When The Nanny Leaves, Many Feelings Follow
Have you employed a nanny? Worked as a nanny? Been a child who loved your nanny? The psychological and sociocultural dynamics of this relationship run deep. Reproductive Psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks M.D. delves into the often complex relationship between families and carers
When a nanny has to say goodbye, the emotional impact on a child is often shaped by the health of the nanny/parent relationship. And when parents are ambivalent about the nanny’s role, they may minimize the impact of their child’s attachment to the nanny. As one mother in my women’s mental health psychiatry practice said, “I didn’t realize that she had become part of our family until she told us she had to leave.”
If parents are too stressed by a caregiver’s departure, they may overlook the nuances of their child’s emotional needs. Research shows that it’s best when parents don’t let their own emotions interfere with helping their child mourn the loss of a caregiver. Expressing empathy for a child’s sad feelings about a caregiver’s departure may help the child feel more cared for and safe. However, for a parent to do this, they need to be comfortable with how central the nanny has become to their child’s emotional life.
In addition to preparing their children for a nanny’s departure, parents have to find and facilitate adjustment to new caretakers. Parents may also struggle with their own separation anxiety—fear about how they will fare if a nanny has to leave, compounded by their own guilt about their need for a nanny.
In general, but especially around the additional stress of a nanny’s departure, it is important for parents and nannies to reflect on their dynamic. The following may be helpful to assess the health of your relationship, and, if necessary, prepare for separation:
- Assess your “baggage.” Common forces that complicate parent/nanny dynamics include: guilt about leaving your kids, anger at your job for unaccommodating policies, resentment at your spouse around feeling financially unsupported or otherwise, fear that your child will love the nanny more than you, and trauma from your own childhood experiences of caregiver abandonment or neglect. If unresolved, this type of “baggage” may bubble up and lead to unrealistic expectations and more disruptive transitions if a nanny has to leave.
- Practice fair employment. Employers and childcare workers should be clear about their expectations. A written contract that is respectful to both parties should be followed. Look to groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance for ethical employer guidelines, such as terms around notice of resignation or job termination. The more mutual trust and respect you and your nanny share, the better you will be able to work together to help your child prepare for a transition.
- Keep communication direct and open. Create an environment in which your caregiver feels comfortable talking to you about issues that relate to their job satisfaction/plans. Don’t avoid asking the hard questions, or put off telling your caregiver with advance notice that you can no longer maintain their full-time job when your child starts school. Once it has been decided that a caregiver is leaving, ask for their advice on how you can both support your child.
Families and the child-care workers they hire share a complex relationship that merges the personal with the professional. Around transitions, parents, children and nannies alike may experience a range of emotions including competition, guilt, abandonment, relief, resentment and love. An open and reflective dialogue including all parties — parents, nannies and children — can make saying goodbye a little easier.
For more on how the caregiver relationship impacts parental attachment and additional advice on how to ease a child care transition, and also more on how caregivers may be impacted around separation, please read my recent New York Times article.
Alexandra Sacks is a Reproductive Psychiatrist who works with women at all stages of life. She and her partner Dr. Catherine Birndorf wrote about Postpartum Depression for The Tot and are coauthoring a book on the emotional experience of pregnancy and the postpartum coming in 2018. For more of their writing on motherhood, psychology, and wellness, click here.