No Spoonful of Sugar

by Janet Thomas

Associate Editor

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    Girls who become nannies often find more bitter than sweet.

    We were all sitting around talking in the lobby of the meetinghouse when a girl walked in carrying a page torn from a magazine.

    “Can you believe this?” said the girl, incredulously, holding the magazine ad so her friends could see. “Look at this picture. If anyone believes this, they’re crazy.”

    The two nearest her took the page, looked at it briefly, and started snickering. Soon all the girls crowded around. This group of girls, between the ages of 18 and 20, had one thing in common. They were all employed as nannies in the Boston, Massachusetts, area. I had asked them to talk about their reasons for choosing to become nannies and what they had learned about the experience. Now I had to see what they were laughing at.

    I looked over their shoulders at a full-page ad. The copy said something about the exciting opportunities awaiting girls who wanted to become nannies. The picture was of a pretty young girl in a frilly dress, seated on a couch with a poodle lying beside her on the cushion. A black baby grand piano was behind her. Seated at the girl’s feet were two perfectly groomed children smiling up at her as she read from a storybook.

    “That isn’t how it is,” said Leslie Bentall, a former nanny. “You walk around in sweat pants with your hair pulled back while kids in dirty diapers pull you in all directions. The homes are often not as nice as they are made out to be. You’re asked to do child care, but then you’re made to wash walls and clean windows, do carpools, and baby-sit every night of the week.”

    The idea of becoming a nanny usually brings a mental image reminiscent of Mary Poppins. However, in the United States, there is a new type of nanny emerging. Instead of the formally trained nanny who goes to school to learn her skills and who considers her job a career, these new nannies have no formal training and take a short-term job as a change from school or unsatisfactory work. With increasing regularity, LDS girls have been answering ads in newspapers and responding to recruitment by nanny agencies, taking a year off, usually following high school, to become a nanny. The jobs are often in the Northeast, in the South, and in California, near large cities with families where both parents are working and one, two, or three children require child care. The enticements offered are the excitement of living near a big city and perks such as free use of a car and vacations with the family. Yet, the job of nanny rarely turns out to be what the girl expects.

    Why Do Girls Become Nannies?

    The number of LDS girls now involved in taking jobs as nannies is causing increasing concern because some are finding heartbreak and becoming inactive in the Church as a result. Some nannies just stick it out for a year. And a few fortunate nannies find new friends and new opportunities.

    Because of its heavy concentration of nannies, the New Era selected the Weston Ward of the Boston Massachusetts stake to interview ward leaders, nannies, and employers about the pros and cons of the nanny experience.

    Two of the most common reasons girls give for becoming nannies are being undecided about going on to college and having a desire to see a different part of the country.

    “I was tired of school.”

    For many young girls, taking a year off to become a nanny sounds like a nice break between high school and college. Many nannies say that they were tired of school and wanted to do something different before going to college.

    But choosing to become a nanny is an emotionally wrenching, often spiritually devastating way for a young woman to leave home for the first time. She is cut off from her support system of friends and family and placed in a home where the lifestyle and beliefs are often very different from her own. Then this young nanny is given heavy responsibility. It is more than baby-sitting. She is responsible for the child or children’s well-being for many more hours per day than any other person.

    Wendy Griffith, a nanny for several months, said, “At 19, I feel like a housewife. I had no idea what it was like to raise a child. It makes me want to wait before I have children.”

    Allyson Sipherd thought long and hard before becoming a nanny, and even though she loves the family and children she is with, she found the adjustment difficult. “A lot of us haven’t been away from our families for more than a few weeks. It takes a long time to adjust. You are thrown into a totally strange situation, living with strangers that you have to get to know. You are on your own basically. You’re expected to make your own decisions and be responsible.”

    Mary Anne Foley, a past Relief Society president of the Weston Ward, has seen the number of nannies in the ward grow from 5 to nearly 80. She has counseled many of them about their problems. She has seen the amount of responsibility these girls take on and how difficult it is for them.

