In this day and age, most of our lives have in some way been touched by divorce, if not within our own marriages then in the lives of many of the people we know, including family members and friends. While experts may disagree on exactly how many marriages actually end in divorce (see http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/health/19divo.html?ex=1190174400&en=bcc997bf7a872e42&ei=5070 for an interesting argument against the common wisdom that 50% of all marriages end in divorce), it is a fact that divorce numbers remain higher in our country than in other industrialized nations, with Texas’s divorce rate holding pretty close to the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent report. All of this means that, as nannies, many of you will work with families directly impacted by divorce, and this can present certain challenges you will not encounter in other households.
Of course, it should first be noted that the different kinds of challenges you encounter may depend on how long ago the divorce took place, whether the divorce is still pending, and the state of the parents’ current relationship, among other factors. For instance, you may be hired by a parent either recently or long separated from their former spouse. In these cases, one challenge we sometimes see is that, although you have been employed by only one parent, the other parent may attempt to use your services as well. Without a doubt, this can create uncertainty in your work situation. In other cases, you may have been hired by a family before their separation; when the parents split, you may experience increasing confusion as their communication breaks down and loyalties begin to be questioned.
In almost all divorce situations, though, your task will be a great one: Be an impartial professional in the aid of your employer(s) while acting as a source of comfort and constancy to their children, who will typically feel anxious and angry given such a volatile, emotionally-charged environment. Although you cannot count on an amicable and cooperative relationship between the parents to support you in your work, by keeping three firm principles in mind you can navigate your way through what at times can seem a hopelessly daunting situation for any caregiver.
The first principle is to communicate honestly with your employer about boundaries, rules, and anything that may make you feel uncomfortable about the divorce arrangement. For instance, in the case of a non-employer parent expecting to use your services, talk to your employer and establish clear boundaries. If the two of you agree that you are responsible solely to your employer, this means you can politely but clearly communicate these boundaries to the other parent the next time he or she approaches you. This kind of direct, open communication with your employer can be extended to any divorce-related issues, from whom to contact in an emergency to knowing where and when you are supposed to report to work. If there are many new rules and boundaries that need to be established, it may be a good idea to negotiate these into a written form, similar to your Employment Agreement.
The second principle is to maintain consistency as much possible though your work. This may not always be easy–many divorce proceedings are defined by their volatility more than anything else. But it’s perhaps especially crucial to try and remain constant in these cases–constancy is exactly what your charges will need. Therefore, it becomes even more important not to vary from regular routines–such as set reading times, walks, snacks, etc.–and to maintain clear limits with the children you care for. Feeling surrounded by uncertainty, many children will attempt to test limits as much as possible during and even after a divorce. As is usually the case, though, what they want is not an absence of boundaries but just the opposite–they want to see clear limits enforced since so much in their lives seems to be falling apart. This goal of maintaining consistency, of course, should not be confused with harsh discipline and punishment. Quite the contrary–your charges want stability, not rigidity, and you should do your best to establish a secure, stable environment for them.
Which leads me to the final principle compassion. Divorce is often a highly destabilizing force for everyone in the family. This is especially true for children who may not understand what is going on and may blame themselves for it. You can offer so much to them just by listening to their feelings, without judging and especially without taking sides in family conflicts. By knowing they are in a safe place in expressing their feelings to you, you are giving your charges the gift of compassion, which may be the thing they are looking for most of all.
Of course, one could write a book on coping with divorce (and many have!). Unfortunately, though, I have not found one which speaks from the nanny’s perspective. It is a topic which certainly merits more discussion than we can devote here, but our counselors are always available to answer questions and offer you guidance in what we know can be an uncertain time in the life of your employer.
Special thanks to MBF staff member, Kristin Hart, for her valuable contribution to this blog.