I so wanted Mary Poppins to float down from the sky and land on my doorstep. An irresistible job offer meant I would be returning to the workforce sooner than I’d hoped to leave my ten-week old.
While pregnant the previous summer as a single mom-to-be (read Last Call), I channeled my angst trying to get a childcare plan in place. Efforts to find (or get into) a high quality daycare facility proved impossible for the area I live in Los Angeles. I was blessed (and cursed) to have a rent-controlled apartment in Bel Air where rent on my 2-bedroom/2 bath place was $1500/mo but to buy a condo across the street with the same square footage sold for an untouchable $800k price tag.
By default, I would have to hire a nanny. Friends with nannies they loved found them by divine happenstance. A perfect timing of someone ensuring her practical family member was passed down to someone worthy.
Enlisting three agencies in my two-week mad quest, I interviewed dozens of nannies while my mom agreed to fly in from Texas to help transition the top candidate. I narrowed my choice to Juana, after trying her out for a few days.
Prepared to hire her, I asked if she wanted me to pick up anything at the grocery store. I had a bag of pretzels or something in mind, not a grocery list of: Sanka coffee, white bread, frozen waffles, Lucky Charms, it went on. With an 8:30 a.m. start time, you’d think she could pop her own waffle in the toaster at home.
Only when I was ready to hire her did the agency run a background check. (Surprisingly, candidates aren’t prescreened.) Juana had a DUI from just a few months prior. The owner of the agency tried to sugar coat it, “She was very forthcoming with us. She told us right from the start.”
They hadn’t bothered to tell me from the start. It wasn’t like this happened ten years ago in her youthful twenties. My son really liked her and I was half tempted to get the Sanka from her grocery list if it meant keeping her off the booze. Then my good sense kicked in.
My pediatrician suggested an agency in the Valley that snobbishly said a nanny at just $10/hour (the max I figured I could pay) would be tough to find. They sent one candidate, Lucia. My job started in two days. The agency billed her as “a go-getter with a degree in psychology from El Salvador who had continued to improve herself through early childhood education classes. She cooked, cleaned and was especially great with babies.”
Lucia made a decent first impression, though much of the schooling proved to be fabricated. She’d raised three children herself with the older two in college. She was “a bit full of herself” my mom assessed. I left her with my son as a first day’s trial. I phoned my mother from the road who said my never-fussy son “cried so hard he started coughing.” Lucia played it down when I got home, unaware my mom had filled me in.
“It wasn’t as bad” the second day, my mom reported. Not exactly comforting words. The apartment was reeking of Pine-sol and Lucia whipped up a decent potato salad. I was torn. Did my son really not like her or was he just feeling the cumulative effect of all these strangers parading in and out? The agency said she was one of their favorites. Ignoring my gut, I hired her.
Just two weeks before Christmas, I was uncertain the protocol for holiday pay. Lucia always filtered what she wanted to tell me through stories about her teenage son.
“So Hector asked to me, ‘Mom we going to have a good Christmas?’ And I say to him, ‘I don’t know. Miss Lori, she not have work for me for two weeks, so no Knottsberry Farm this year.’ He also want a Kobe jersey, hundred fifty dollar.”
It was a story intended to garner sympathy, but only infuriated me. My son was getting socks and bibs for Christmas thanks to his expensive nanny.
I was in a long-term freelance job that didn’t pay my two-week break. The nanny agency insisted it would be appropriate to pay Lucia for one week which I reluctantly did adding some holiday treats for her family. Lucia looked at the $500 bonus, obviously deflated, got into her Pathfinder (a newer year model than my own car) and drove home without so much as a thank-you.
When she returned after the holidays, my son whimpered as if to say, “I thought we got rid of her.” Lucia’s attitude took a detour south. I’d come home and find her watching TV while my son was awake. She’d act rude at times or to the other extreme and muster up The Lucia Show, feigning interest in playing with my son. He wasn’t buying it, tuning her out. My bullshit detector had gone off one too many times.
NannyBug to the Rescue
I didn’t have a nanny cam so I did the next best thing. I bugged the place.
I left an eighteen-hour audio recorder running. I’d already planned to let her go that night; I wanted to confirm my suspicions but also cover myself if anything weird happened during the dismissal.
I handed her a check that evening leaving it at, “This isn’t a fit.” What I heard that night on the voice recorder made me feel like the worst mother in the world to have left my son with this woman. I could only stomach the first four hours.
While I’m within earshot The Lucia Show broadcasted her reading in over -the-top fashion to my son. As soon as I get in the shower, she quiets. Shower water turns off, the production resumes. She’s saccharinely sweet to him until I leave for work when she tosses him in the crib, and her tone of voice changes. He whimpers and she ignores him. He’s in his crib cooing trying to get her to engage over and over and over. (He’s at that precious stage of infancy where he will light up like a Christmas tree if anyone makes an effort to connect.) Hour after hour she just ignores him. She chats on her phone, watches TV. Then I hear her make a half attempt to feed him, give up and put him in his swing to sleep while she gets back on the phone to carry on with her friends.
I wanted to throw up or commit homicide. She should have picked him up, engaged him in something, gone for a walk, etc. I phoned the agency that placed her the next day and gave them a sobbing earful. One of the partners phoned me later in the week—not to apologize—but to threaten me for posting on a local Yahoo mom’s group about his agency. Apparently nanny agencies monitor these forums to see if anyone’s tarnishing their reputation. The agency that sent the DUI nanny also let me know they’d seen my posting about them.