    “It is hard on a girl to walk into a situation she did not create and have responsibility for some other lives,” Sister Foley said. “They think they are going to work six hours a day, but they very often work 12 hours a day and are responsible for much more than they ever expected.

    “And what is the girl getting out of it? It’s squandering her time doing something that doesn’t lead anywhere. The girl obviously matures because she is living somewhere different than where she grew up. But often the way she matures isn’t very desirable. What happens to her and what she really learns don’t compensate for what she ought to be learning. I wouldn’t send my daughter into a situation where she was responsible for children ten hours a day. If I wanted her to have an experience outside of her own culture, I would choose a different way to do it.”

    Many nannies do say the experience teaches them the importance of additional schooling. For example, Melissa Ostler said, “It makes me want to go to college. It’s the only way to go. I want the security of having a degree. I don’t want to have these kinds of jobs the rest of my life.”

    “I wanted an adventure.”

    For many girls the prospect of flying across the country and living near a big city sounds glamorous and exciting. Carrie Knell, wife of a counselor in the bishopric, says, “The nannies come out here because they want to see Boston or New York City, but they don’t get to. They are with children most of the time. If they are with wealthy families, they are not going to live close to the train stop.”

    When girls do get a chance to get together and go into town, they sometimes ignore warnings about not flirting with guys on the subway or not going into certain bad areas of town. Rosalie Dolan, who teaches the Sunday School class for nannies in the ward, said, “One of the things we cautioned these girls against was going into the ‘combat zone’ in downtown Boston. Two girls, their first Saturday here, headed straight to it to find out what was so terrible. They saw someone who had just been murdered. That really scared them. It seems like the worst thing to do is tell teenage girls not to do something.”

    Two Myths about Being a Nanny

    It seems, at first glance, that a young Mormon girl going to live with a family would have great opportunities for missionary work. And, when figuring a weekly salary that excludes the major living expenses of room and board, nannies think they are going to be able to save a lot of money. Both of these expectations, with extremely rare exception, turn out to be false.

    Myth 1: A Missionary Experience

    The Boston Massachusetts Stake has more than 170 LDS nannies working within the confines of the stake. Mitt Romney, stake president, said, “I don’t know of a single family that has joined the Church because of their nanny. It is false to claim that it is a missionary experience.”

    Michelle Holbrook, a counselor in the Relief Society presidency with specific responsibility for the 70 plus nannies in the ward, said, “I’ve heard girls say that their parents think it is going to be like a mission for their daughters. I’ve been on a mission. There is nothing in common aside from the fact that you leave home.”

    Sister Foley explains, “I don’t know of any families that have been baptized because of their Mormon nanny. That’s not what those families are looking for. In fact, I would say the opposite occurs. Very often the employers are quite disappointed in the way their nanny lives if she does not live LDS standards.”

    Nannies are often not allowed to have religious pictures in the home where they work, even in their own rooms, and are not permitted to do such simple things as sing Primary songs to the children, even songs with no religious content. One nanny said she was fired for teaching the children “Popcorn Popping on the Apricot Tree.”

    One nanny, in tears, said, “I come from a very large family and we have always talked and prayed together. The family I am staying with isn’t religious. I am not used to not talking about religion. I was with my kids and was telling them about Heavenly Father. The mother walked in and got very angry.”

    However, nannies have had some success introducing the Church to other nannies they meet. Since they are in one place for such a short time, the wards have difficulty following up with newly baptized nannies. The new members often come for a few weeks, then move on, and the local leaders don’t know if they remain active or not.

    Myth 2: Saving Money

    While talking to dozens of nannies, I found patterns emerging. Nearly everyone had the same answer to the question about money. “I suppose you can save money,” the answer would come with a slightly embarrassed giggle, “but I haven’t.”

    Although the salaries offered for nanny positions seem more than adequate, often ranging from $100 to $180 per week, there are unanticipated drains on a nanny’s finances. First, there is the long-distance phone bill. The girls are homesick and need support from their friends and family during a trying time in their lives as they adjust to living away from home and to a stressful job. It is not unusual for girls to spend nearly a fourth of their monthly salaries on phone bills. Also, nannies must usually pay for their own medical insurance.

