Britney Spears may not be setting the pop music tempo for the world right now, but Mama Federline’s influence is being felt in at least one way: the sudden craze for mannies. Male nannies, that is.
Ever since the onetime pop princess was spotted with 28-year-old Naval Academy graduate Perry Taylor (who served on the USS Iwo Jima) caring for her infamously accident-prone child, the nation’s seemingly gone gaga over the idea of buff babysitters — even though Spears and Taylor's mother insist he's more of a bodyguard than a nanny.
But Britney’s employee is just the highest-profile example of something much of the rest of the country has already caught onto — at least those who can afford nannies.
“The Britney thing is definitely the thing that brought it forward and has the media talking about it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the reason people want them that much more,” said Sam Blake, a sportswriter for the New York Post and a longtime nanny.
“They go to male nannies because they’re at ease getting dirty, they’ll go out and play with the kids a little more, they’re more willing, as a generalization, to go out there and get dirty with the kids and do stuff, especially if the kids are boys," Blake added.
And Taylor's joining the ranks of such hallowed fictional mannies as Mr. Belvedere, Alfred Pennyworth (Batman's butler), Charles in Charge and, arguably, Tony Danza's character on “Who's the Boss.”
But real America has caught onto the idea as well. Minneapolis' Joe Keeley, who turned his gig as a nanny into a nationwide business called College Tutors & Nannies, says about 5 percent of his 750 or so nannies are male, but come summer, it becomes hard to find a male nanny with free time to take on a new family.
“Around summer, male nannies get gobbled up really quickly,” he said. “You have families that are primarily school-age children looking to structure a fun-filled yet educational summer, and oftentimes families with boys that are school age.
"And older ones or junior-high students will often be first ones to tell you they don’t need a babysitter or nanny, but like a big brother of sorts to take them to activities. We use a lot of college students that the kids view as role models when a lot of fathers are working quite a bit,” he continued.
According to Susan Robinson, vice president of Cambridge, Mass.-based Cultural Care Au Pair, the phenomenon is also being seen among au pairs — young foreigners who live with families for a year or two to take care of the little ones.
And not only is there a growing demand for manly mannies, there's also an increasing number of men who are signing up for childcare duty.
“Our total male au pair population had been about 4 percent before the past five years,” Robinson said. “But the number of male au pairs is up 130 percent in the past five years. In the same time we’ve grown 44 percent. And it’s both trends: more males interested in becoming au pairs and more families seeking them.”
Lorraine Birch, an Alexandria, Va., financial analyst who has three kids ages 5 to 14, says her male au pairs — the first came from the Czech Republic, her current one from Slovakia — have been a godsend.
“I’m a single parent, so having a good male role model in the case of my boys is important to me,” she said. “He likes to do the things my boys like to do, and when I ended up getting drafted to be my daughter’s soccer coach, he became my assistant coach, which was a big bonus.
"And he helped my son work on his Cub Scout requirements, which was awesome. He’s also a fantastic cook, and I come home to a hot meal everyday. He’s helping in every aspect of my family’s life.”
Australian Luke Eaton, a 26-year-old caring for the children of a Scottsdale, Ariz., family, said he’s forced to deal with some situations that call for the natural physical strength of a male. One of his charges is a 9-year-old with a seizure disorder.
“In my situation, it definitely applies,” he said. “I can’t imagine how a female au pair could deal with it. In certain times and places often I just have to pick him up because he can’t walk. You have to be able to pick up this boy.”
Birch said having a strong-backed man around has been very helpful for the odd job around the house.
“With Jacob, he helped me move a fish tank across the room which was very heavy,” she said. “Occasionally I’ll have them reach something I can’t reach.”
And, Robinson said, the male nannies who get jobs tend to be the cream of the crop.
“Our demand of male au pairs tends to be 5 or 8 percent of our overall au pair demand, and we recruit far more male au pairs than that, so we can only place a small percentage of them,” Robinson said.
“So the males we do place are the really high-caliber candidates, often have a higher education, trained as kindergarten teachers, worked in daycare centers, have lots of babysitting or childcare experience," he added.
Male nannies and au pairs like Blake and Eaton say they feel the trend is also an example of a gender-imbalanced profession starting to balance itself out between the sexes, and shows Americans are slowly loosening their grip on age-old stereotypes.
“As time goes by attitudes are changing, people are becoming more open, and it’s just evening out,” Eaton said. “When I speak to new au pairs coming from the training school in New York, they’re always telling me there’s more and more male au pairs.”
But there are certain stereotypes that male nannies still have to work against.
"When you talk about this, it's like that episode of 'Friends' a couple of years ago with the male nanny [played by Freddie Prinze Jr.], specifically the sexual preference of that individual, not being quite as masculine," Keeley said.
"We haven't seen a lot of that in our offices, but the bottom line is that parents are looking to provide the best services possible in a childcare provider, whether it be male or female. We even had three members of the local college football team working as nannies for us once," he added.
And then there's the common perception that male childcare workers are more prone to abusing children than women are — even though researchers hotly dispute whether that's true or not and the National Resource Center on Child Sexual Abuse has said that the data that's out there simply isn't reliable enough to provide a definitive answer.
For example, a 1997 BBC report found that 86 percent of sexual-abuse victims simply weren't believed when they reported that their abusers were women, and studies vary widely.
While some studies find confirmed sexual predators of children to be overwhelmingly male, a 1987 study of 582 male college students who had been sexually abused as children found that 78 percent had been molested by females.
(A 1988 study by the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire found higher rates of sexual abuse of children by women in daycares than by men; another 1995 paper found that 23 percent of female sexual abusers in its study were babysitters and 8 percent were teachers, only 8 percent of the male sexual abusers were babysitters and none were teachers.)
Keeley and Robinson said that intensive screening and the fact that the male caregivers they hire tend to have lots of education and experience in the field (and therefore a more verifiable history) help keep their manny businesses as safe as they can make them.
“We've never had that issue come up,” Robinson said.
Nevertheless, such concerns may explain why 91 percent of respondents to an In Touch magazine poll said they would rather have a female nanny (9 percent preferred male).
For Birch, the reasons why mannies are the hot new thing aren’t as important as the fact that, when she needs him, her male au pair, Peter, is there to help out.
“It’s just nice to have a male in the household in general,” she said. “You might never need it, but it’s nice to know it’s there, like an insurance policy.”