that I don’t believe you – I do – but I’m betting you felt ill an hour ago, three hours ago, or last night the way I do when I’m getting sick. Call or text with a heads up as soon as you start to feel sick so I can move things around in case you aren’t able to come. If you feel better in the morning, great: I’ll still be happy to see you. If you don’t, I’m still minimally covered.
To be very clear, it is not a courtesy to follow the logic, “Well, I might feel better in the morning, so I’ll just wait and see and not bother anyone.” Bother me. Period. I would so much rather be bothered now. Really. If you can’t afford to not get paid for the hours and that’s why you’re taking the risk, let’s talk about sick time (or make-up shifts if you’re not full-time).
6. When in doubt, ask. I would rather answer a quick, “Does A. like mayo on her sandwiches?” than hear that she skipped lunch. I know some parents may differ with me on this, but my policy is, “I would rather field a question now than a crisis (even a small one) later.” All parents want our sitters to be self-sufficient and competent, but, especially early on, I expect to provide some guidance and course correction: it’s how we all ease into new jobs and situations. Caring for my child is a team effort and that means you should feel comfortable reaching out when you need a hand. (I also don’t want you going without caffeine because you don’t know where I keep the coffee. Ask me about things for yourself too.)
7. Related: don’t spare me the bad news. I expect things to go wrong. They go wrong for me all the time! Really. I want to know where and how she got that scrape on her knee or that something weird happened on the bus. Trust me, now that she can talk, she’ll tell me herself. Before that, I’d probably hear about it from someone else, and that is the worst case for employer/employee trust. I will trust you more for giving me the bad news as well as the good.
And, corollary, I want you to consult me immediately when things really go off the rails rather than being shy about bothering me. I trust your judgment, but this is my child, so if you’re stranded at the park with a dead battery at nap time, call me. I can help. Really. You aren’t on your own.
8. Provide notes of what happened and when. This is most important when nannying for an infant: how many ounces the baby drank and when, plus when and how long she slept are essential to a parent’s planning after you leave for the night. (A Post-It will do.) I like to get those updates on my preschooler as well. If she didn’t eat much lunch, I’ll plan a big and early dinner; if she didn’t nap, an early bedtime, and so on.
9. Related, texting during your shift to confirm that things are going well is a nice touch. It’s enormously reassuring to me, as the parent of a child who can get anxious easily, to know that everything is going smoothly or just to know what she’s up to.
10. Be tactful with parents and their guilt about leaving their child in your care. Some parents are super well-adjusted about their career and care choices and bravo to them. But many aren’t. These are some of the things I’ve heard from other moms: “I want him to be happy with you – but not happier than when he’s with me!” “I want her to miss me but not to the point of being unhappy,” etc. You see what I mean? I had one nanny tell me she just skipped telling one parent about missed milestones because the mom took it too hard. The baby would just do it again on the weekend and that was that. Most parents don’t need that kind of extreme care, but regardless, it’s a tightrope for you, the caregiver, I know. Just do your best to help a mom out where you can. Provide details but don’t brag too much about a child’s wonderful days without his beloved mama!
And finally, keep in mind that some people just aren’t a good fit with each other and that’s OK. No harm, no foul. Follow your best judgment, and know that sometimes things don’t work out and you just have to cut your losses and call it a day – by giving plenty of notice in the most professional way possible, of course.