    Dee Helton, a nanny who has been in the area two years, lists just a few of the expenses girls can expect to have. “My first year here, I didn’t have a phone bill under $100 a month. Nannies spend their money on clothes, concerts, traveling, sightseeing, and going home for vacations. You can use six months’ savings just for one trip home.”

    Nannies often take jobs near big cities with the hope of experiencing cultural events. But taking advantage of all that a big city has to offer costs money. Transportation into the city and tickets to events are expensive. A simple thing like parking is a major expense—in downtown Boston it can run from $10 to $20 per day.

    In addition to major expenses, a nanny also finds that she now must buy regular supplies that had been purchased by her parents when she lived at home. Then there are other expenses which a nanny can expect. If she signs up for a class or a health spa, which enriches her life and helps her get away from the house regularly, it costs.

    A Word from a Bishop

    Thomas Murdock, former bishop of the ward, now has an assignment to oversee the nannies. He has seen a few good experiences and some tragedies with the girls who have taken positions as nannies.

    “I would never suggest that a girl come and be a nanny. I think of those few instances where I have been tremendously blessed helping nannies prepare to go on missions, and I would be willing to give those up if the girls who find tragedy here, such as unwanted pregnancies, would not have come. The three or four success stories won’t equal out the tragedy I’ve seen with some girls. They are vulnerable and become victims, used by a business climate that needs young women as household help.

    “The 18- and 19-year-old girls like to go out in the evenings, but the social life in Boston is the nightclubs with drinking and partying. Easy sex is part of that. A nanny can find herself in a situation that places tremendous pressures on her if she is trying to maintain her standards.

    “The girl who succeeds here as a nanny would be successful in school, in work, anything she tried. When deciding whether to take a job as a nanny, girls don’t ask the question, Why? They ask, Why not? How bad can it be? It can’t be that bad. Come on, let’s go.

    “It is a tough environment to learn who you are and what you want to be. I don’t recommend it as a place to really find yourself.

    “Parents should know exactly what the good things and the bad things are and stay involved so that their poor girl doesn’t get on the phone and hear, ‘Tough it out.’ Parents should listen because there could be a situation that they would take their daughter out of in a second if they were aware of it.”

    Church activity is also a problem for some girls. Less than a third of the nannies on the ward rolls attend church. Some nannies are required to travel with their families on weekends; some become involved with nonmember friends; and some fall into inactivity.

    Bishop Murdock pointed out that local ward leaders have difficulty keeping track of the nannies that come and go. “I will try my best to be aware of her. I will make sure she knows what is available, but she is going to have to choose. We have no way of creating a better situation here than she had at home. It is more difficult here because at home everyone knew her, and she knew all of them. Here she has all the newness and adventure of Boston, and she may get lost. If she doesn’t choose to make contact, we will never know where she is or what she is doing.”

    Michelle Ainge, ward Relief Society president, has regular contact with the nannies that attend church. “I sense a real loneliness with the girls. They have a need for family to be around them, a need to be involved with friends. They get here and say, ‘Are there any activities planned for this Friday. I already told my people that I want Friday nights off. Is there anything to do?’ They sound so desperate.”

    Bishop Murdock said the ward organization cannot plan enough activities to keep the girls occupied. “There is not the opportunity or enough time to monitor a girl when she is very lonely and very anxious to do something socially. This is a time in their lives when they are used to having something to do every night of the week. There is never enough for them.”

    Girls naturally turn to the Church when they are in a difficult situation, but this also places an unusually harsh burden on the ward. “We had so many nannies getting fired from their jobs and moving in with ward members, that we had to instigate a 48-hour rule,” said Bishop Murdock. “If a girl loses her job, the ward will help her for 48 hours. We’ll put them up, usually with the visiting teacher, and we help them get home. We can’t, as a ward, take care of all the nannies that get fired. We just can’t do it.”

    Also, the efforts made by ward members to keep in contact with LDS nannies are not understood by their employers. In several instances, the families had adverse reactions when two men (home teachers) called at the homes to visit the nannies. Some families have asked that Church members not visit the girls in their homes.

