Hairy Poppins and Mary Poppins

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


In history and in the arts, there have been countless famous nannies. Among them: Julie Andrews's maternal yodeller in The Sound Of Music; Fran Drescher's nasal flirt in The Nanny; and Daisy Wright*. In these times of exaggeration and hyperbole, there's even a self-styled Supernanny.

Which made me wonder: Why aren't there male nannies? In an age when blokes have fought and won so many battles in their ongoing quest for equal rights, in an age when many men attend antenatal classes, witness the birth of their children and take turns with the breastfeeding**, why is this so?

Truth is, it isn't so. There are male nannies. There is even a book called The Manny, a novel by Holly Peterson published locally in March.

Mannies are like "rough-and-tumble puppies," Peterson told an interviewer. "I just find that when I've had male babysitters, they are much more physical - throwing the kids on the bed, hanging them on their toes."

A quick web search reveals that mannies are sporadically pronounced the hot new trend. Take one article from London which was reprinted in this paper a couple of years back.

"He's a muscular breed spotted with increasing regularity among London's playgrounds," it said. "His nicknames include the Manny, Hairy Poppins, and the No Pair. He's young, sporty, quite likely to be Australian, and he's making a good wage. Meet the male nanny."

The story introduced 32-year-old Aussie Mark Firth, who aborted a legal career to start looking after the two boys of a rich family. "They were 10 and 12," Firth said. "They had grown up a bit and they didn't really need a nanny, they needed someone who would play cricket and football with them and hang out with them."

It isn't just London; apparently New York loves its mannies too. Particularly the Big Apple's insecure and jealous mums. As far as they're concerned, dads are less likely to be unfaithful with the hand that rocks the cradle if that hand is hairy, muscular and masculine.

It's a celebrity-led trend, with reports that single mums such as Liz Hurley want male role models for their offspring. So too Simone Callahan (Shane Warne's ex) and Britney Spears.

[By the by, model Heidi Klum recently told Ellen DeGeneres's talk show she's taken parenting tips from Britney. "We were talking about babies and diapers, and she explained to me a lot of things about diapers that I didn't know," said Klum, who has three kids, two with her current beau, the singer Seal. "You know these sticky things on the side? I never knew that they were there. To close them in the front, I was always putting string around. I had no idea." I can only presume most of the nappy-changing at Heidi's house is done by a nanny.]

Still, I'm not convinced. Is the manny trend real? Or merely a bogus phenomenon invented by dodgy journalists? ("Dodgy journo" is not a tautology.)

Last year, the International Nanny Association surveyed 59 nanny agencies, and only 11 had placed a male nanny in the past twelve months. Overall, only a miniscule percentage of nanny placements were men. Only six of the 59 agencies surveyed said they felt the availability of male nannies was on the rise and that people were more open to hiring men now compared to in the past.

In the UK earlier this year, the founder of, Delia Timms, said 13 of the 1000 nannies and babysitters on her books were male. As she said, "The demand is more for men to do the after-school care. Some parents like the idea of having a male take the kids to the park and be active with them."

If there is a wave of mannies, it sounds like more a ripple than a tsunami. Still, I was curious about Firth's career move from courtrooms to playgrounds, particularly since in 2005 he said he worked only 30 hours per work but earned more than he had as a lawyer. Google led me to Supermannies, a London-based company set up in September 2005 by Firth and brother Ric "to fulfil the growing demand for professional male carers of children." Their website continues: "Through their background in teaching, child psychology and being experienced male nannies themselves, the importance of a male role model for young children has become exceedingly apparent."

I emailed them to see how they're faring.

"Supermannies is going great," replied Ric Firth. "It is certainly becoming popular and the idea is growing rapidly as I get more and more males into families."

"I started working as a male nanny in London eight years ago and stumbled across it when I was teaching at a private boy's school in Kensington. Through conversations with parents they were asking if I had any spare time out of school as they had recognised how well their young lads were responding to a male. Typically these upper class families are surrounded with females like nannies, house keepers, cleaners, primary teachers, etc. It was obvious to me that around the age of seven or eight they slowly start to lose control of their little men.

"It has worked extremely well with families that are quickly able to recognise the child's behaviour and link it with the fact there is not a lot of male influence. Kids are finishing school at around 3.30pm and fathers are not appearing at home until dinner time, if not bed time, if at all."

Part of the reason I started thinking about nannying generally was the fervent response to last week's blog about childcare/daycare/preschool. A lot of people expressed strong, sensible opinions on the issue; a handful of commenters were zealous and inflammatory.

Just to complicate the issue further, nannying/mannying is a third option. Our friend Sophie, quoted in last week's blog, employs a nanny for her three-year-old daughter.

"I think we did it a great way round in terms of having a nanny first for one-on-one time and then phasing out the nanny as Fran went to day-care on more days. I love the fact she still has one day a week with the nanny, when they can potter around, go to the beach, go swimming, play with her best friend Edie and do nice unstructured stuff. Because of the sort of nanny Clair is and the fun they have, I still think Fran gets a huge amount out of the day with her and I get to see them too which is a bonus."

As with childcare, cost is an issue. When you hire a nanny, you're not eligible for the childcare benefit/tax rebate. Sophie hired her nanny, Clair, by putting an ad in the paper, avoiding the extra expenses involved with an agency.

"Clair didn't have any qualifications," says Sophie. "But then I didn't have any qualifications to be a mum. But she had a lot of experience and I had a good feeling about her. There's no denying that a nanny is a lot more expensive - probably around twice as expensive as childcare - but it's not so bad when you weigh up the hassle factor of transporting to childcare and factor in the flexibility."

Now in her mid-20s, Clair started babysitting as a youngster (she's an oldest sibling) and started nannying at 21. As a nanny, she was thrown in the deep end, looking after the four kids of two eastern suburbs careerists: an eight-month old; a three-year-old; a six-year-old; and an eight-year-old. As I've seen over the past year, she and Fran have a wonderfully close relationship. Clair is like family.

As last week's discussion showed, if there are valid arguments in favour of a mum's love, there are also valid arguments in favour of childcare. Meanwhile, there's something to be said for nannies and mannies too.

* Daisy Wright was the nanny employed by Jude Law. I use the word "employed" loosely. In 2005, Law split from fiancee Sienna Miller after Wright announced she and Law were having an affair.

* Okay, maybe not breastfeeding. Unless you're an Aka pygmy. For these African blokes, nipples aren't just for decoration.

Photos: Jo Dalton

Posted by Sacha Molitorisz
November 28, 2007 12:17 PM