Exactly How Nannies Help Powerful Women Do It All

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

When New York went into lockdown two years ago, Sarah, which isn’t her real name, relocated to the countryside. She would have hunkered down in her tiny apartment were it not for her job as a nanny to the young son of a famous actress. When her employer’s family left the city, Sarah and her husband packed up, too, and went to stay at a rental house near theirs — provided by Sarah’s employers — so she could continue caring for her charge. “We all got a lot closer,” she says. “My husband and her husband were cutting down trees in the woods and screaming about politics.”

The actress was still doing interviews and online play readings, and Sarah gave her the space to focus by spending hours outside with the boy, catching frogs and getting covered in mud. When her employers really needed space or time to rest, she could always whisk him off to her own house down the road. The adults took turns leading remote school at first — “So nobody murdered anyone,” Sarah says sweetly — but eventually she handled that the majority of the time, too.

Back in the city, in closer quarters, nannies packed lunches for themselves and their charges and went out for walks, or they eased the sometimes difficult transition when a parent, having emerged from their bedroom-slash-office to eat lunch with the kids, had to sequester themselves away again. Rebecca, who works as a nanny for a wealthy family in New York, would reframe the potentially fraught post-lunch moment as an opportunity for her and the child to do another activity. “Rather than the focus being on, ‘And then Mommy’s going back to work,’” she says, “it’s, ‘And then we are going outside.’” Even if they were just going to take out the trash.

By squishing professional life and family life into the same space, the pandemic provided many examples of the ways in which nannies enable women to raise children while pursuing high-powered careers. Too often, nannies’ significant labor gets swept into the background. When COVID-19 disrupted the daily routines of work and child care, it highlighted the crucial role nannies play in the flow of many parents’ daily lives. “I think people thought that they could work from home and not have as much child care, but I think they’re realizing the hard way that it doesn’t quite work like that,” says Julia Gaskell, who heads the placement agency within the U.K.-based Norland College, which specializes in a nanny-training program involving a three-year degree and a one-year probationary post. At this stage of the pandemic, Gaskell is seeing unprecedented demand for Norland nannies, including from parents in the United States.

For high-profile clients and those with more modest lifestyles alike, nannying jobs take many forms. Some nannies live with the families they work for, and others come in just for the day. Some spend years caring for the same child, while others focus on maternity nursing or temporary posts; before Rebecca landed her current job, she worked for 11 different families over the course of a single year, spending time in London, Switzerland, Dubai, and New Zealand. Gaskell has seen a rise in London-based families sharing the cost of a single nanny as well as an increase in high-net-worth families hiring teams of nannies for 24-hour care. (Rebecca is a Norland graduate, as is Prince George’s nanny.)

Alice, a New York–based Norland nanny employed by the female CEO of a publicly traded company, typically works 12-hour days with weekends off. (Her employers are “very aware” she has her own life, she adds, and give her advance notice if they ask her to work late or over the weekend.) She drops the kids off at school, picks them up, and shuttles them to their various classes and activities. In the evening, she makes sure they get some downtime (coloring or playing cards), prepares dinner, helps with homework, and debriefs the parents on the day when they return. If her employers are out late, she puts the kids to bed and either stays late or leaves if another member of the household staff is around. When the mother travels for work, Alice coordinates FaceTime calls between her and the kids.

Over the years, Sarah’s boss has worked on projects that require her to be away on set for six months at a time, and during those stretches, Sarah would facilitate daily FaceTime chats between mother and son. She’d also drop anecdotes and videos into a group chat with the actress and her husband to keep everyone in the loop on the little moments in their son’s life like the chaos of a soccer game played among small children or the triumph of figuring out the freestyle stroke in swimming class. “I felt bad sometimes because she missed out on some great stuff, but she provided such an exceptional life for him,” says Sarah.

When the actress returned from shooting, Sarah transitioned into more of a mother’s helper role. “She missed him,” she says. “She’d dig right in, and I’d fall back and be an assistant.” Sarah would do laundry and prep dinner, clearing the way for her employer to get quality time with her son.