    “Every single nanny that I knew or had talked to before they came out here,” said Bishop Murdock, “told me that they wished they had been able to answer all the questions I had for them. None of them thought there was any need to look at the situation in a worst-case basis, that the situation might not be what they had been told it would be like.”

    A Word from an Employer

    Not all problems or unpleasant situations with nannies are the fault of the employers. Girls who do not treat their employment as a job or who do not live up to the moral and ethical codes that their employers expect are a cause of disappointment. One employer said that although she has had three nannies work for her, in only one case was it a good situation.

    “When I talked to these nannies before I hired them, they were nice girls. They had good things going for them. But it doesn’t mean I can live with them or that they would be a good nanny. To have someone in your house is hard. There are too many things to measure to know if it would be a good situation.

    “One nanny I had to fire genuinely liked kids. But she wasn’t ready to work. She didn’t see it as a job. She would sleep in until noon after being out the night before until two. She continued to do that even after we talked about it. She didn’t see clear responsibilities or put forth any worthwhile effort.”

    This employer will not be hiring another nanny. She considers the one good experience her family had with a nanny as a fluke.

    Nannies: Case Studies


    Natalie, 20, has been a nanny for nearly three years. She has found some good families that she has enjoyed working for, but she has also found some difficult jobs and hard times.

    “Girls have no concept of what they are coming out to. They think it’s going to be all wonderful.

    “I left for my first job three days after I graduated from high school. The family was wonderful on the phone. They said they had a gorgeous home with a swimming pool in the backyard. They told me I would be up with the children in the morning to help them get ready for school. I would have minor housework, just picking up after the children, and be responsible for them when they got home.

    “I found out they lied to me. There was nothing but a kiddy pool in the backyard. Besides getting the children off to school, I had to scrub down the house literally every day, including washing the cars, yard work, doing their laundry, changing sheets, cleaning bathrooms, cleaning out the cupboards every day—besides watching the children.

    “I was not allowed to shower between 7:00 A.M. and 9:00 P.M. because that was my time to work for them. I was not allowed to do my laundry on their time. I was put downstairs in the basement and the door was locked so I couldn’t come upstairs during the night. I worked six days a week for $60.

    “They fired me after three weeks. They said I disrupted the family. I found out later that they were having family problems. They fired me at 10:00 P.M. and were sending me home the next morning. I applied for another job and started a week later because I love children and I like being around them.

    “There aren’t many Mormon guys out here, so you start getting involved with nonmembers. You try to be an example, but you get caught up in a different lifestyle. We would stay out until three in the morning, and we wouldn’t want to get up for Sunday. We would think, it’s our only day off, so let’s go have fun.

    “I dated a guy for over a year. I got caught up in how he lived. I broke up with him because there was something missing in my life. It occurred to me to go to church. I felt the Spirit, and I felt good, but it’s so hard to come back. I’ve seen nannies slip right into what I was in. I want to stand up and warn them, ‘Don’t be stupid like I was.’ But you can’t really tell them. It might take them 20 years to come back.

    “I’ve lived in six homes out here. Four of them haven’t worked, and two have. A lot of employers expect to treat you as their employee. That attitude can’t work because you live in their house. They need to treat you as one of the family. If they don’t, you’re not happy. It’s got to be give and take on both sides.”


    Karen, 18, has been a nanny for nine weeks. She has decided that the job is not what she is looking for and is planning to go to school when she returns home.

    “I love kids, and I’ve been baby-sitting since I was 11. After graduated from high school, I couldn’t decide whether to go to college or what to do. I called a nanny agency and asked them to send me an application.

    “My sister had a friend who had been a nanny and hated it. I avoided talking about the subject with her. I didn’t want to know about it from someone who hated it. Now I wish I had asked her more about it before I came out.

    “I thought I would have to do the shopping, run small errands, take the kids to school, and such. I knew I would have to do the laundry, but I’ve never had to do laundry for six people before. I thought I’d have to make the kids’ beds and straighten their rooms, dust and vacuum, and clean the kitchen. I agreed to all of that. But when I got out here, I had to clean the parents’ bedroom too, change the sheets, and clean up after them. I felt like saying, ‘You’re 40 years old. Pick up after yourself.’

