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[whitespace] Damian Irizarry Feeding Baby
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Manny of the House

Far from pursuing traditional 'guy' careers, the male nannies of childcare-needy Silicon Valley are well-paid and respected members of the households who hire them. They are also highly sought-after--sometimes in the wrong way.

By Genevieve Roja

GLAMOUR and sexiness don't exist in an industry mired in diaper rash, teething gums and wet wipes. No need reminding Damian Irizarry, who gladly endures the spit-ups, the pea-green Gerber baby food and the dirty diapers. In fact, he seems to have a sixth sense about the last when his year-old charge, Sofia, whom Irizarry is carrying in his arms, gives him an artful grin. In a nanosecond, Irizarry dashes out of the kitchen with her.

"He's real good about the poops," says Sofia's mother, Darlene Lobner-Martin, 28. "He's better than I am."

At a time when 24-year-olds are claiming early retirement and placing their names on a 2001 Audi S4 waiting list, Damian Irizarry is doing a four-hour round-trip, weekly commute from San Anselmo to Santa Clara. This apparently doesn't faze him. He loves his job as a male nanny--a "manny" as it is called in the child care industry--and nothing, it seems, is going to detract from his obligation.

Irizarry looks like something out of the pages of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog: good smile, ready to take on the next pub crawl, carries himself with confidence and comes off slightly rugged, preppy and boyish all at the same time. No one would suspect that he--with his chestnut brown hair and olive complexion, and wearing a conch and leather necklace, baby-blue shirt, blue-gray pants and white, old school Pumas--reads Sesame Street books and is the voice behind Sofia's collection of stuffed animals.

Nor could anyone guess that Irizarry--nicknamed "Izzy" by Darlene and husband Andrew--vacuums, does the laundry, takes Sofia for walks around the Rose Garden or holds Sofia in his lap as she bangs on the family's organ. And Sofia is quite cooperative with Izzy, accepting her little spoon from him during her feeding time, a familial action that resembles how hatched chicks respond to the worm brought them by Mom. More than a caretaker for Sofia, Irizarry is also a "mother's helper" to Darlene, who has a muscle weakness that prevents her from picking up Sofia. Often she relies on Irizarry to help her with steps and doors, and handle diaper changes and any other physical activity a mother's job might entail.

"He basically does anything to make our lives easier," Darlene says.

Darlene Lobner-Martin, Darian Irizarry, Baby
Photograph by George Sakkestad

You the Manny: Darlene Lobner-Martin hired Darian Irizarry to help care for her child Sofia. He also performs housekeeping duties and, as Darlene puts it, "everything to make our lives easier."

A Manny Apart

IRIZARRY KNOWS he is a rare species, much like the California condor or the sea otter--hard to spot and even tougher to preserve. Their habitat is also precarious, as male nannies struggle to co-exist in the valley of nannydom, a place inhabited by women since the industry sprouted. In a Darwinian twist of fate, these male nannies must be better qualified, versed in more early childhood education and in essence prove themselves tenfold against their female counterparts. As gender expectations are turned on their heads, these Y-chromosomed child caregivers face sexual discrimination in a battle for survival of the fittest.

Take for example Jordan Short, 18, a recent graduate of the esteemed English Nanny and Governess School in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, where nanny wannabes become nanny hot shots trained in child care techniques such as sewing basics, boating safety and sensing child abuse. But as highly qualified as Short is--three months of rigorous child-development course work and a nine-month externship with a family before nanny and governess certification--he has not been placed. He is the school's first male student and graduate in the last 10 years.

"There's definitely some prejudice out there," says Short, on the phone from Ohio. Accepted to two universities out of high school, Short felt his calling as a nanny after a campus visit to English Nanny. "I've been very close to meeting the families after phone interviews and one of the parents decides they're not comfortable to have a male. That's discouraging."

Discouraging too is the number of males even remotely taking an interest in nannying, a job that is not classified as "au pair" or "baby-sitter." An au pair is usually a foreign student who lives with a family in exchange for room and board. A baby-sitter is someone hired on an as-need basis, paid hourly. Sheilagh Roth, founder and executive director of the English Nanny and Governess School, which places its graduates nationally, says her nannies can make from $450 to $1,000 per week, or $50,000 annually; some have health benefits and other amenities, like 401Ks. Other agencies, like Bay Area 2nd Mom Nannies Inc., in Palo Alto, and Saratoga-based Traveling Nannies, which placed Irizarry with the Martins, share a percentage of a nanny's earnings. Shalini Azariah says her nannies earn anywhere from $3,000 to $4,500 each month; on-call nannies can make between $12 to $24 an hour, depending on the number of children.

Azariah, founder of Bay Area 2nd Mom, says that out of all the nannies she places, only an estimated 5 to 10 percent of those are males.

Bay Area 2nd Mom's first-ever manny was Art Angel, who later became a counselor for the organization. He knows from firsthand experience that men seeking child-care positions are forced through far more intensive screenings simply because they are male.

