I ‘Leaned In’ at My Nanny Job — and Got Fired

by Laurel Lathrop

One Wednesday night not long ago, I went to bed with a job and woke up unemployed.

I was a nanny, working for an extremely wealthy family in Manhattan. The dad was a C-level exec at a financial firm, with a glossy home office that included an aquarium full of tropical fish. The mom was a homemaker who had contracted an autoimmune disease that made her too weak to do most chores.

I picked up the couple’s two daughters from school and supervised their homework; I helped with cooking, laundry, and errands. This was normal nanny stuff, plus some tutoring: the younger daughter was struggling to read at her grade level, so we read together for half an hour every day on top of anything assigned by teachers.

It was a good job. I was paid $25 an hour for 37 hours a week — on the high side for nannies (but far lower than my other job as a tutor), and I ate dinner with the family so I didn’t have to cook at home.

I described myself, in the kind of “joke” that makes people laugh uncomfortably, as a servant. I would fold the family’s socks and underwear, wondering, as I’d wondered ever since I got to New York last August, “I went to grad school for this?” (I went to grad school for creative writing, so, yeah, basically.) But as long as I kept my eye on the prize — a well-paid day job that left me some energy for writing — it was fine.

In fact it was more than fine. When I got the job, I’d been scraping by on tutoring wages and the occasional temp job. I excitedly multiplied my hourly rate by my hours per week and began imagining all the things I could afford now, including paying off my credit card, which I had relied on heavily in the months after my move.

Instead, the first thing I bought with that first envelope of hundred dollar bills was a nice dinner for an out-of-town friend who had visited several times over the long, hungry fall and never let me pay for a meal. I went there straight from my employer’s apartment, the fat envelope stuffed in my purse like a pheasant after the hunt, and paid in cash.

Next I bought a year’s supply of contact lenses (having made the previous year’s supply last almost 18 months, doing God knows what to my eyes). Then I paid my rent. I kept going: a new winter coat to replace the one that was tearing its lining a half-inch every time I put it on; a flight to the AWP creative writing conference in Minneapolis. In my excitement over having a steady income, all kind of possibilities bloomed in my mind. Maybe this was the year I’d finish my novel. And in that case, flying to Minneapolis for four days to schmooze with writers, editors, and friends would be an investment!

Looking back, of course this was too much spending for the first three weeks of a job. I should have stuck with paying off my credit card. Then again, I thought I’d have this job for longer than I did. And after pinching pennies for so long, I reveled in having money to spend.

After three weeks, the gratitude of having a job began to fade and I started worrying. The family spent school breaks at their home upstate, so they would not need my services. After Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I looked at the daughters’ academic calendar and started adding up the days I’d miss: a Monday here, a week there, another week in April.

I realized there was no month where my wages would equal my calculations; there would always be at least one break in work. And I knew that inconsistency would be tough for me — my poor budgeting skills were one of the reasons I had started looking for a 9-to-5 nanny job rather than rely on tutoring and part-time work.

When I first considered the gig, a friend (and experienced nanny) had told me she got paid a percentage of her wages when the family she worked for went on vacation.

“I shouldn’t be punished financially for their decision to go out of town,” she had argued. I began to think about bringing something like this up to my employer, but I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

Winter storm Juno pushed me over the edge. I arrived at work on Jan. 27 and the always-on TV was saying the subway would shut down in the evening, so my boss and I agreed I should leave early. She said they wouldn’t need me the next day either, but I offered to come in anyway, because I could still read with the younger daughter, or help with cooking. Then I realized what I was doing: scrambling not to lose a day of work I hadn’t budgeted for. I shut up, red-faced.

As the streets filled with snow and the subway shut down, I debated whether and how to ask for a wage change with my online community, a group of around 40 women writers who do everything from PR to poetry. They’re brilliant, funny and savvy. Many of them, as independent creative workers, are also great negotiators.

On the topic of being paid for days I didn’t work, my friends talked about it like a kill fee — working for my employers meant I had passed up other jobs, so I should be compensated if they canceled or didn’t need me. Others suggested asking to be put on a set weekly salary, the tactic I decided to pursue, since it seemed like an easier sell than “pay me for days I don’t work.” They noted that my daily tutoring made me more valuable and could be used as leverage in my negotiation. I went to bed confident that I was doing the right thing: I was being assertive and pragmatic, looking out for my own best interests even though I knew it would be uncomfortable.

“Even if they push back,” one of them said, “raising your concerns the way you have here will make sense to any sane person. There has to be a solution that doesn’t leave you as vulnerable as now.”

The next day, I stammered my way through my argument for why I would appreciate being put on salary. My employer responded, first, incredulously: “You want to be paid for days you don’t work?”

