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The evolution of hiring a nanny Add to ...

A few days after Maria Robles arrived in Canada from the Philippines, her agency dispatched her to a home in west-end Montreal, where she was to be a live-in nanny.

A trained midwife and teacher, she had raised three children of her own. But nothing prepared her for the two children, ages 7 and 5, she was supposed to look after. Or their mother.

One of the children cried all the time; the other never listened. The mother screamed at Ms. Robles, 49, constantly. "I was so scared," she says. "I couldn't handle it."

Over the past few decades, hiring a nanny has evolved.

It has gone from an upper-class luxury to a mainstream child-care option for two-income families as women have increased their presence in the work force. Along the way, the issues raised by paying someone to love your kids - or accepting money to love someone else's kids - have become murkier.

The complicated space in which the nanny and the mother intersect and trade off duties is also proving a fertile ground for public debate centred on parenting - not to mention pop culture. A new movie and the book that inspired it, The Nanny Diaries, examine the often close and sometimes uncomfortable dynamic between mother and nanny - and cast the nanny as a brutally honest worker who fights back.

The movie comes along just as nannies are speaking up about how they're being treated and revealing exactly what they think. They're talking to writers such as Jessika Auerbach ( And Nanny Makes Three: Mothers and Nannies Tell the Truth About Work, Love, Money, and Each Other) and Lucy Kaylin ( The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies).

Even when the nanny-mother relationship is not abusive or demeaning to the hired help, it can be fraught with tension and emotion, says Ms. Auerbach, who interviewed scores of mothers and nannies for her book.

"In many ways, a great nanny is like having a mistress - it's about love, power and need," she says.

Actually, the longer it goes on, Ms. Kaylin writes, the more the nanny-mother relationship mimics that of a long-term or married couple. "With its power struggles and ineffable intimacy, this uneasy union of mutual need is as potentially involved and tumultuous as a romance."

The relationship, she writes, runs through all of the stages "from that giddy first blush to the forging of a bond to the comfort and grind of a relentless routine, to the awful spectre of a breakup."

For some Canadian nannies, the ebbing of the honeymoon period with a family can create more than just bad feelings. The Live-in Caregiver Program run by Citizenship and Immigration Canada is a double-edged sword.

It enables foreigners to come to Canada to work, and, after two years of successful work, apply for landed-immigrant status.

But with so much riding on completing a two-year stint, a nanny may be willing to endure bad behaviour on the part of both parents and children. Some groups representing domestic workers say that the rules put nannies in a vulnerable position.

For Ms. Robles, the need to serve out two years as a live-in caregiver pushed her to put up with unreasonable demands. At her second job, the mother followed her around while she was cleaning, Ms. Robles says, criticizing her. "I was working and crying because I didn't know the reason she was always angry at me."

But she stayed, afraid of the consequences if she quit a second gig. One day, she was dumping dust from a vacuum bag into the garbage can. Her employer started yelling at her, complaining she was being sloppy.

Ms. Robles quit on the spot. The director of the nanny agency was supportive and quickly sent her to a new family, where she finally felt comfortable and remained for almost four years.

"I loved them like they were my own kids," Ms. Robles says.

Nannies were happy to tell Ms. Auerbach about the emotional purgatory that the married-couple dynamic with the employer can create for them. Some complained about being treated as a second-class citizen. One nanny told Ms. Auerbach she managed to educate herself about Asperger's syndrome and help one of her young charges in a way the mother couldn't - but her efforts became a source of tension, not relief.

"It seems like most people have to believe that nannies are stupid," she told Ms. Auerbach. "They can't stand it when they figure out that maybe you're just as smart as they are."

Offering tips on parenting needs to be done carefully, nannies say. Vancouverite Leanne Hume first worked as a nanny more than 10 years ago and has encountered many parenting styles, some better than others.

One couple informed Ms. Hume that their three-year-old son was a "bit randy." To control him, they sat him in front of The Magic School Bus, a popular cartoon movie, on the DVD player. "They had it on a loop, so it just played over and over again," Ms. Hume says.

As soon as the parents left, Ms. Hume turned off the DVD and built a fort with the little boy and had a wonderful time.

"He was a normal three-year-old, busy and excited, who needed to be stimulated and talked to," says Ms. Hume, now a mother herself - and the employer of a nanny.

She says it's easier for her to communicate what she wants to her nanny because she has done the job before. And both are on the same wavelength when it comes to raising children - no TV, no sugary snacks and lots of outings to the park.

She is careful to stay out of the house most days when the nanny is working so that her daughter respects the nanny's authority.

"We work really well together as a team," Ms. Hume says. "It's like how people say the best tippers at restaurants are those who have been servers before."

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