Like many first-time mothers, third-grade teacher Anya Hulett dreaded returning to work after staying home with her daughter, Sophie, for more than a year. In particular, Hulett and her husband were overwhelmed by having to choose a person they trusted from a list of 150 candidates offered by a child-care agency.
"I felt scared about the fact that I was about to leave my baby with a stranger, and I started to think about all the horrible things that could happen," remembers Hulett, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif.
That fear faded when the Huletts found psychologist Lindsay Heller, PsyD, who walked the Huletts through the process of finding a nanny who would complement their parenting approach. Heller interviewed the couple about their child-care expectations, nutritional habits and pet peeves, and wrote a detailed report defining the duties of their ideal nanny to guide them during their interviews.
"It was like a whole world opened up," says Hulett.
Such success stories are now a regular part of Heller's sideline. The Beverly Hills, Calif., private practitioner since 2007 specializes in counseling children and adolescents struggling with anxiety, depression and social pressures as well as families grappling with parenting stress. But Heller, who worked as a nanny while in college and graduate school, identified a need in her community and built a niche around it.
These days, Heller, known as "The Nanny Doctor," may devote 20 hours a week to a single nanny-parent case and another 10 fielding calls from nanny-seeking mothers. She also acts as an impartial mediator when parents and nannies butt heads over bedtime schedules, television watching or time off.
"Her task is not an easy one given the number of personalities involved, possible cultural differences, parental stress levels, nanny stress levels, divorces and the specific needs of each child," says Los Angeles Psychological Association President Kathleen Fitzgerald, PhD, who asked Heller to speak about her work to the association's parent club last year. "But she has really plugged into the reality that nannies are an integral part of the family system in Los Angeles and found the perfect niche to use her knowledge and expertise in both fields."
The revolving-door nanny
Heller's approach is built on psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory, which maintains that children's early interactions with caregivers affect their ability to develop close relationships throughout their lives. To ensure stable, secure attachments, Heller encourages parents not to nanny-hop. Instead, she helps her clients sustain long-term relationships with caregivers, a move that Heller believes helps children build strong, secure bonds with friends, partners and families throughout their lives.
"Children suffer losses between caregivers," says Heller. "I try to bring that to the awareness of parents so they don't think of a nanny as any other employee; there are important emotional attachments that are made."
On the "nanny" side of her practice, Heller helps parents talk over issues such as how close a relationship they want with their nannies, what holidays they celebrate and how much television their children can watch. To get nannies and parents off to a successful start, she'll arrange nanny-parent meetings to map out responsibilities and expectations. For example, Heller—who opposes "nanny cams"—encourages parents to tell a caregiver during the interview if they plan to use one.
"I believe in preventing something from happening, rather than catching something," says Heller.
She may identify postpartum depression in a new mother and connect her with colleagues who can offer counseling or medication. Heller doesn't allow overlap between her "Nanny Doctor" clients and her traditional therapy clients—she refers any nanny client who needs counseling to other mental health professionals.
Other families present touchier issues. One client had to fire a nanny when he discovered she drove drunk with his children in the car, and Heller stepped in to help the father and children establish trust with a new nanny.
While parents typically hire Heller—though occasionally nannies are the ones who've heard of her and suggest parents hire her—she also advocates for nannies' needs as much as parents'. She helps caregivers who feel isolated living in someone else's home for the first time to connect with others in the area. She steps in when she sees families overwork their nannies by, for example, taking them on family vacations but requiring them to be on-duty for the whole trip: Heller directs these parents to tap the hotel babysitting services for two days so the nanny can recharge.
Because of the recent flurry of nanny-related television shows, Heller sometimes has to remind parents that her services aren't akin to "Supernanny" or "Nanny 911" programs that model more of a parent-coaching model.
Still, television could be in Heller's future. The producers of Bravo's "Project Runway" recently pitched a reality show to Heller, which she is considering. Several other production companies have also shown interest in her practice, and she would consider a show that educated parents about ways to find and keep a nanny.
"I'm a psychologist first and foremost, and I don't want to exploit families," she says. "I would like families to learn from [what I do], and I do think the public could learn more about attachment theory and the consequences of high turnover, and the complex, unique relationship that exists between parents and a nanny."
Becoming the Nanny Doc
Heller first thought of blending her psychology and child-care expertise as a postdoc at an adolescent boys residential unit in Camarillo, Calif., where she was researching the factors that contribute to lasting matches between foster youth and foster or adoptive parents.
"Every failed placement increased the likelihood of the next placement failing, as the youth prepare themselves to push that person away as a way to protect themselves psychologically and emotionally, because in their experience, people always leave," she says.
The research resonated with Heller, who by then had been working as a nanny for years to support herself through school and was intimately familiar with the bonds children form with caregivers, and how children lose out when parents and nannies can't collaborate.
"I really started to see a need for an objective person in the nanny-parent relationship, a consultant who could help mediate," she says.
After her postdoc, Heller took her final nanny job, a position with a Hollywood director who needed a care provider who could travel internationally with his family while he promoted a movie. When she returned to Los Angeles in the spring of 2007 and ended her nanny stint, Heller found that her idea began to blossom almost effortlessly, as nanny-seeking friends of her former employers sought her expertise in screening nannies.
"Moms and dads would pass me through the grapevine because they knew I had a psychology degree," she recalls.
Heller saw the potential to turn her informal consults into a professional business, but she initially worried that she needed to write a book about her theories on the nanny-parent relationship for such a unique practice to take off. "Then a clinical colleague said, 'What are you talking about? You're already doing it,'" she says.
Other than the families who ignore her advice only to call her three months later to sort out the same problems, Heller says the nanny niche is a gratifying one. She takes particular pride in watching parents who work hard to smooth out difficulties with good, hardworking nannies. She also enjoys being a source of hope for parents like the Huletts who feel lost when they first arrive in nannyland.
"Often when I show up, I get a lot of sighs of relief from parents," she says. "That's a nice place to be."