Although nannies spend most of their day with kids, they work within the ecosystem of a family, and in addition to dealing with the children’s behavior, nannies have to navigate the parents’ feelings and conduct too. “You’re privy to things in families that nobody else sees,” says Gaskell. “It takes a lot of tact and professionalism to deal with a mum and dad who are arguing or a mother-in-law who is very critical of the mother. You might be aware of infidelity in the marriage or abuse.” Anna, who used to work as a nanny to a moneyed family in New York, says her employers had “no problem” fighting in front of her — and the wife would vent to Anna about her husband and ever present in-laws, who drove her insane. “The politeness kind of drops after a certain point,” says Anna, which is not her real name.

In some situations, nannies are very aware of how their labor factors into the dynamic between two parents. Janine Cunningham, a former nanny who now works at the nanny agency Smart Sitting, says that in past jobs, she’s had a friendly but removed relationship with the high-powered women employing her, partnering instead with their husbands to tackle the children’s needs on a daily basis. “I felt like I was supporting the dad and the dad was supporting his wife,” she says. Sarah feels she’s also aiding the actress’s husband, who doesn’t have a full-time job. “Dad doesn’t have to be alone while mom goes off and has this glamorous life and he’s stuck at home with this kid, doing this difficult task of raising him,” she says.

Some nannies’ work extends beyond child care into more general household duties. This may be ad hoc — offering to pick up groceries when they’re already at the store stocking up on items for the kid — or it may be built into their day. After Alice drops the children off at school, she settles into “more of a house-manager role.” She schedules the kids’ dentist and medical appointments, organizes family vacations from flights to ski lessons, and makes sure any repairs in the apartment are handled. “Anything that’s happening in the house is taken care of,” she says.

Depending on the family, of course, tasks not strictly related to the children can be a slippery slope with the potential for overstepped boundaries and out-of-line requests. On days when the woman Anna worked for had to be out of the house early for her part-time job, Anna would arrive at her employers’ apartment at sunrise because the husband didn’t feel comfortable being alone with his children. Anna remembers him rolling out of bed one morning and asking her to separate some egg whites for him while she was trying to manage several screaming kids. “I was like, I don’t know what my job is totally, but this is not it,” Anna says.

For Alice, whose Norland degree focused on early-years development and learning, helping her boss pursue an executive career has aligned with her own career ambitions. “I just really love my job,” she says, noting that she never expected to stay with one family as long as she has at her current post, which she’s held for seven years. She enjoys troubleshooting around children’s behaviors — Why isn’t a kid sleeping at night? Why are they throwing their food on the floor at every meal? — and could see herself potentially working as a full-time consultant to families and carers on issues relating to sleep, routine establishment, and food preferences.

Not all nannies love their jobs that much, of course, and employers can easily overstep or create an abusive workplace dynamic. As Cunningham points out, nannies mostly work alone and without an HR department; she aims to be a resource to them when issues arise, but plenty of nannies lack that kind of support. At the agency she works at, it’s Cunningham’s job to tell parents they need to pay their nannies at least $30 to $35 per hour on the books, give them sick time and paid time off, provide overnight stipends and their own rooms when they travel together, and put money toward their health insurance. But at the end of the day, many of those benefits are not enforceable and are decided upon by each nanny’s employer. What they agree to is between them, Cunningham explains.

When Sarah started nannying, she was pursuing a career as a theater actor. Though her work as a nanny for a movie star has made it harder to find the time to do plays, she doesn’t begrudge her boss: She loves the kid she works with, and besides, there’s not much money in theater. She has moved into voice-over work, which is less time intensive and more flexible — good for her job and for starting her own family. Enabling her employer’s career feels pretty good, Sarah says, and that support is a two-way street. “What she gave me was this feeling I hadn’t even realized I needed,” Sarah says, “which was security.”

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Exactly How Nannies Help Powerful Women Do It All