My Turn: A Nanny's Diary

I lost my job in June 2008, just before most Americans lost the bulk of their retirement savings in the tumbling stock market. I'd been working just over a year as an associate program director (a newly minted position) for a midsize nonprofit. In rough economic times, newly created jobs are generally the first to go, so the three people who had been grudgingly doing my duties before I came along once again found those responsibilities in their laps. Alas, I wasn't about to shake my fist at the sky and proclaim the injustice of kicking a man while he's down. The truth is, I'd barely been employed long enough to establish a 401(k), so Wall Street's woes weren't even a blip on my radar screen.

My main concern wasn't retaining wealth (I had none); it was acquiring more. I desperately wanted to keep my COBRA health insurance, so I needed income. Immediately, I applied for a few public-relations positions (most similar to what I had been doing for the nonprofit), but making the leap into a corporate job is pretty tricky, especially in a sour economy. A month went by and my bills kept coming. I decided I needed to land a temporary job to make ends meet. So I fell back on the job I had excelled at, part time, for the past four years of college: baby-sitting.

I live in the heart of mommy town—an affluent Chicago suburb where minivans outnumber sedans 4-1. I placed an ad through my university and, soon enough, I got a job with a family that needed someone for just a year. It would be a perfect temp job while I tried to figure out my next step. The family had a 4-month-old baby boy (hmm … he'll sleep half the day, I thought) and two older daughters who spent part of the day in school. I'd have a 40-hour workweek and a reasonable salary—about 70 percent of what I had previously been earning. I figured the pay cut wasn't a big deal since my new commute was two minutes long, and I'd no longer have any dry-cleaning bills. I envisioned carefree days showing up to work in my sweatpants, ready for a day of frolicking in the park.

I quickly discovered that it wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. Those days at the park, on the few days the weather was actually decent, meant multiple potty trips; the packing of snacks, drinks and diaper bags; spills in my car; strollers I had no clue how to operate; and scraped knees.

When I dropped the kids off at school, or swim practice, or the park, I came to realize that I was nothing like the "career nannies" around me. First off, I was half their age. Second of all, English was my first language—most of the other nannies spoke Polish or Russian. Lastly, I looked like I could actually be the children's mother. In fact, I was often told "the baby has your eyes."

It is sometimes an odd position to be in. I have a bachelor's degree in business and graduated magna cum laude. Obviously I'd rather be doing more challenging work. But as I often catch an envious glance from the children's mother as she kisses her little ones goodbye and rushes out the door at 7 a.m., I imagine she's thinking, "I can't believe you're getting paid to stay home and play with my kids—it's what I wish I could do." As adorable as I often find these children, they are not mine. No matter how hard I try, I cannot find it cute when they bicker, throw tantrums, forget homework, spill nail polish on the floor or tell me how uncool I am (daily).

Still, a smiling baby greets me in the morning instead of a grouchy boss and an overflowing inbox. Sure, the baby's smile may eventually dissolve into a scream, but it's nothing compared to an office full of nasty political maneuvering.

The irony is, children require just as much attending to as needy bosses. Instead of fetching skinny vanilla lattes all day long, I'm fetching juice boxes. But I reserve the right to decline their demands, cloaking my laziness as a "lesson in responsibility." I've discovered euphemisms work great with people under the age of 10.

It's been almost a year since my temporary nanny gig started, and I've grown to appreciate it. The kids really are great, and they've taught me to enjoy the little things that each day brings. I've been able to be part of a family, and work in a nurturing environment. This month my gig ends and it will be hard for me to say goodbye. I can't believe how much the children have changed over the course of a year. Next fall both girls will be in school all day, and the baby (now a toddler) will be in day care.

I've changed too. This stopgap job gave me the opportunity to work on new goals (during the baby's naps, of course). I've had some time to think about my career and what I want for my future. Halfway through the year I started taking an evening journalism class at Northwestern University and discovered I love writing. I am now thinking of pursuing a master's degree. If I were still working at my cushy job with my own office and benefits, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to pursue more schooling. As for my next step, I've started applying for some entry-level copy-writing and editorial positions. If it doesn't work out, I'm pretty sure I know what my backup job will be. I've already been approached by some moms at the park, inquiring about my availability. Good nannies are hard to find.