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Nanny knows all (and she may already be dishing)

To many, the recent news that Rob Lowe and his wife are suing their former nanny for telling secrets and lies about their family was simply the latest in a never-ending stream of juicy Hollywood scandals.

But for those parents who employ a nanny, it raises a serious question:

Just what exactly does your nanny know? Often, the answer is more than they'd like to.

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And that includes everything from your marital disharmony to your finances and your sex life.

The verbal battles got so ugly in one family that nanny Leah Windsor worked for in Florida, she would retreat to her room the moment the husband got home to duck the vitriol.

At the same time, the wife confided in Ms. Windsor, 20, about their sex life, often in graphic detail.

"She would tell me stories about the previous night and how during sex he answered the phone. It was horrible," says Ms. Windsor, who lives in Vernon, B.C. "He was older than my father, and I know every detail about his sex life."

During a stint in a small town in British Columbia, nanny Samantha van Hoof never saw her employers kiss or display any semblance of love. Instead, they'd vent about each other to Ms. van Hoof.

"The kids were too young to notice that their parents despise each other, but as an adult I noticed it all, unfortunately," she says in an e-mail.

Common sense would suggest that this kind of behaviour is obviously a poor idea. But many nannies and parents say transgressions arise from the very nature of the job.

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"They have chosen you specifically for your nurturing abilities, to live amongst them," says former nanny Tara Shelton, who now runs a Toronto daycare. When talk got too personal, her strategy was to lend an ear and ask questions - instead of offering advice or divulging information about the other spouse.

Burlington father of three Doug Alexander and his wife have employed three live-in nannies over the past four years. While the food company executive says their nannies become members of the family and he doesn't change his behaviour around them, he says he's not the type to cross the line anyway. But if that wasn't enough incentive, he's aware that nannies have a well-oiled network, a reverse nanny cam, if you will.

"Nannies talk," he says. "It's a small community. I know that there are families you shouldn't work for.

"The ones that have the bad reputations just aren't going to get help," he adds. "If I have dirty laundry to air, I'm not going to air it in front of the nanny or the kids."

In the age of the Internet, dirty laundry can end up online, too.

Ms. Windsor shared her work woes on nanny-only message boards. But not only did her employers openly fight in front of her and share details of their sex life, they also snooped in her e-mail and uncovered her postings.

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So Ms. Windsor set a virtual trap for them, writing about looking for a new job (which she, in fact, was not considering at the time). In short order, the mother confronted her about it - while still denying snooping. Ms. Windsor ended up leaving the job after just six months.

Martha Scully, who runs and, online services that match parents and caregivers, says she has heard stories of nannies being caught in the middle of marital disputes and having to quit because of the emotional toll. So she counsels both parties to spell everything out when they embark on a new relationship - including what kind of privacy each can expect.

Parents get a 50-page manual when they register, she says. It includes sample legal contracts ensuring confidentiality and outlines how employers can respect a nanny's personal boundaries.

"We recommend saying everything up front."

Toronto mother Jody Steinhauer says that while she is very close to her family's nanny, she is careful to keep the relationship professional. She keeps her voice low when she's talking about private matters with her husband when they're in the kitchen, since it's directly above her nanny's bedroom. She doesn't leave financial statements lying around. She also doesn't see her nanny as a confidante or shopping pal, something she says she sees a lot of in her neighbourhood.

There's no shortage of cautionary tales in circulation to remind her of the benefits of not letting down her guard.

Ms. Steinhauer, who opens up her home to the neighbourhood nannies and their charges, heard one such tale circulating through the nanny grapevine. A couple were having sex in their family room one day. The nanny usually entered the home through the basement door, but she came through the front door that day and saw them. Not only was it embarrassing for all parties, but the mother also yelled at the nanny for the intrusion. The nanny didn't quit, only because she needed the job to secure her immigration papers.

No one's perfect, though. Ms. Steinhauer does admit to the odd emotional slip-up. After temporarily hiring one of the nanny's friends and being disappointed by her performance, she vented to the nanny, who already felt bad about having made the recommendation.

"I realized it wasn't fair," she says. "I apologized."

Beyond the risk of personal or even public embarrassment, for many parents, the risk that a nanny will be so uncomfortable that she will lose focus on the children in her care is the main reason to behave well.

"If I make my nanny happy, I make my children happy, therefore I'm happy," as Ms. Steinhauer puts it.

Nannies strike back

If your conscience doesn't save you from divulging secrets, perhaps these reasons will:

Nannies write memoirs and romans à clef. See: The Nanny Diaries, You'll Never Nanny in This Town Again: The True Adventures of a Hollywood Nanny and White House Nannies.

Nannies are wired. When you vent to her, she vents online - on message boards such as Yahoo's Nanny Chat and Worldwide Nannies. While online etiquette dictates leaving out employer names, do you want to inspire any online discussion?

Nannies talk. When you vent to her, she vents to her nanny friends. And they may pass on that gossip to their employers - your neighbours.

Tralee Pearce

Nanny no-nos

How to cap the too-much-information impulse:

Start in the interview

In addition to her nanny skills, it's best to find someone who matches your privacy needs. If you love to gab and she's super shy, you might be setting her up for an excruciating gig.

Set the ground rules

Ask her about her boundaries.

Try not to fight or bicker

in front of the nanny

If you do, don't ask her to weigh in or pick sides. And don't vent behind your spouse's back.

Don't talk about sex

And when you're having it, close the door.

Tralee Pearce

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About the Author

Tralee Pearce has been a reporter at The Globe and Mail since 1999, starting as a writer in the paper’s Style section. She joined the new Life section for its launch in 2007. She covers parenting and family issues for the daily section. More


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