I arrived in New York, aged 27, for a holiday – and stayed. Nanny friends got me a job; I had no experience (I’d never actually held a baby before), but I had an English accent, which Upper East Siders loved (especially when their kids copied it). I lived in a tiny studio apartment on East 85th Street. The hours were long; starting before the parents left for work, finishing after they arrived home. Being in their home all day meant I knew far too much about them; medical prescriptions, arguments, I even knew how often one couple had sex, thanks to the housekeeper who changed their 400-thread count Frette sheets.
All my employers had huge apartments, generally on the exclusive Upper East Side. Immaculate (thanks to a live-in housekeeper), with polished wooden floors, marble bathrooms, walk-in wardrobes packed with colour coded Armani suits for the men, Prada handbags for the women, and views over Central Park; they were a movie set.
Often there was no evidence of family life such as toys, photos, or drawings stuck to the fridge and the framed photographs weren’t of the kids but celebrity friends like Al Pacino and John McEnroe.
One mother was at home all day; I felt like a paid confidante when she read her riveting divorce papers to me (affairs, alienation of affection, mental imbalance). When I saw her bedroom walls, where she’d slashed the silk to ribbons with her kitchen knife, because she believed her husband had planted tiny cameras to spy on her, I wondered if he had a point about the imbalance.
The longer a nanny stays, the more she sees. One friend, Juliet arrived for work one day and heard the husband, Randall, beating the wife, Susan, in their bedroom. Susan was saying, ‘Stop! You’re going to kill me’.
That weekend, Juliet went with Susan and the children to the family’s house in the Hamptons. The telephone rang and Juliet answered. It was Randall; Susan refused to speak to him. She told Juliet to tell him he was a ‘f****** arsehole’. Juliet said, ‘Randall, I’m not sure how to say this…Susan says you’re a f****** arsehole’. Randall said ‘Really? Tell her she’s a f***** bitch’ and hung up. He thought Juliet had taken sides, and took his revenge. When Juliet was returning some of the children’s rented DVDs, he asked to return one of his too. So she returned Barney, the Flintstones, and a hard-core porn flick called Anus the Menace.
Some nannies lived with the family (always in a room the size of a drawer) or were given an apartment. The danger of that was that if you lost your job, you lost your home too. Living in meant living by their rules; that could be anything from being told to slice, not scrape the butter at breakfast, to having an 11pm curfew imposed on your one night off, to working six days a week (and dropping the kids at school on the seventh before starting your day off). Or worse, Teresa was folding laundry one evening, when the father appeared, made some uncomfortable small talk, then grabbed a pair of her knickers from the basket and said, ‘Can I have these?’ She said, ‘Er, No’, and he laughed it off, but they disappeared a few days later. That was the last time she lived in.
Some nannies let the opulence go to their heads. Matisse and Warhol on the walls, kitchens big enough for blow-up pools for the kids parties, A-list friends; it was heady stuff. I heard one nanny say, ‘We’re looking for a summer house in the Hamptons for $5million and we can’t find anything, it’s awful’
But if some nannies blurred the boundary between employer and employee, the bosses never did. We were domestic staff, kept behind the green baize door. One nanny was surprised to be invited to her bosses’ 40th birthday party (which cost more than her salary). When she arrived her boss said ‘Take. These. Children. Home.’
Although one mother would literally follow me around the apartment to check I was working, generally, if they weren’t at work, they were out at charity fundraisers or shopping all day. Nannies spent far more time with kids than they did. Christine correctly diagnosed autism in a child, having spent hours researching it. The parents ignored it; months later a specialist confirmed it.
Parental apathy frustrated some; I was relieved. I lost a ten year old boy in Central Park for a hysteria-inducing five minutes (he slipped through the fence of the playground while my back was turned). When I told the mother I said, gravely, ‘Something terrible happened today’. She listened, nodding, and flicking imaginary fluff off her tight, short, baby pink Chanel suit, and when I finished she laughed and said ‘Oh Gaaaahd! He does that to me all the time; forget it!’
Professional nannies took their jobs seriously; being trustworthy was their USP and they loved their charges as their own. This was partly because nannies tended not to have their own children; once they did have kids, they were understandably less keen to spend their days looking after other people’s kids at the expense of looking after their own. This devotion wasn’t always appreciated. Andrea was a Norland nanny (the crème de la crème). She worked, in uniform, for a family for 15 years, looking after three children from birth. As she prepared to leave the job, she became increasingly tearful about saying goodbye to the kids. The mother caught her crying after a child’s birthday party and said ‘What’s all the fuss; say goodbye to them in the park tomorrow, and then don’t come in again’. Andrea was devastated. Adding insult to injury, the going rate for a golden handshake was $1000 per year worked; Andrea got a Tiffany silver frame.
In fact, professional nannies earned decent salaries. But being in someone’s house where there was no formal employment structure, no contract, no personnel department, made it was hard to ask for a pay rise, or even a holiday (you’d fit in with their holidays).
Clare dared to ask for a raise after three years, and her boss said, ‘You wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t spend $300 on shoes’. Those girly chats about Miu Miu platforms didn’t seem so cosy anymore. Louise received a yearly pay rise in line with inflation and a $500 Christmas bonus, though she said it was hard to be overwhelmed when she knew that her bosses netted $1million in bonuses.
I never stayed long enough at a job to think about a pay rise, but I remember being embarrassed that although I was trusted with the children all day, one mother would give me $10 for milk, and then ostentatiously count out the change in front of me to check I hadn’t pocketed a dollar.
Good nannies weren’t promoted, they were demoted. The reward for years of loyal service, once the children were at school all day, was dog-walking, grocery shopping, PA duties, or dry cleaning (with explicit instructions: ‘Careful, that’s Gucci!’).
I loved seeing how the masters of the universe lived. It wasn’t so fabulous; they were never on their own, there were always nosey staff (like me) hanging around. They weren’t all bad. One father caught me napping (in his bed) while the baby slept, and he didn’t fire me (or tell his wife, who definitely would have). They moved to Connecticut soon after, but that was obviously just coincidence.
This feature first appeared in the Times