    “They told me they had two guinea pigs and said I wouldn’t have to care for them. But I do. Anything else in the house that needs to be done I just do because it bothers me. When I’m cleaning her house, I keep thinking I should be home cleaning my mother’s house instead of working for this woman I don’t even know. Why am I here? A lot of girls are running away from something. I had everything at home. Every time I think about it, I ask myself, why did I come?

    “I thought there would be lots of things to do here, but I don’t know the area. It’s hard to find your way around. It’s hard to think of things to do when you don’t know what is available. On my evenings off, I just go to bed, I’m so tired.

    “If I were to give advice to a friend who was thinking about being a nanny, I would sit her down and explain that she would have a lot of responsibility for the kids. The family I work for seem to take parenting as a hobby. They are part-time parents. The kids are not well disciplined. They get anything they want. And there is housework to do all the time. I would tell her to go to college or get an apartment, but don’t jump out of the frying pan into the fire. You have to be very stable and ready to take on a lot of responsibility to be a nanny.

    “I’m going home and going to college. I didn’t want to go to college, but education is so important. I realize now that I don’t want to clean someone else’s house. I want to be skilled in something.”


    Arlene, 20, has been working as a nanny for two years. She has found a wonderful family to work for that cares for her and encourages her in everything she tries. She, in turn, does an excellent job for them and appreciates the affection they share. She has been with them nearly two years, caring for their little girl Sasha.

    “Charlie and Deb are the second family I have worked for. The first family turned out to be more of a maid position than a nanny position. I was totally unhappy there. I heard from a friend that Charlie and Deb were looking for someone. I called them, and they invited me to their house. I was offered the job that evening.”

    Deb talks about what they expected from Arlene before they hired her. “We asked a lot of questions of her. We asked who she was, what did she want to be when she grew up. We told her who we were and what we expected of a person who would be a part of our family. We didn’t want someone who was a maid. We wanted another family member. It was important to us, because we both work full-time, that whoever took care of our child really wanted to do that and wanted to be a partner with us.”

    Charlie added, “We also wanted to be sure she was given the resources to be independent. In the suburbs of Boston, you need a car to get around all the time. She needs to have transportation when she is not working, or she would be stuck here. She needs a telephone in her room, and privacy so she can live her own life.

    “We’re lucky to have the resources to have someone live in with us. Some people who hire nannies think they have bought a 24-hour baby-sitting service, someone who will be at their beck and call and who will sacrifice completely for that family. We don’t perceive Arlene that way. This is someone we recognize as a full, well-rounded individual, and we weren’t going to try to turn her into some type of servant.”

    Arlene points out how being a nanny differs from baby-sitting. “When you are baby-sitting, you are responsible for who you are watching at that time, but here this isn’t just when I’m working. It’s 24 hours a day. When I’m in the home, I’m responsible. We all work as a team. The most important thing is the communication between the nanny and her employers.

    “When I came out, I wanted to avoid going to school. But now I’m going to school in the evenings, and I’m a studious person. I’ve learned so much about myself and who I want to be.”

    Although she was not a member of the Church when she came east, Arlene began attending the ward on her own. Eventually she became a member. Her employers came to her baptism because they knew that it was important to her and wanted to be supportive.

    Arlene is now the ward’s Young Adult representative in charge of the nannies. She uses her leadership abilities to help other girls who are having problems or need encouragement.

    Nannies: Should I Become One?

    If you have been thinking about becoming a nanny, take a moment and ask yourself these questions.

    Do I love children and like to be around them for long periods of time?

    Will I go to church by myself?

    Have I lived away from home?

    Have I done a lot of baby-sitting and liked it?

    Do I like being in charge in challenging situations?

    Will I sign up for evening classes?

    Do I feel confident about driving and finding my way around a big city with lots of traffic?

    Do I know how to take care of money?

    Am I honest?

