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Hardly Mary Poppins : The Nanny: Old Order Changeth

December 05, 1988|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Mary Poppins would have been appalled.

At Britain's first national "Nanny Fair" here earlier this month, one of the speakers was a union organizer. A hot topic during an open question-and-answer session was male nannies and the danger of AIDS.

Although their crisply starched predecessors of British lore might have suffered in silence, the blue-jeaned nannies at this gathering heckled the head of England's Working Mothers Assn. loud and long for what they perceived as snobbish remarks.

And among exhibitors was a two-year nanny college that, for the equivalent of about $14,000, teaches karate as well as how to change a "nappie." The head of the school was photographed by a London tabloid earlier this year helping a student slip into a bulletproof jacket.

The Bionic Nanny

Exit Mary Poppins. Enter the Bionic Nanny.

The bulletproof jacket was a gimmick, insisted Mary McRae, principal of Princess Christian College in Manchester. However, she added, "we would make all of our students aware of security needs. It's part of our responsibility. As the society changes, we have to adapt."

The British nanny emerged as part of an upstairs-downstairs world that still exists here, but which is increasingly marginal.

She was typically the middle-aged, iron disciplinarian, devoted and undemanding; the supreme ruler of the nursery who otherwise stayed in the background except to bring her charges down for a tea-time encounter with their wealthy parents.

Best--and Worst

At her best she was the Mary Poppins type--warm and wise and wonderful--but still a domestic servant to the rich. At her worst, she nagged--the Concise Oxford Dictionary still defines a nanny as "1. female goat. 2. child's nurse; figuratively, (an) unduly protective person"--and thought she knew better than anyone how to raise children. No less a parent than Queen Elizabeth II fired the nanny who had looked after Prince Charles since he was 1 month old, when the queen ordered a special dessert for her children and the nanny, Helen Lightbody, overruled her.

Critics of Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accuse her of building a "nanny state." One British chief executive of a large corporation refers consistently to her as "the Head Nanny."

A 1972 book published here purported to trace "The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny." But the nanny hasn't really fallen. She has just diversified, becoming almost as much a part of an upper middle-class British life style as a second car is in America.

The English used to refer to their upwardly mobile, urban professional couples as "dinkies"--dual income, no kids. But with more women demanding both a career and motherhood, the new epithet is "tinkies"--two incomes, nanny and kids.

It's been estimated that there are at least 150,000 individuals employed privately here to care for children. Their duties and qualifications vary.

At the lowest level is the "mother's help," who is generally very young, untrained, and expected to assist with housework as well as child care. An au pair is similar, but by definition is foreign and works only part-time since she is here primarily to study the language.

Registered by Government

Increasingly popular are "child minders," who are registered by the government to provide day care in their homes for other peoples' children.

And finally there are proper nannies, who care for their employers' children in the employers' home. Judging by the crowd of nearly 400 at the Nanny Fair, they are mostly in their early 20s these days. Often they have been formally trained and have the same National Nursery Examination Board certificate as is required here for public sector child care workers.

Board Director Robert Chantry-Price said his agency certifies about 5,000 "nursery nurses" each year, a large share of whom go into private employment as nannies. A certified nanny can expect to clear the equivalent of nearly $700 a month to start in the London area, and up to about $1,200 a month with experience.

Still, demand for their services far outstrips the supply. One of at least 50 employment agencies specializing in nannies claims it has six openings for every job hunter. Another says it has 10.

Ticket for World Travel

Commented nanny Sonia Reed, 22: "If you want nanny work, I don't see how you can be out of a job." Her profession has been Reed's ticket to world travel. She has worked in the United States, Israel and Greece, and she has just taken an assignment in Austria.

Child-care professionals talk about trying to attract more young men to a field that is still 99% dominated by women. But would-be employers are instantly suspicious, seeing male nannies as either potential child molesters or carriers of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Objected student nanny Rick Strang: "Just because you change nappies, you're no different than any other bloke!"

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