When the Nanny Leaves

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As they walk out the door each morning, working parents are grateful for the nannies who care for their children in their absence. And yet, those same parents often struggle with the knowledge that their young children spend more waking hours with their nannies than with their mothers and fathers.

So when the time comes for the nanny to move on, parents may underestimate how profound the loss can be. 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.”

The start of a new school year, when child care needs change, is high season for nanny turnover, said Alene Mathurin, a former nanny who now works as a community organizer for other nannies through her blog “My Nanny Circle.”

“Families often arrange for nannies to leave when children are away at summer camp or on family vacation so it’s less disruptive for their school year routine,” she said.

If the nanny and the parents have a healthy relationship, it can help soften the emotional impact of the departure on a child. 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. Showing that you can relate to children’s sad feelings about a nanny leaving may help them feel safer and more cared for.

Sometimes, parents are so stressed by the logistics of the departure of a nanny or babysitter — who will handle school drop-off? — that they may overlook the nuances of their child’s emotional needs. Parents may also struggle with their own separation anxiety: Fear about how they will fare without the nanny and guilt about their own daily goodbyes are complicating factors.

In a 2014 blog post titled “Is It Hard to Think About Nannies?” on Psychology Today, Susan Scheftel, a psychologist at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, described how parents’ anxieties about a nanny-role can cause them to ignore how important a nanny has become. “She is there when and because the parents are not,” Dr. Scheftel wrote. As a result, Dr. Scheftel said, “Families may need to deny their enormous need for assistance by refusing to acknowledge the nanny’s role or her individual humanity.” This can contribute to tension between a caregiver and the parents that may either contribute to her exit, or create stress in the home that interferes with a child’s sense of stability when it’s time for the nanny to leave.

Cameron Lynne Macdonald, a former nanny and medical sociologist, found in research for her 2010 book, “Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs and the Micropolitics of Mothering, that some families expect nannies to play a paradoxical role she called the “shadow mother.” (Yes, nannies can be men, and serve as shadow fathers, but research tends to focus on women.) In such cases, parents expect a nanny to form a strong bond with a child but also appear invisible in the family, “to be simultaneously present and absent in the children’s lives,” she wrote. By asking a nanny to work in the shadows, parents may avoid their own feelings about how psychologically important the nanny has become, and so may be less sensitive to their children’s needs around the separation.

Some parents do this because they are afraid that a deeper bond with a nanny will interfere with their child’s healthy attachment to them. In fact, studies show the opposite. When a child has a high-quality bond with a caregiver, this can actually help complement and reinforce parental attachment. Therefore, children who are more securely attached to both their nannies and parents feel more secure over all.

In a report in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis in March, Dr. Jessica Yakeley, a British psychiatrist, found that children have enough psychological room to attach to both parents and a nanny or multiple other caretakers.

Families and the child care workers they hire share a complex relationship that merges the personal with the professional.

Ms. Mathurin, whose mother left her in the care of a grandmother in St. Lucia at age 3, said that transitions can be especially stressful for nannies who themselves may have a complicated family history. “We don’t realize the toll it has on women to leave their loved ones behind, and then love the children they work with,” she said.

In her research, Dr. Macdonald interviewed nannies who said they in turn found the burden to perfect the art of “detached attachment” exhausting: How can you adequately bond with a child just enough, but not so much that it would make separation traumatic and make the parents feel lesser-than?

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.

Following are some suggestions to help ease the transition.

Parents — assess your baggage. Talk to your partner, friends, mental health professional or anyone else you trust about your nanny’s role in your family. Unresolved baggage may bubble up and lead to unrealistic expectations and more disruptive transitions if a nanny has to leave.

Practice fair employment. Employers and child care 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 nanny feels comfortable talking to you about issues that relate to job satisfaction. Give your nanny advance notice if you can no longer maintain a full-time position when your child starts school. Once it has been decided that a nanny is leaving, ask for her advice on how you can both support your child.

Work together to put the children first. It may be helpful for the nanny to sit down with a child and explain why she has to move on. It may also help children to hear that they didn’t do anything wrong, and that the nanny’s goodbye is not their fault. Let your children’s questions be your guide about what information they’re capable of handling. Drawing the nanny a farewell card can help young children who may not be able to put their feelings into words.

Facilitate a smooth transition to the next caregiver. If possible, allow for a gradual period of overlap and minimize other changes in a child’s routine. Transitional objects like stuffed animals can help children find safety in familiarity — this is not the time to try to throw away a beloved blanket.