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The Changing Image of Today's Nannies

The chilling recent alleged murder of two young children by a New York City nanny has set off alarms in parents' heads. A vision of Mary Poppins' spoonful-of-sugar doting is a far cry from the image of the contemporary nanny, but many of today's nannies are just as wonderful, loving and imaginative as the Poppins archetype. But with recent headlines, nannies are once again suffering demonization, with many parents increasing their vigilance with cameras or increased interrogations as a way to manage their anxieties about the possibility of hurting their children by having others care for them.

I was about to deliver one of my children when I met Silvia, the woman who would help me care for my growing family for eight years. She had newly arrived from Guatemala with limited English and a dream to provide for her family and to keep her son from being forced into the Guatemalan army. My husband was apprehensive because Silvia wore a shirt with a bunny jumping on a bed with "Will you sleep with me?" emblazed across the front. He was concerned that he would have trouble communicating with her because of his limited Spanish skills, but I strongly felt that as an experienced mother, Silvia had something to teach us about caring for a new baby. When I watched her tenderly take the blanket that I'd knit and swaddle Lila, our oldest daughter, I was sold.

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But complications arose. Silvia had diabetes and no insurance, and so I helped her navigate the medical health care maze while she, in turn, gave rhythm to Lila's life as I transitioned back to work. She'd bring Lila to the emergency room where I was training, just so I could breastfeed. Agua became Lila's first word, and I had to learn to share her affection and to not undermine Lila and Silvia's strong bond because of my own insecurity at being displaced or marginalized. When Lila was in sixth grade, she chose Silvia as her heroine and made a composition of all the moments that she shared with her and made guacamole for the class, a dish she'd learned to love from Silvia.

Today, countless women -- many with English as a second language -- are caring for our children and giving working parents a chance to advance their careers. While of course it's prudent to perform background checks and to take action if children become inconsolable or exhibit signs of regression (such as bedwetting) on arrival of the babysitter, parents should also be observant if a nanny becomes withdrawn or irritable. What happened in New York City is every parent's nightmare. But such a radical story can overshadow all the loyal caretakers that devote themselves to children when sometimes they're nominally paid and offered little recognition for the enormous gift they give each day.

How do you know whom to trust? Good references, word of mouth, an agency that vets a nanny and your own interviewing skills give some measure of security. Certainly some applicants will be weeded out, such as the woman who'd severely scalded her hand with coffee -- it made me nervous to think of her around my toddlers.

Our children take all sorts of risks. They learn to make friends, to cross the street; as they grow older, they start to drive cars and risk loving someone other than their parents. It's horrifying to think of those young children who were killed. But we parents must also take risks, with open eyes and hearts, doing the best we can to advance the lives of our children while providing for them in jobs that require a nanny's care. People are generally good, and yet that's so easy to forget. But we owe it to the numerous women who show up every day to care for our children not to let headlines override our own judgment -- and their good work.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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