Babysitting Stories

The Truth About Nanny Attachment

It’s rare I make posts about being a nanny these days – that’s partly because I’m not a full-time one anymore. I do still look after children, but I do it on an occasional basis, and it’s not as big a part of my life. But I was having a conversation with my friend Anne and realized that it’s really hard to explain nanny attachment and the feelings you get when you end a relationship, for whatever reason, with a child that you have spent a lot of time with and become very attached to. There’s a certain sort of pain that can’t really be described. Attachment goes both ways – but the child has an advantage, in that they forget you fairly quickly. You have the memories, and the memories are often very bittersweet.

I wrote this short essay on nannying and the subsequent attachment two years ago, and it still rings true today. I thought I’d post it here so that people can understand – it’s not an easy job, but the memories are very precious.

It’s all physical. The sweet scent of a bathed little body in lavender and camomile soap, the feeling of cuddly terry one-piece pajamas fitted over soft-cover diapers. Everything about bathing and taking care of a baby is physical. In this job, your hands literally are your best tools.

You lift and rock and bounce. You breathe into feathers of silky hair, drop gentle kisses onto the top of a tiny head. And siren-like wails calm to whimpers, widened eyes droop, and a little thumb goes into her pursed-up mouth. You take the weight of her tiny 13-lb body as part of your own, moving and swaying and stepping in an intricate, smooth dance.

It’s like you could do it all night. Like you would never get tired of just being that physical state of comfort for someone else. You begin to hear the chorus of sucks, breaths, and swallows that signal comfort and sleep. It’s measuring by this rhythm that you realize how long – or short – a moment can feel, especially when it’s a moment in the life of a young child.

It’s not yours to keep, though. It’s never yours to keep. A nanny is never part of the family, but the help. She is to love the children, but never overstep.

Her cries can tear you up. This, right now, IS the most important person in your life – because being that source of comfort is paramount.

But you smile, stretch your cramped arms that now feel strangely empty without a baby, and hand her back to her parents. She’s such an easy baby. Wow, I guess she really likes you.

She mutters in her sleep and maybe she reaches for you – maybe one of the hardest parts of this job is watching children reach their arms out for you when you know that you’re not the one they should reach for. At this time, though, your thoughts are in the present tense only – it’s about leaving her with the comfort you’ve spent so long trying to give her.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetie,” you say, and pick up your coat to slip out the door without being noticed.

It’s only halfway down the street do you realize just how hard it was to let her go, even for a night. It’s only then that you realize that it doesn’t matter if right now this baby is your primary relationship – she’s not going to remember you because you’ll leave in less than two years. Circumstances change. Daycare waiting lists end. Jobs open up.

And maybe your arms ache a little more. But you go back because it’s not only your job, but because at this point, you can’t imagine doing anything else.

This counter-intuitive dance of loving and denying that love to protect their own hearts – that is what good nannies do.

Photo taken from abcnews.com
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3 thoughts on “The Truth About Nanny Attachment

  1. I think it depends how old the kids are, whether or not they’ll forget. My eldest son still remembers a neighbour boy who moved away between two and three years ago, and they’re both 6 now (I think the moved not long after Leo was born).

    It’s the attachment that forms that can make it hard for parents to move on, too, though, if there are reasons the nanny has to leave, or should be let go.

  2. Lovely words. This felt vaguely familiar to me, and while I’m sure it’s partly because I probably read it when you originally posted it, it’s also because I can relate to the topic. I so, so agree. Some children I was a nanny or babysitter for I miss more than others, but all of the children and babies I’ve spent an extensive amount of time with come with bittersweet memories.

  3. Thanks for writing about this. I imagine it would be hard to leave behind children you’ve grown attached to. I still have very fond memories of the au pairs who lived with us, even if it was only a year at a time. And I keep in touch with several and have visited them in France. So sometimes these relationships last a long time. Caregivers are such an important part of kids’ lives.

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