Q&A: Nanny overstepping bounds?

Anonymous writes:

"I have a question about attachment to child care helpers. My son is nearly two. He has always been cared for at home by a helper. We live in Singapore where part time help is not a viable option and so most people have a full time live-in helper, as do we. In our case, our helper does child care when my husband and I are at work (we both work full time) and when we come home around 6, we take our son out or play with him until his bedtime at 10 when we put him to bed. We spend the weekends with our son and without our helper.

Of late, our son seems to have emotionally distanced himself from me in particular but has become much more attached to our helper. One factor is that I am four months pregnant, so there were times during the first trimester when I was very tired after returning home and would rest for an hour or two while my husband took care of our son. However, our son now goes to our helper when he is upset for comforting and while we are happy that he can enjoy her company so much, it is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow. When my husband is traveling and it's just the three of us (me, our helper, and my son), he now often wants to play with her after work and cries if she leaves the room and he is left with me. Our helper has been with us for less than two months and I can't figure out if this attachment is inevitable given the differential in time spent with us vs. her or whether it is something that we should more actively try to reverse.

Our helper is a lovely person and very fond of our son. At the same time, she does physically take him away from me when he is upset (and he is happy to go to her) and occasionally puts me down in his presence, feeling the need to explain to me his thought process and saying things to him like "see, Mama doesn't know what to do." If she is around when I am feeding my son, she spontaneously reassures him that she will come and feed him and he then expresses a desire for that, even though I want to feed him when I am at home. Once she volunteers that she will come and feed him, he then begins to insist on that. When my husband travels, since I've been pregnant, I sometimes ask our helper to accompany us on outings and she insists on carrying our son when he should be walking and even when I press her to hand him to me, she resists (offering the explanation that she wants to help and avoid my expending too much energy). If she goes somewhere else while we are all out, she asks him to come with her. I often ask if he'd like to come with me and he usually elects to go with her. She has now sensed that I am unhappy with this situation and encourages him to include me, which frankly, feels very weird seeing as I'm already interacting with him at the time. But it doesn't help that he also seems to prefer to be with her so I don't want to drag him away against his will.

Over time, I have felt a very strange dynamic emerging between the two of us where I feel our roles have begun to overlap and even alternate. I find myself doing more of the support work, such as bottle washing etc. which is absolutely fine and something I regard as my responsibility, but I've also become the dreaded mother who insists he finish his dinner, brush his teeth etc. while she mainly plays with him and is a source of entertainment. I became a bit wary of her expectations when she told me with much pride that in her previous family, the child preferred her to the child's own mother and only wanted our helper when upset, needed to be fed and not her own mother and in the end, she felt the child regarded her as her true mother. I am not sure where to start with beginning to tackle all of this. There isn't really the option of having an involved discussion as our helper is Indonesian and has limited English. She also does not do any of this with my husband and never intervenes in his time with our son or takes him away from my husband or denigrates him in front of our son so we both find it strange that we have such different experiences with her.

Will this time pass or are there things I can do to reverse this trend? Am I being petty and should I just be happy that my son is happy? I don't really have the option of spending more physical time with him as my job is fairly demanding in terms of hours but I'm wondering what I can do to avoid a situation where she becomes the 'mother' and my son and I become more emotionally distant. "

OK, there's a whole lot to say about why this is all happening as your son turns two (separation anxiety!), but here's my takeaway from all of this: Your helper is deliberately denigrating you to your child. This is never ever ever acceptable. Fire her.

Yes, there were warning signs when she told you that her last charge preferred her to his mother. (Why would that be a good thing??) And the fact that she told you that with pride means that she really thinks that that's a good thing, not a bad thing. Even if she wasn't actively telling your son that you are incompetent, there's a fundamental mismatch in values there, so the only solution is to let her go to find a family who enjoys being put down to their children.

And then shake it off and move on. Anyone who's hired a babysitter (fulltime or part-time) knows it's largely a crapshoot. I've had the privilege of hiring the two best nannies ever, B and R, but I also hired some clunkers, including the one who showed up late and then wouldn't return my calls so I had no idea where my children were for hours. (Long-time readers may remember that, but I don't have the stomach to search for that post to link it.) And I hired a gem of a woman that wasn't a stellar fit for us but has turned out to be perfect for a friend's family for the past four years. This one bad helper doesn't mean the next one won't be amazing and will help facilitate your relationship with your son and the new baby instead of undermining it.

Is it going to upset your son to have this helper leave? Yes. Will it be far more damaging to him and the family in the long-term to have someone there who destroys his relationship with his mother? Yes, yes, yes. It's going to be a rough few weeks. I'm sorry about that.

In general terms, two can be a tough age for kids because of a very fierce round of separation anxiety that's part of their new knowledge that they are separate individuals from you. If you think about the very fierce "I do it!" stage of 16-20 months (although most of them can't even say "I do it!" so it's even more frustrating for everyone) plus all the food back-and-forth because that's about the only thing they can control, they spend all that time asserting their independence. So then when it finaly hits, they get really scared that they *are* a little bit independent, and separation anxiety hits, and they pull way back in on whoever they spend the most time with, regardless of how much they love the other people in their lives. This is the age at which some kids suddenly start screaming when in the presence of a previously adored uncle, or hate going to daycare after loving it for months, etc. This is precisely the stage for which the phrase "It's just a phase" was invented. It's a normal part of development and doesn't mean anything about how much they love you.

So it's totally normal that your son is going through this stage. And if your helper was someone who understood her role in his life I'd say just wait it out and in a month or two he'll be back to delightful. But she's actively trying to make him love her and undermine you as his mother. So that makes this stage abnormal and even worse for everyone.

I hope you find a good replacement who is able to give your son the care he needs while supporting your whole family and facilitating your relationships with each other.

Readers? I know I have some former and current nannies--do you have any thoughts on the appropriateness of this? Has anyone been in a similar situation in which a caregiver was undermining you to your child? What did you do?