The Ruthless World of Nanny Poaching
“I’d seriously sacrifice my husband for a fling faster than I would want to lose a good nanny to another family,” author Wendy Sachs says — the latter has already happened to her, twice.
Jennifer Garner and Chrissy Teigen both embody the cool mom archetype: high-powered careers, mini-me kids, jet-setting vacations, and the occasional post-pregnancy real talk. But behind a strong woman is often a strong nanny, which might be why Garner called out Teigen on Instagram recently, after noticing her nanny was liking an awful lot of Teigen’s posts. "I see my kids' nanny liking everything you put up with your gorgeous kids," Garner wrote. "I'm here to tell you, don’t get any ideas, either one of you."
And though that may have seemed like a cute jab among famous friends, coveting thy neighbor’s nanny is a real issue — and “poaching” is often seen as a cardinal sin in the working mother world. On mom groups on Facebook, some positive posts complimenting a stranger’s nanny, who was super sweet at story time or extra fun at the playground, are quick to include a “no poaching!” caveat. Mothers agonize over whether to share the cell of a trusted babysitter lest her time get booked up. And poaching from someone you know can be a quick way to get iced out of playgroup or worse: an express trip to the friendship graveyard. But it happens. And like any other aspect of modern parenthood, it’s not as simple as you might think.
"I don’t consider her a friend at all."
Naomi*, a 38-year-old marketing executive, once considered Abigail*, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom, to be one of her closest friends. They had met while living as expats in Asia, when Abigail had a 6-month-old and Naomi was expecting her first. Naomi says Abigail became her “mommy guru” while she was far from her own family and friends, and even helped her find Kim*, the nanny Naomi now refers to as “my foundation and my rock.”
Eventually both women moved back stateside, and Kim got a green card to come live with Naomi and her family. Soon after, Abigail asked if Kim could help her out over the summer. But what began as a one-time favor soon became an annual ask. Kim would decamp to Abigail’s house in Martha’s Vineyard for the whole summer, while Naomi, who now had two kids and traveled nearly every week for her job outside of Washington, D.C., made it work without her.
“Truthfully, that was quite hard for us,” Naomi says of the logistical maneuvering she and her husband, who also works full time, had to do. “Because [Abigail] didn’t work at all, I always felt like she didn’t need a nanny, she just wanted one to improve her lifestyle. But we tried to share and do the right thing,” she says. You can guess what happened next.
Kim came back after one summer away and said Abigail had offered her more money to stay full time. “It felt like a real stab in the back,” Naomi says, even though Kim told her she loved her kids and wasn't going to accept the offer. “I didn’t want her to choose her love of my children over her financial security and what she is earning for her family," Naomi says, so she and her husband matched the offer, to "level the playing field" and "make the decision as easy as possible." That meant a 22 percent increase in pay — $100 more per week — and Kim stayed. But Naomi and Abigail’s friendship wouldn’t survive the slight.
“I felt very betrayed and also [upset] that she had put the nanny in a very uncomfortable position,” Naomi says. “And now I don’t consider her a friend at all, because I would never treat my friends that way.”
“A scarcity of great childcare”
Anyone who hasn’t worked as or tried hiring a childcare provider may not get why a good nanny is so hard to find. Some parents-to-be sign up for daycare wait lists even before their children are born. Others struggle to find in-home caregivers who will accommodate long or unconventional working hours. Determining whether prospective employees, who are strangers at first, can be trusted to care for your kids is overwhelming during a what is already a high-stress period of transition. And on top of the emotional intensity comes a sizable financial outlay.
Average childcare costs in the U.S. are more than in-state college tuition, about $9,589 per child per year, the Washington Post reports, or nearly a fifth of the annual median household income. All of this creates a scenario in which people (yes, usually mothers) go to great lengths to find — and keep — quality childcare, says Wendy Sachs, a mother of two and the author of Fearless and Free: How Smart Women Pivot and Relaunch Their Careers.
“I think the reason a nanny poaching situation exists is because we feel like we don’t have the proper resources for high-quality childcare,” Sachs tells InStyle. “There is such a scarcity of great childcare that women take aggressive measures to make sure that they get what they need.”
