They are often underpaid and overworked. They get saddled with menial chores. Sometimes, they are secretly videotaped.
But maybe worst of all, they are misunderstood.
America's nannies say they deserve a little more respect -- as teachers, not baby sitters, child-care professionals, not maids.
"When a nanny walks in the door, parents think they've just hired a substitute mom," says Sheilagh Roth, executive director of the English Nanny and Governess School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
"They are expected to shovel the sidewalk when it snows, cook the meals and clean the house. As one nanny told me, 'I have all the duties of a housewife without the benefits of sex.' "
Where once they could be found only in the wealthiest of homes, nannies have become a de rigueur accessory in the most middle-class of families. In the past decade, their numbers have doubled to about 1 million nationwide, the International Nanny Association estimates.
According to the U.S. Census, 5.1 percent of the preschool-age children of working mothers are cared for in their homes by a non-family member.
But as nannies have become increasingly popular with single-parent professionals and two-income families, their job definition has remained vague. What is a nanny? There is no national standard.
As a result, some parents are expecting some Hazel mixed in with their Mary Poppins -- someone to clean the toilets, do the laundry, fix dinner, and, oh, yes, look after any children in the house.
Nannies say they are forced to work long hours -- 55 hours or more per week is not uncommon -- with no breaks, no overtime and few benefits.
"Sometimes it's a little insulting," says Beatriz Silva, 38, a Baltimore area nanny who has twice quit jobs because of conflicts over salary and work hours. "When you encounter trouble in this job, it's never with the children, it's the parents."
Nannies say they've had arguments with families over how to tie the knot on garbage bags, how to use a vacuum cleaner, and how to answer the phone. Meanwhile, some employers are opting to install hidden cameras to spy on them.
"One nanny sat down for an evaluation and her employer said, 'We know you did a great job because your video looked so good,' " says Becky Kavanagh, president of the INA and a nanny in suburban Minneapolis. "She'd been with that family for several years, but finding out about the camera wrecked that relationship. In a few months, she was gone."
Both the INA and the National Association of Nannies, a fellow nanny advocacy group, held annual national conferences this summer. Organizers of both say perhaps a third of nannies had employer horror stories to tell.
The top three complaints, according to Kavanagh: Low pay, housework that has nothing to do with children, and getting videotaped without their knowledge.
"There are abusive employers and you hear about them," says Glenda Propst, co-president of NAN and a nanny in St. Louis. "People who take care of children aren't paid as much as the guy who unstops your toilet. That's sad."
Admittedly, it's not easy to employ a nanny, particular for those who have never had a "staff" before. Some household chores may not get done without the nanny's help, and how many families can afford a housekeeper too?
The well-publicized trial of British au pair Louise Woodward two years ago didn't help the reputation of live-in caregivers much -- nor have the TV news shows' secret videos of nannies who mistreat children.
Sharon Skiver of Glen Burnie has seen the best and worst of employers. At 27, she is a veteran, working as a nanny for five different families in the Baltimore-Washington area since age 19.
She's happy with her current employer, a Catonsville family. But her bosses in the past have been far less accommodating -- like the family of physicians who insisted she clean bathrooms, pick up dry cleaning, vacuum the house, make deliveries to school, and be on call for weekends and evenings. They were surprised when she asked for more than $225 a week.
Or there was the mother who expected her to cook the family a meatball dinner using a complicated family recipe. (The family's detailed weekly grocery list specified which aisles to shop).
"I've had schedules that were so tight, it would baffle most minds," says Skiver, the single parent of a 3-year-old boy.
Sandi Berman, president of Best Nanny Employment Agency, Inc. in Pikesville, says some families have unrealistic expectations. She has sent no fewer than 20 candidates to one home. All have been rejected. And her agency is only one of three the family employs.
"Some people want a cook, a housekeeper and a nanny and want to pay $3 an hour," says Berman, who has been in business 12 years. "We can't help those people."
Nanny agencies like Berman's help prevent misunderstandings by drawing up employment contracts that specify a nanny's duties, pay, and whether they will live in or outside the home. But that doesn't always prevent a family from trying to change the terms of a nanny's employment later.
"I have nannies who quit because they have to wash dishes or the floor, and things are added on and it takes them away from care-giving," says Roth.
Roth's nannies represent the high end of the profession. Students at her English Nanny and Governess School must complete a three-month training program. Some already have a four-year college degree in early childhood education.
Her school motto is "Education Begins At Birth." She touts the British model where nannies look after and teach children. Period.
"I want American parents to realize they're bringing someone in to educate their child," she says. "We have a better sense of staff in England."
But not every nanny is so well prepared. The typical agency may only provide a few hours of training for a first-time nanny, if at all.
Jennifer James, a benefits consultant in Rockville, created the Nanny Training Institute last year after hearing so many complaints about the problem. The institute offers a $150, eight-hour course for beginning nannies followed by an exam.
James has sold the program to nanny agencies across the country and hopes the exam will become a standard for the industry. The more professional the nanny, the better she will be treated by employers, she reasons.
"Every single time we hold a training class we hear another outrageous story [about an employer]," James says. "Until nannies get together and start talking, they don't realize how ridiculous some of these people can be."
But even if a nanny meets some minimum requirements -- the institute's exam focuses on knowledge of child development issues like fine motor skills and potty training -- employer expectations will always vary. Some nannies expect to do some light housework and some families are willing to pay more for extra services.
"The perfect job for me is not the perfect job for someone else," says Propst, 45, a former day-care center director. "The relationship between a nanny and an employer is give and take. It's like a marriage, and communication is a big issue."
Nanny agencies across the country say employers should expect to pay a full-time nanny who lives outside the home $8-$10 an hour with paid holidays, sick days and at least one week of vacation. It is not unusual for an employer to offer a car allowance.
In return, employers should focus on a nanny's child-care experience -- whether it was taught to them at a school or acquired from life experience, says Mary Clurman, publisher of Nanny News, a bimonthly newsletter for nannies.
"In the past five years, we're starting to see some real progress -- prices are going up, there are more work agreements, and more people are taking out payroll taxes," says Clurman, the owner of a nanny agency in Arizona. "It's a struggle. There's a big learning curve. But I think people are starting to connect the dots."
A Nanny's Life
A national survey of 170 nannies and 102 employers conducted last year by Nanny News, the International Nanny Association, and other nanny organizations reported:
* One-third of nannies must clean the homes where they work; more than 60 percent must clean the children's rooms and clothing.
* While most employers pay for vacations, holidays and some sick days, few offer the additional benefits nannies seek: health insurance, use of a car off-duty, mileage or a telephone allowance.
* Nearly two-thirds of nannies have stayed with a family one year or longer; 41 percent for two years or longer.
* When it comes to negotiating the terms of a new job, the employer generally wins: 72 percent of employers say they make no concessions in matters of pay or schedule compared with 56 percent of nannies.
* Seventy-six percent of full-time nannies earn more than $300 a week. One in 10 earns more than $500 a week.