In P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series, the beloved nanny is blown by the East wind to Number 17 Cherry Tree Ln., home of the Banks family, which just happens to need a nanny at that very moment. Mary agrees to stay “till the wind changes.” Under her stern but loving care, Jane and Michael Banks have all sorts of magical experiences, like an upside-down tea party and a Christmas shopping trip with a star from the Pleiades cluster of the Taurus constellation.
If only finding childcare in Charlottesville were so easy. There’s a lot to consider when choosing the right care for your children—should one parent stay at home? What about daycare? A nanny? Extended school day programs? Cost—what’s realistically affordable?
The answer is different for every family, but for many families here in town, a nanny (or regular babysitter) is the answer.
“It’s been a learning experience for us to understand the market here,” says Elizabeth, a new mother who is currently looking for a nanny to take care of her baby girl when her husband returns to his teaching job in the fall and both parents will be at work. The inflexibility of full-time 9-to-5 daycare doesn’t suit their needs. A nanny or regular babysitter seems to be their best bet.
Nannies aren’t cheap—Elizabeth has seen rates anywhere from $15 to $23 an hour, and with good reason, as nannies need to make a living, she says—nor are they easy to find. Many families find their nannies through word of mouth, and some even participate in a nanny share, where a single nanny will take care of kids from multiple families at a time. So far, Elizabeth has relied on friends with kids and other new moms for sitter recommendations and references, and has perused local parenting groups on Facebook and UVA student job boards for nanny postings. She and her husband have interviewed a few candidates but none have worked out so far for a variety of reasons—cost, schedules, personality, lack of solid references. A couple of the candidates seemed like a great fit, but they found other gigs before Elizabeth and her husband could make an official offer.
A good nanny is hard to find, Elizabeth says, and in Charlottesville, it seems like there aren’t enough nannies for the families who want them, but it’s hard to tell for sure, since it’s not exactly a regulated workforce.
And on top of all that, there’s no exact science to picking the right nanny for your family—in addition to tangible things like cost and compatible schedules, there are the intangibles, like personality, enthusiasm and ability to connect with the kids and parents alike. Some families might want a nanny to do laundry or dishes in addition to childcare; not every nanny will be okay with that. Some families want to lay a schedule out a month ahead, others are more spontaneous; some families will guarantee hours while others won’t. But when the expectations of both the nanny and the family are crystal clear, the relationship can sparkle.
Ruby, a 20something nanny and artist, has been with her current family for three years, and she’s stuck around for a reason: The family makes her feel like part of the unit. “It’s been so great to develop a deep connection with these children,” Ruby says of her two charges, ages 1 and 3. She often encourages them to play in the backyard or with toys at home, and takes them on frequent Rivanna Trail walks and visits to the Discovery Museum and McGuffey Park.
“I think I work for them because I know how to get the kids laughing, but also am responsible about naptimes and bedtimes and doing the dishes. There’s a nice back and forth,” she says. “I follow the guidelines they give me, but I feel that my input is also valued.” It’s hard work that leaves her exhausted by the end of the day, but ultimately, she says, it’s a rewarding job.
“Getting to play with kids and see them grow and gain understanding of the world is so wonderful,” Ruby says. “I see things differently when I’m with them.”