Several mothers wrote me from the listserve warning that some nanny agencies also “churn nannies. ” After you hire a nanny from them, pay the agency fee for a guaranteed time period such as three months, they may actually recruit her away for a higher paying job so they can earn another commission.
I thought back to the tape of Lucia’s phone conversations. While most were in Spanish, I’d remembered hearing resume, which must be the same in word in Spanish. Clearly she was looking.
Three Strikes and I’m Out
I found Alma, an $11-hour nanny, through an agency in the South Bay. She was so opposed to housework, that she crossed out the guidelines I’d printed out on his care sheet that read: “after changing diaper please wash your hands” and she wrote “NO CLEANING!!”
She also informed me I needed to have lunch for her. Something I’d have been happy to share had she been willing to lend a hand in the kitchen. I stocked the fridge with ham cold-cuts and accoutrements. She informed me when I got home she didn’t eat pork and had helped herself to a steak I grilled the night before, intended for my dinner.
I fixed myself a ham sandwich and posted a notice on Craigslist.
Someone responded referring her coveted $10-hour nanny, wanting to pass her along to a fellow single mom. Consuela wasn’t above housework and wasn’t a cook but could chop fruit or prepare a salad. My son didn’t whimper when he saw her, in fact, he hardly took notice.
She had a seventh grade education and I’d venture to guess didn’t graduate from Jr. High with honors. For instance, I handed my son to her once saying, “I think his pants are dirty, you might want to change them.” She returned saying, “his pants are clean but his diaper is dirty. Do you want me to change it?”
Another morning I said, “I’m having oatmeal now but if you want to get me a leftover burger for later.” (I meant in my lunch.) I got out of the shower and a plate of burger, beans and salad was waiting for my second breakfast course. She meant well.
I enrolled her in classes at the Red Cross for infant CPR, pediatric first aid and child safety. A week after she finished the classes, she locked herself out of the apartment with my son inside.
I met the woman who passed her on to me one day in the park. She concurred Consuela indeed had a low aptitude but has a good heart. She was also lazy at times, ate her out of house and home, ruined her laundry and was a deplorable housekeeper. I left wondering why she bothered to ensure she got passed along to me.
My temporary freelance job was on the verge of turning into a permanent staff position and I didn’t want to go through the agony of finding someone new just yet. When the offer came in, it was at such a reduced salary I wasn’t able to afford a nanny at all. I countered with a work-from-home option. They declined.
The irony is that they allow employees to bring their dogs to work–there are probably fifty tied to desks on any day. Once a week an email goes out from an employee asking about childcare. It’s a void yet to be filled.
Before my son’s birth, I used to think I’d give anything to work for this ad agency. Anything, I’ve determined doesn’t include my first born.
So now I’m trying to make a go of it writing from home with whatever I can find. Whether I return to work on site in advertising remains to be seen. I’m not sure I want to be part of an industry that places more value on dogs than mothers or children. One thing’s for sure, my son thinks it’s Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to have his mommy back home with him all day.
Editor’s note: This story originally was published under a pen name on divinecaroline.com. The names of the nannies were changed. At the time it was published, it generated a few snarky hateful emails by moms telling me I was a cheapskate. When you consider that many nannies earn cash under the table, and don’t pay income taxes, what I was paying my nanny, was the equivalent of $70k/year. In other words, because I was earning income as an independent contractor, paying a a much higher income tax (plus city tax in Los Angeles) I had to gross $70k to pay my nanny her $600/week salary + vacation and Christmas bonus.
With the passage of time, I would look back on that job as a favorite in every other respect. I loved my boss and so many of my co-workers. Upon leaving, when asked by a headhunter my proudest accomplishment there, I blurted out that I’d been instrumental in redesigning the breast pump room for fellow mom co-workers. I would be told these fellow mom friends who went on years later to have more kids, they’d nicknamed it the “Mayfield Lounge”.
I’m still proud of that and the work I got to produce there. Advertising isn’t unique in needing to better fill the void so many working moms face in all industries, the need for more affordable, work-friendly/on-site childcare solutions.
What would happen after this is that the only viable solution was to move from Los Angeles. I caved to my family’s suggestion to move closer to “home” where my mom lived in the Dallas area. I’d hoped I’d see Dallas, where I’d gone my last two years of high school, in a more positive light. But not long after trying to make a go of it in Dallas, my soul longed to be near the great outdoors. As soon as my son was potty trained, we relocated to Colorado.
My permanent (as permanent as any staff job is in the fickle/revolving door of advertising) job options have been limited to how long I’m willing to be away from my son each day and the long hours ad agencies are notorious for. I do count myself lucky that at that job in LA, I had an awesome boss who knew burning the midnight oil and last-minute do-over rewrites don’t always equate to better work. And he wasn’t opposed to people working from home when the need called. Those sorts of managers though are the exception to the rule in the ad field.
I love many aspects of creating advertising but the family-unfriendly culture of advertising, particularly for women, has a lot of room for improvement. The 3% movement is a classic example of why it needs to change. It’s a grassroots movement founded on the notion that equal numbers of men and women enter into creative departments of ad agencies, but that by Creative Director level (where I am now) across the country, only 3% are women. That percentage in the Denver/Boulder market is far less than 3%. So why is that a big deal? Most purchasing decisions for products and services are made by women so it only stands to reason more women are at the higher up decision-making table on the ads created for this audience. And clients should demand it.
At present, I’m freelancing. While I put all my savings into finally buying my first house here in Colorado, my earning power in this advertising market plummeted from what it was making in Los Angeles. And with no family here, I’ve never spent a night away from my son. I only spring for sitters when I really have to.