Sachs knows firsthand the pain of the poach. When her kids were small, two separate nannies left to work for other families, and her feelings about it in retrospect are pretty clear: “I would seriously sacrifice my husband for a fling faster than I would want to lose a good nanny to another family,” she jokes. Sachs says one of her nannies left without a word on a Friday night to work for a mom who had met her on the playground near their home in Northern New Jersey, and offered her more money on the spot.
“I didn’t realize until Sunday night when she wasn’t on the train for me to pick her up that she wasn’t coming back, which was unbelievable,” Sachs says. “Her room was literally cleared out. It was stunning. It shocked me.” She didn’t even know what had happened until later. “Interestingly enough, my kids ran into her on a playground.”
Julia*, 54, has been on the other side of this triangular entanglement. She has nannied for 10 families in the New York City area since coming to the U.S. from Belize 19 years ago. As the oldest of 11 children and a mother of five of her own, she says she’s taken care of kids all her life, and she knows she’s good at it. “These people are dependent on you to make sure their child is happy — to make sure they’re fed, they’re clean, they’re taken to play dates and classes, to entertain them — and that’s my job,” she says.
Sometimes, that job requires her to stay until 10 p.m. one night and be up at 5:30 a.m. the next day, and to take on extra tasks, like cooking, laundry and tidying the house while the kids are asleep. “If I have to work 50 to 55 hours a week, I will do it. I know people have to work, people have dinners. I am flexible because my kids are grown,” she explains. She also knows that being this accommodating makes her appealing to other families, and that can land her in the middle of an awkward situation.
“The parents tell their friends, ‘Oh, my nanny does this, my nanny does that,’ so they hear and they try to steal me away,” she says.
The first time she was approached by an envious would-be employer, it was a mom whom she’d been helping out on evenings and weekends in addition to her full-time job. The woman offered Julia more money, and when Julia declined, things became uncomfortable between them.
“She ended up not talking to me because I didn’t want to leave my job and go work for her,” Julia says. “I used to call her, I used to say hi, and she wouldn’t answer me. So one day, I texted her and said, ‘You shouldn’t be mad at me, because you know I had a job and you tried to steal me from my boss.’” She felt it was unfair of the other mom to pressure her. “You have to accept the fact that I didn’t want to leave my job for you.”
The second time, Julia’s employer was pregnant with her third child and planned to stay home full-time after the baby arrived. So Julia interviewed with another family and found a new job. But when she told her boss, she was upset; she had expected Julia to go work for her friend. In turn, Julia felt that her boss didn’t respect her autonomy and just assumed she was hers to reassign. This, and the whole concept of nanny “poaching,” conjures up the stealthy theft of property; something that in and of itself is problematic, and emblematic of the abuse and marginalization that domestic workers often face. Even the language we use here robs the employee — arguable the most important person in the scenario — of any agency and humanity. “I don’t think somebody should try to send me to work for a friend — it should be me, if I want to do it,” Julia says.
The 2 million women who do domestic work in the U.S. — largely women of color and immigrants — are often on their own when it comes to finding employers who pay them well and treat them fairly. The unregulated, casual nature of the work also means that nannies sometimes have little or no notice that they’ll need to find a new job, and working solo in people’s homes can lead to abuse, exploitation and wage theft, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. All of these factors mean nannies have to look out for themselves. Sometimes accepting a competitive offer during a playground chat is doing just that.
“Your kids ask, ‘What happened to her?’”
Whenever a nanny moves on, it can leave parents scrambling to explain to their kids what happened to someone who felt like a family member. After being ghosted by one nanny, Sachs, the author, says she was so desperate to keep her next one, she threw in some perks: a free gym membership, help editing the 19-year-old’s school papers, and a roundtrip ticket back home to Utah every Christmas. About a year in, Sachs says the nanny gave notice, explaining that another family had offered her more money — and three paid trips to Utah each year.