So much for salary being the more reasonable request.

She then claimed that many of her friends paid their nannies “much less” than I was being paid. I was prepared for this, and brought up the fact that perhaps her friends’ nannies didn’t also tutor, which made her visibly angry. Then I started backpedalling, saying that all I was asking for was consistency, that I understood that the salaried amount would add up to less than my current hourly rate.

So much for being assertive.

She said she would “crunch the numbers” and get back to me, and I was relieved the conversation was over. I spent the rest of the day acting as meek and happy-to-work-here as possible. I left that night telling the girls, as I always did, “See you tomorrow!”

At 8 a.m. the next day, I got a text message from my employer saying that she had sent me an email “in response to my request.” When I opened my email, I found that I had been fired.

My now-former employer listed her grievances:

• I had been hired as a nanny, not a tutor, “as I had tried to argue”
• I had been 15 minutes late twice (I had texted her from my delayed trains, and my pay had been docked)
• One time I had bought a cookie for myself as well as the older daughter “without asking for permission” after being given $10 to “take her to get a snack”
• I had “chosen” to leave early on the day of the storm

She told me that they had treated me like family, that she was understanding, but was not in a situation to argue about money (I had not realized we were arguing), and that since we did not see eye to eye on this matter, my services were no longer required effective immediately.

She left me my final week’s wages in an envelope at the front desk of her apartment building, accompanied by a handwritten receipt I signed with humiliated tears in my eyes, under the bewildered gaze of the concierge.

After picking up my money, I immediately started emailing the temp agencies I’d registered with when I got to New York. They found me a month-long job starting the next Monday, a front-desk gig at a big corporation. Ironically, they initially offered $14/hour, and I successfully negotiated — or, I guess, “argued” — an increase to $16. I wouldn’t be paying off my credit card anytime soon, but at least this was a job I could rely on from one day to the next while I looked for something else.

That’s where I am now. It gives me lots of time to think about what I did wrong and what lessons I can take from this experience. The easy one (apart from “Wait to see whether your new job is working out before you start buying flights to Minneapolis”) is “Don’t work for someone who will fire you for asking to be put on salary.”

But here’s the thing: I thought my boss and I had a fine working relationship, despite having little to talk about beyond what was for dinner and how the younger daughter’s reading was going. Until she fired me, I had no idea that, like my own self-deprecating joke, she thought of me as a servant, to be punished for trying to rise above my place.

More importantly, you can’t always be that selective with whom you work for — especially when you’re a freelancer or off-the-books employee, a tutor or nanny or music teacher (the kind of jobs I and a lot of my creative friends do).

I joke that my liberal-arts education qualifies me to be a 19th-century governess, that my skillset is basically the same as Jane Eyre’s (she’s better at drawing, I’m better at knowing when someone has a secret wife). Like Jane, I was used to work that blurred the lines between personal and professional. It’s tempting to relax into that blurry space, to see the tradeoff of getting texts at 7 a.m. with grocery lists instead of having three back-to-back meetings starting at 9 a.m. as reasonable. And it is, until it isn’t.

One of the things I do at my temp job is shred old HR documents: employment offers, performance evaluations, letters detailing severance packages. Having just been fired from a job with no paperwork at all, it’s interesting to handle all this paperwork — piles and piles of it. It’s designed to protect the company, of course, but it also protects the employee.

If you want to negotiate a raise, you can use your performance evaluations as evidence, and no one is going to tell you your job isn’t what you say it is, because you’ve agreed on the title and duties ahead of time. And if they want to fire you, it’s a complicated, paperwork-heavy process with a severance package that includes not just money but an exit interview, access to career counseling, and beyond. I’m not saying these things are offered out of goodwill; but they do leave you as an employee, in the words of my friend, “less vulnerable” in the event that, like me, you colossally miscalculate the level of understanding you have with your boss.

I should have asked for a written contract from the start, but I worried that if I pushed too hard I wouldn’t get the job. I also assumed I could trust my employer. That’s the real danger when your job rests in that blurry space between personal and professional: your job security relies on the trust and goodwill of your employers, rather than on the language of bureaucracy. The email in which I was fired said I had been treated like family. Of course that wasn’t true: You don’t fire your family, or hire them. But I think my employer actually meant it, and found my attempts to negotiate personally offensive.

So, for me, the takeaway from this experience isn’t, “Don’t work for assholes,” or “Don’t buy a new coat.” It’s that all the advice about “leaning in” should be taken with a grain of salt unless there’s a system or structure in place to protect you; something you can lean into. Jane Eyres, beware.

Laurel Lathrop is a fiction writer living in Brooklyn. She is currently working another temp job and considering Creative Writing PhDs. She will be at AWP this year if you want to say hi.

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