The Discount Nanny

How to find childcare on the cheap—without completely lowering your standards.

By Jeremy Greenberg for MSN Lifestyle

Of all the anticipated parenting challenges, never in my life did my wife and I foresee what hell it would be to hire a nanny. For us, a nanny seemed to be the best daycare option, because we have twins. We knew that we couldn’t afford one of those top-of-the-line nannies who sings songs and dances on verdant mountaintops. But we thought that, with a thorough search, we’d be able to find good, affordable in-house childcare. By the end of our interviews, however, we felt lucky if the next candidate didn’t sport a teardrop tattoo under his or her eye, or answer our questions with responses such as, “Sure, I can take care of kids. I had five before I was 20.”

For those of you also in this boat, I offer the following cautionary tale, followed by some advice on what one should do if forced to seek the services of a budget nanny. If you’re not currently in the market for a nanny, then please enjoy a good laugh at our expense.

THE CANDIDATES

First, I’ll share with you three of the “best” candidates. To use reality-TV lingo, these three “made it to the house” for in-person interviews. And I repeat, these were the best.

The Hottie

My wife probably would not appreciate my referring to this candidate as The Hottie. But there’s simply no other term to describe her. She showed up to the interview dressed as though she were trying to win the affections of Flavor Flav. The only difference was that, although she was a mere 19 years of age, she had a 4-year-old son in tow. She was sporting that look where the top of her underwear sticks out of the back of her pants. Call me old-fashioned, but when did wedgies become fashionable? Does she think I’m going to see her pink thong rocketing out of her too-tight jeans and say, “You know, I like her taste in underwear — I think she’d be great with kids”?

She made it to the in-person interview primarily because she was one of the first candidates who actually showed up. (We spoke with many who seemed excellent, but then backed out once the words “twins” and “eleven dollars an hour” made each other’s acquaintance.)

The candidate with a dirty 5-year-old with a lollipop stuck to his shirt

I can’t list this candidate by any kind of name. All I remember about her is that she arrived at the interview with her current charge: a filthy kid, who looked old enough to run a marathon, yet for some reason was still in a stroller, and was sporting a dirty lollipop stuck to his shirt. You’d think someone interviewing for a nanny position would realize that arriving with a child is like pushing a résumé in a stroller. And exhibiting that lollipop is like answering the interview question, “So what do you think you can teach my kids?” by saying, “For one thing, they’ll learn how to cultivate bacteria on things they may potentially stick back into their mouths.”

So, a word to all those prospective nannies out there: unless the job description reads, “Looking for a nanny who can sing songs and spread impetigo,” it might be a good idea to remove all stuck candy from clothing, and bust out a wash cloth before dragging Junior to the interview.

The Winner (so to speak)

The winning candidate appeared to be perfect. At first, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. She was young enough so that we could afford her, yet with experience in an infant room at a daycare — ideal preparation for twins. She knew how to interview and answer questions. And most importantly, she had an instant connection with the tots.

Her arrival seemed like providence — that is, until her first day on the job, when she promptly enlightened us to the fact that she’s bipolar, and that she’s off her meds. I suppose she thought she was doing the “responsible” thing by telling us. What’s even better is, halfway through her first day, she said her stomach hurt, went home sick, and didn’t return for two days.

And why did her stomach hurt, you might wonder? Because she was pregnant!

That’s right. The best candidate we found was a bipolar, pregnant 20-something with attendance issues. After two months, we finally begged my mother-in-law to step in.

What’s a parent to do?

Emily Dills, president of The Seattle Nanny Network, has some great input for navigating the minefield of nannydom.

Foremost, she impressed upon me the importance of the child-nanny connection. Emily says, “The truest barometer will always be your child’s response to the nanny — even an infant. Based on this relationship, you will decide the level of importance of every other concern.”

This is the most important thing for those of us using budget nannies to remember. We seek the most important qualities, and forgive the rest. If The Hottie and my twins somehow had an amazing rapport, I’d live with the fact that she’s a walking lingerie show.

Of course, there are a few things, such as criminal records, that are complete road blocks, and should never be acceptable no matter the connection. Dills stresses the importance of doing a thorough reference check. “References should be detailed and varied; not just former sitter and childcare experiences, but a non-childcare related employer, and personal contacts who have known the applicant for a long period of time.”

Budget nanny management

Making these kinds of tradeoffs, especially when it comes to your children, can be a tough pill to swallow.

In fact, Jayne Bellando, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, doesn’t think you should make any concessions. “Childcare is not an area where you should skimp. Any person who is going to spend an appreciable amount of time with your kids will have a pretty significant impact in your child’s development.”

I couldn’t agree more. But the spare-no-expense attitude just isn’t realistic for many of us. A highly qualified childcare professional runs about $18 an hour, plus benefits and retirement-fund contributions. They deserve every penny; it’s a demanding job requiring a special person. But for those of us who know that we’ll have to get by with a mid-range nanny, or even a glorified babysitter, I offer the following three unconventional tips for dealing with a discount nanny:

1. Be patient: You may hire and fire several nannies before you meet “the one.” Think of it like dating — except that the third day of work isn’t nearly as exciting.

2. Know the nanny’s major malfunction: Accept and manage whatever flaw makes your nanny affordable. Don’t get angry because your young nanny can’t clean even though she said she could. If she could do everything on her résumé, you wouldn’t be able to afford her.

3. Spy on your nanny: Be sure to tell the nanny that you will set up webcams and call frequently to check up, not because you don’t trust her (though that’s exactly why you’re doing it), but for your own peace of mind. If a nanny’s upset about your surveillance, that’s a major red flag. There are webcams in professional daycares, so why should your home be different?

Can I hold the baby?

I hope that for those of you looking for good childcare, your journey will be less harrowing than ours. The toughest part will be accepting that the person watching your child isn’t as perfect as you want him or her to be. I recommend that you think of hiring a budget nanny like you’re buying a used car: If it’s safe and what you need, forgive the fact that the seats are ripped — or covered in dirty lollipops.

Jeremy Greenberg is a comedian and columnist and the author of Relative Discomfort: The Family Survival Guide (Andrews McMeel, 2008). His Web site is jeremygreenberg.com.

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