Three Things Your Nanny Wishes You Knew

I went to France in May of 1990 with nothing more than a backpack, $200 in cash and a dream of becoming an au pair and improving my French. I didn't know a soul in Paris but it was Spring and I was in the City of Light and que sera sera, right?

Melanie in Paris 1990

So I arrived in Paris and after 200 cold calls made from public phones on the Champs-Élysées I found my dream job. I was a nanny for Jean-Guillaume, an adorable 2-year-old in a suburb just outside of Paris. Jean-Guillaume and his family lived in a posh mansion which was built in the 1900s but had been recently restored. It was four stories of marble, polished hardwood, antiques, and the kind of art that you go to museums to see. They had bought the lot next door and installed a swimming pool, which meant you had to walk a few steps to get to the hot tub but on the way you passed exotic flora and fauna, ducks and geese, statues and stones. The dad drove a red Porsche and the mom drove a black convertible Saab, and just when I thought my jaw couldn't drop any further they casually mentioned that they kept the Ferrari and the Lamborghini in a garage across town. That's what you do when you own expensive sports cars - who knew?!

It was my first experience as a domestic servant and looking back, there are a lot of things I wish I had told my employers.

1. Be good to the help.
My family was good to me but they were not good to the maid, Marie France. She lived on their property but they didn't want her kids to play in certain sections of their garden and her kids inevitably wandered into the verboten territories, which always led to arguments and a lot of stress for everyone. Marie France was so angry at the family that she started trying to kill them. No joke. She put shards of broken glass in their food. I don't think she was mad at me because she cooked an early dinner for Jean-Guillaume and me and our food was glass-free but the rest of the family had dinner around 10pm and it was not uncommon for them to chomp down on a shard or two. The first few times she claimed a glass had broken in the kitchen and a piece must have somehow found its way into the food but after five or ten times no one was buying that story anymore. So why didn't the family fire her? I think it's because she was really cheap and they didn't have time or energy to look for a new maid. So instead they chose to chew carefully and hope for the best. Until Marie France stole away in the middle of the night with some of the above-mentioned famous artwork, and then they had no choice but to look for a new maid. And new art.

2. Be clear about what you expect from the help.
When I first started my nanny job Marie France was preparing some kick-butt meals for us - can you imagine getting great French cuisine every day for lunch? Awesome, and it was glass-free since I went out of my way to stay on good terms with her. However as the days went by the meals became less and less fresh. Pretty soon we were eating noodles with canned tuna on them.

When I finally asked about the diminishing quality of our lunches Marie-France said, "Didn't they tell you you're supposed to go to the market every day? You're supposed to be buying the fresh vegetables and fruits!" Well duh, that was no problem but I could have died from scurvy while waiting for someone to tell me about this part of my job.

3. Don't take your nanny shopping with you if you're planning to spend big bucks.
I earned the equivalent of $175/month plus room and board when I was a nanny. I was fine with that because for me it was better than paying $500/month in tuition for French classes and if the wages weren't acceptable to me I wouldn't have been there, right? But once Jean-Guillaume's mom took us shopping and I watched her spend my monthly salary on salt and pepper shakers. That just hurt. A month of me was worth less than condiment dispensers. If you're going to make big purchases just leave the nanny at home.

Epilogue (is it okay for a blog to have those?)
I know that in many parts of the world people don't have "help" but it's very common here in China and I am so grateful to have the help of our "ayi" Xiao Zou, who cooks, cleans and does the laundry for me so that when I come home in the evening I can focus on my kids and my husband and nothing else. It's bliss.


first, GREAT picture. Love it!!!!!!!

second, this is a fantastic post. Such great stories. I can't believe the maid was trying to kill the family, and you escaped unharmed. that is just - you can't make up stuff like that. that's amazing.

thanks for sharing!!!!!

Posted by christin on July 01, 2008 at 03:59 PM CST #

wow! you must have had nerves of steel to have not panicked after coming to know of the other maid's antics. That would've unnerved me. But a very thoughtful post. I should take care of point#3. I do have the habit of giving reasonably expensive gifts (since expensive is relative) to my mom without bothering how the maid would feel and generally tease mom about the price tag of the gifts she gave to me as a kid. :-)

Posted by Madhan Kumar on July 01, 2008 at 05:48 PM CST #

Actually, I made a point never talk about any financial matters: real estate, stocks, rent, restaurant prices, etc.

Posted by Sin-Yaw Wang on July 02, 2008 at 10:40 AM CST #

Hi Melanie,

Thank you for this post. I am a former nanny and in the nanny industry for 10 years. Your advice is much appreciated and right on. Love your "About Melanie" section, too.

Kind regards,
Deborah Smith

Posted by Deborah Smith on July 02, 2008 at 12:42 PM CST #

I love this post! What a great experience! I wish I had done stuff like this when I was younger...but heck, not time like the present!

And, I love the pic! How fun.

I'm in the process of getting some "help" at least to clean. I can't stand cleaning, and given that I'm not good at it :)

Posted by Barb on July 02, 2008 at 03:16 PM CST #

Great post - Always be good to others...

A nanny is in my home now; I will take more care of what you said.

Thanks Melanie! I love this post.

Posted by Kelly on July 03, 2008 at 10:09 AM CST #

Kelly you're right, being good to others is a good practice whether it's your nanny or your husband or your kid or whoever.

Maddy, I think I was just young and stupid.

Christin - you and I know it's all about the pictures!

Barb, focus on your core competencies. Which I bet do not include cleaning the toilet. :)

Sin-yaw, that's an important extension of the same logic. Good point.

Deborah I love your website! I wish there had been something like that for me 20 years ago, it could have saved me many hours on that pay phone.

Posted by melanie gao on July 04, 2008 at 02:18 AM CST #

I've been reading your blog since before coming to China. Two and a half years to be precise. And I honestly think that this is the best post by far.

Amazingly, I could actually feel see the mansion, feel the wealth and the hard feelings of the "help". Have you considered writing professionally?

You have described people who were rich indeed, but had very little values. I would be willing to bet that they were what the French call "nouveau rich", people who got rich recently and quickly. Generations old wealth comes with courtesy and politeness that includes the "help" as well.

But there are other points as well. Not only values were missing. Wisdom as well. Eating glass shards is not a good substitute for conversation, negotiation, instruction. Some people should indeed be told because they don't have the common sense to understand for themselves. A household should be run in harmony. That's not to say people don't make mistakes, but to say that people should attentive to others' needs, and that you should never, never, look down on anyone. Certainly if that anyone happens to be cooking for you.

Again, well written.

Posted by Amiram on July 09, 2008 at 06:36 AM CST #

Post a Comment:
  • HTML Syntax: NOT allowed

The grilled cheese sandwich of blogosphere


« June 2016