Nanny Wars: Parents Ask, Whose Child Is It Anyway?

Varda Steinhardt's nanny never showed up for work one recent Monday, leaving the mother of twins in a frantic last-minute search for a new -- and less hostile -- nanny.

"I felt violated," said Steinhardt, who paid her nanny generously and gave her a two-week vacation just before the haughty employee threw the baby towel in.

"She was a good nanny, but she drove me crazy," said Steinhardt, who has twin boys. "I put up with her because she was really good with my autistic son."

But the nanny -- with a master's degree in social work -- refused to vacuum or pitch in with housework, feeling it was beneath her.

"She was a bright person and a professional in her own country, but she thought being a nanny was a subservient position," Steinhardt said.

In cities like New York, where high-income professionals juggle the fast track with parenthood, nannies are the seemingly perfect solution. And they now can command annual salaries of $40,000 to $50,000 with perks such as luxury vacations and million-dollar housing.

But in an escalating nanny war, mothers and their caregivers are jockeying for control of the family.

The way some mothers see it, today's nannies are giving Mary Poppins a bad name. But nannies -- many of whom spend more time with the children than the mothers -- say today's overachieving parents have superhuman expectations.

"Parents tell me, 'I want my nanny to be the five most important people in my life,'" said Daryl Camarillo, president of Stanford Park Nannies in Menlo Park, Calif.

"They want the nanny to be a cross between mother, father, the favorite gym teacher, Mary Poppins and throw in some roller blades at the same time," she said.

With the cost of living soaring and a resulting rise in two-income families, nannies are now in high demand, but so are the job demands: bath giver, dresser, feeder, play specialist, diaper changer, launderer, foreign language tutor, child specialist and nutritionist.

When nannies pressure for more money, "it can be a little tiring," Camarillo said. "Lots of our families are regular working Joes and want the best of their children. They budget what they can."

A trained nurse, one African-born nanny, who asked not to be identified, said her boss was gone for so many hours that her twin babies hardly recognized their mother. On call 24 hours a day, the nanny even wakes for nighttime baby feedings.

"I am very clever," said the 30-year-old. "I tell her the babies are crying 'Mommy.' I don't want to hurt her feelings."

Another nanny, Laura, said she found herself in a "dark and ugly" situation when her employer was not open about her children's needs.

Laura discovered that one of the three children had serious anxiety problems and that another was probably autistic. Her week was frantic, driving the children in her car to ice skating, gym, tennis, speech therapy, karate and Brownies.

"I did what I could, but I got burned out," she said. "It's hard to be a one-person show."

When she gave her three-week notice, the parents fired her on the spot, never allowing her to say goodbye to the children and refusing to give her a good recommendation. Despite this sour experience, she has found a new job. "I am proud to be a nanny, and I put my whole heart into it," Laura said.

When nannies intervene on matters of child-rearing, as did Laura, they are usually fired, according to Pat Cascio, president of the International Nanny Association.

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