    If I’m feeling lonely, will I call up a new friend and suggest an activity?

    Do I know what to do in case of emergencies and avoid panicking?

    Can I discuss problems with adults in a grown-up manner?

    Am I friendly? Do I enjoy meeting people?

    Do I get along well with my parents?

    If you have answered no to any of these questions, then you should approach the idea of becoming a nanny with extreme caution. Successful nannies are self-confident and can stand up for what they believe even when away from friends and family.

    Mitt Romney, stake president of the Boston Massachusetts Stake, suggests that other possibilities should be pursued before girls consider becoming nannies.

    He said, “Girls should plan to get an education or begin pursuing a career or think about serving a mission. The girl should be mature with self-confidence and good self-esteem and be firmly rooted in the gospel. Circumstances would have to be extremely unusual for the nanny experience to be a good one.”

    Some Questions to Ask

    Nannies said they wished they had asked more questions before accepting employment.

    A written agreement should also be drafted outlining the points of agreement. Although these contracts are rarely enforceable, just talking about the details is immensely helpful.

    What will my specific responsibilities be?

    What will my salary be? After taxes what will my weekly pay be? When will I be paid?

    What are my hours?

    What days will I have off?

    Will I be paid for holidays? Which ones?

    Will I have a paid vacation?

    Will my airfare there be paid? And home?

    Will I be covered by medical insurance?

    How much housekeeping will I be expected to do? What specifically is meant by light housekeeping?

    What about the laundry? Will I be expected to do the parents’ as well as the children’s?

    What about cooking? What meals will I be expected to prepare? Who will do the grocery shopping?

    Will I have access to a car? Can I take it at will? Will I have access to it on my days off? Who will pay for the gas? Will I be insured driving it? Can I take the children in the car with me? Is it a stick shift or an automatic?

    Do both parents work? What will your work hours be?

    Will I be asked to run errands?

    What arrangements will be made for extra baby-sitting?

    Where will my room be? Will I have my own bathroom? Own TV? Own phone?

    Who is expected to get up in the night if the child cries?

    When the family goes on vacation, will I go? Will I be allowed some time off while on vacation to go shopping or sightseeing by myself?

    Are there animals or pets in the home? Who will care for them?

    Can I have friends over?

    Will I be allowed to attend church?

    Are there house rules such as a curfew?

    What are your hobbies?

    What would a normal day be like?

    Will I be treated as a family member?

    When the family goes out to dinner or to a movie, will I be invited to go?

    Will there be a written contract signed by both parties?

    If either of us wants to terminate the contract, how much notice should be given?

    Making the Decision

    The decision to become a nanny should not be made lightly. Instead of being viewed as an intermediate step between leaving home and marriage, going to college, or on a mission, the decision should be approached as any career decision. Where will this step take me? Why do I really want to become a nanny?

    For mature girls who have already been away from home and on their own, who are self-confident and self-directed, becoming a nanny can be a good experience. However, the job can be a refiner’s fire to many girls. Some come through with new self-confidence and goals for their life, but many are consumed and meet only tragedy in the experience. Taking a job as a nanny is not just an adventure. It is a decision that can be crucial in a young girl’s life.

    Photography by Steve Bunderson

    Working as a nanny is very different from baby-sitting. The nanny will have contact with and worry about the children even when she is off duty.

    Although hours are usually set in the initial agreement between nanny and the employer, girls often find themselves working far longer than they expected.

    Having free access to a car is a necessity for a nanny so she can attend Church activities and enjoy the location where she is working.

    For nannies, budgeting and saving are extremely difficult even though the salaries before taxes seem generous.

    Responsibility for children’s well-being is a heavy one. A nanny must be prepared to deal with everyday emergencies and unexpected illness.

    Nanny and child often develop a warm, loving relationship which makes saying good-bye at the end of the job especially heartbreaking for both.

    Household chores are a daily grind that many employers expect the nanny to complete in addition to child care.

    Staying close to the Church and making the effort to attend all meetings and activities is vital to a nanny’s spiritual well-being.

    Young women should carefully consider all their options before choosing to accept employment as a nanny.