May 2, 2007 — -- 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.
"You don't tell the parents how to raise their kids," she said. "Families ask, 'Who does she think she is?' I have to explain to nannies to tone it down."
But mothers are sometimes out of touch with the realities of everyday child-rearing. Cascio tells new mothers, "Your nanny probably has more knowledge than you do. Respect her opinions and give her credence. You have only book knowledge."
Nannies tell Cascio they spend weekdays teaching children to say "please" and "thank you," but after the weekend, all bad habits return.
"The parents don't want to be bothered, and they give their children every video on the market and anything else they want," said Cascio. "By Monday, it's all undone."
"If the mom and dad say they want the nanny to be creative and educated and read to the child and take nature walks, it's unrealistic to expect them to clean the bathroom, change the beds, dust and do vacuuming," said Cascio.
"They don't want be in a situation where they are busy cleaning the shower and the child opens the door and walks outside or gets caught in the blind cord," Cascio said.
Elizabeth Elder, a New York City mother of two with a baby on the way, has had both good and bad luck with nannies. Her husband works long hours in the financial world and she relies on her nanny not only for child care and housekeeping, but for companionship and advice.
For the last three years, she has had a full-time nanny, Amanda, an older woman from Guyana with a master's in teaching. But soon, she will leave, moving to Canada to seek citizenship.
"Amanda has a gentle, wonderful way about her," said Elder. "She is a terrific foil for me -- calm and distant."
But recently, Elder has tried another nanny, one with an attitude. "She clearly doesn't like children, and they don't like her. She is perfectly responsible; we just don't have the same love for her."
Elder says this new nanny views her role as "just a job," working only the allotted hours and doing the "minimum required." Elder suspects that the minute she leaves the apartment, the nanny flips on the television for the children and talks on the phone.
Ultimately, Elder says she will fire the nanny. But finding another Amanda, who can nurture her children without stealing a parent's emotional thunder, will be difficult.
"You have to be careful, " Elder said. "You trust your nanny with your family's secrets. You don't want her to violate that trust."