“There are sort of no words to describe how horrifying it feels, and it does feel like a betrayal and it’s very sad,” she says. “It’s such a personal relationship. You can’t compare it to another job where you’re just clocking in. You’re living with someone’s family and their young children, and they have become really attached to you, and they trust you, and that trust is built up. And your kids ask, ‘What happened to her?’ and you don’t know what to say. On a real practical side of things, it throws your family in tumult.” Empathetic as she may have been toward the young woman, Sachs was "furious" with the other mother for sending her back into the frantic search for help.
Anika*, 40, says that explaining to her daughter what had happened to their nanny was the hardest part of losing her. Working three 12-hour shifts a week in medicine meant having a reliable nanny was crucial, she says, and she had interviewed about 20 candidates through an agency in New Jersey before hiring Lucy*, who worked for her for two years.
Once, a neighbor stopped Anika to say how great Lucy was with kids, and about a month later she was gone, off to work better hours with that family in the same apartment building. “I felt betrayed, hurt, angry, and sad for my daughter,” Anika says, adding that her 2-year-old was “distraught” at first when she saw Lucy in the building with the other family. “I told my daughter that Lucy needed a different position as she couldn’t stay over some nights with us. It took her over a year to get over it.”
And while Anika says she didn’t blame her former nanny, she was “irate” with the other mom. “I confronted her and spoke to others in the building,” Anika says. A year and a half later, she still keeps her distance.
“I see her around, I have nothing to say to her,” she says.
“We prioritized our family's needs and situation.”
Poaching can be harsh; hurt feelings all but guaranteed — but some women who’ve done it say they have their reasons. Caroline* was desperate: her 5-month-old daughter was having health problems and had to be pulled out of daycare. She and her husband had nearly maxed out their time off from their jobs in finance and education taking her to doctor’s appointments and trying to find a suitable nanny. They were struggling to cope.
“We were piecing together child care day-by-day,” Caroline, 31, tells InStyle. “We were desperate to find a good match for our family to ensure our daughter's needs would be met and we could return to a normal schedule.”
That’s when a friend who had worked as a nanny introduced her to Esther.* Esther was mostly happy working for another family, though they wouldn’t let her drive or take their children to classes or play dates, and she often felt lonely. Caroline and her husband were in a position to offer her what she wanted: better pay, more hours, a shorter commute, paid time off, and a less isolated environment. This was appealing enough for Esther to jump ship and come work for Caroline, who was eager to get back to work herself — but that doesn’t mean she feels great about it.
“I have to admit that we prioritized our family's needs and situation,” Caroline, who lives in New Jersey, says. “I feel guilty that we put another family in a tough situation. I also feel guilty that our family, as an employer, was in a position to offer work benefits that another family was not; that family also needs and deserves high-quality childcare. On the other hand, our family started in a very tough situation.”
What she wishes more people understood is that hiring an already-employed nanny is “not done with intent to disrupt another family,” and that ultimately, it’s the nanny’s choice to move jobs or stay.
“While nannies eventually become part of our families, they are also employees who have rights and need benefits; they have career ambitions, families, working preferences, and ultimately they are working to find the best balance between work and life — just like we are,” she says. “As an employer, I aim to be conscious and fair. While it would pose a hardship for me if our nanny was ‘poached’ one day, if she received more benefits, I would ultimately be happy for her, both because I care for her as a person and I understand the challenges that come with this line of work.”
Sachs says until there is more affordable, accessible and high-quality childcare available for all families, these types of situations — and the havoc they can wreak on women’s careers — will continue to exist.
“It’s fundamentally a problem of what holds women back professionally and what hurts families emotionally,” she says. “It’s incredibly stressful to find good high-quality childcare, and until we as a country shift our priorities and make childcare a priority, make it affordable, make it accessible, there’s not going to be gender parity in the workplace. There simply won’t be.”
For Naomi, it comes down to a principle familiar even to preschoolers.
“It’s kind of like going back to the basics: Treat people how you want to be treated,” she says. “It’s so much more than just employment and help; there’s a real emotional connection to the kids that’s just devastating when, come Monday, that person is no longer in their lives.”
*Names have been changed at subjects’ requests.