"If we asked a [female] nanny 100 questions, we'd ask the male nanny 200 questions," says Angel about the screening process. "We had to do that, and you realize that it's all because you put yourself out there to take care of children."

Angel, who has no family of his own but says he took care of many of his young family members, stayed with the company for eight years before moving recently to Riverside, Calif. He became a nanny after a client--frustrated that she couldn't retain a decent nanny to tame her two boys--asked the agency what she could do. The counselor suggested the boys might need a male influence and volunteered Angel to do the job.

"The first time I did it, the dishes were done, the homework was complete and there was no hassle," says Angel, 31. "The mother was overwhelmed."

The Why Chromosome

BUT FOR EVERY CASE that is successful in placing a manny, there are those parents who refuse mannies simply because they aren't comfortable with them, says Claire Bearie, president of the San Jose-based California Nanny Network LLC. She says that one out of every 100 to 200 calls from prospective nannies is from a man. Of those initial calls, maybe four to five people are qualified, since her agency and many like it require in-person interviews, several references, fingerprinting and criminal and DMV background checks.

There is a natural parental concern about leaving children under the unsupervised care of strangers. One need not look farther than a 20/20 exposé on bad nannies, "nannycams," day-care assaults and child molestation cases to affirm those fears. It can be a wrenching experience for parents to imagine a potential nanny hire like Louise Woodward, the baby-shaking English au pair, or the next Jeffrey Dahmer.

"Nobody ever said it--I could be speculating--but I really feel that some people were thinking, This guy [Irizarry] could be a pedophile," Darlene says. "It really made me sick. There are women who do the same thing, molestation. It was sad. I just know some people, because he was a guy, [said,] 'Did you check him out? Does he have references? Are you sure he hasn't this or that?' Some people asked, 'Well, he's gay, right?'"

"Or, 'So what's he going to do with the rest of his life?'" Andrew says.

"They think there's something wrong with him," Darlene says. "They think that he can't get another job. Even my financial adviser was like, 'The guy can't get a job somewhere else?' And I said, 'Well, you know, that's not very nice. You know, he's waiting to get into graduate school and he really wants to learn more about child care.'"

Damian Irizarry and Baby Making Face
Photograph by George Sakkestad

A Manny Splendored Thing: Damian Irizarry, 24, became a 'manny' for his charge, Sofia, after getting three college degrees--in international business, sociology and English.

Manny in the Middle

IT MUST BE SOME KIND of unwritten Hollywood provision that nannies in movies--with the exception of Mrs. Doubtfire, featuring a cross-dressing Robin Williams--must always be busty, young, hot for Dad and cold toward Mom. Who could forget deranged nanny Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, wiping blood from her lip and pronouncing to a seemingly dead Anabella Sciorra, "This is my family." In reality, the plot can be just as complicated and unnerving. Darlene rolls her eyes when Andy says he believes the waiter at their local restaurant thinks Izzy is more than just the manny.

"That's silly," Darlene tells Andy.

But such presumptions are not always unwarranted. Azariah reports that some of her male placements--Azariah refuses to say which ones, of course--have experienced sexual harassment on the job.

"We have to be very careful [about people] hitting on mannies," she says bluntly. "Several mannies have reported back that they didn't want to take the job because the women have been a little ... provocative."

And such attractions are not unusual, as many women find men who are good with children to be irresistible. And then there are other factors.

There was a time, for example, when Darlene introduced Izzy to her cousin, who quickly fell under his spell.

"He walked out of the room and she looked at me [and said], 'How did you get such a good-looking nanny?'" Darlene recalls. "And I just couldn't believe she said that. I said, 'What?' And she said, 'Well, I was expecting some old lady.' I said, 'It's not about his looks.' And she said, 'Well, gosh, I'd have another kid just to have a nanny who looked like that.'"

The side glances and double takes have become routine to Irizarry.

"I look 15 even though I'm 24," says Irizarry, who holds degrees in international business, sociology and English. "I get a lot of looks, especially from older people who look at me and go, 'Omigod, another kid having a kid.' If I was a kid having a kid, would I need to hear something negative? I've never been outright identified as a nanny."

That may be part of society's general discomfort with men in more traditional female roles. Take, for example, the ad placed by Town & Country Resources in the November edition of Bay Area Parent, which reads: "He squeals with delight when she walks in the door. She's an exceptional Town & Country nanny."

"I think our society needs to be more aware of how many male caregivers--whether it be fathers, brothers, nannies--do change diapers," Andrew says. "And not just diapers, but change lives and serve as positive male role models."

"You get some of this gender bias," says Irizarry, whose child-care experience encompasses running tennis camps for children and teens. "It has something to do with being young ... or it's something in the age-old stereotype that women have an instinctive childbearing gene that makes them better at being a nanny, makes them better at being more trustworthy."

Damian Irizarry and Baby Manny Handler: Saratoga-based Traveling Nannies placed 'manny' Darian Irizarry with the Martin family, and takes a percentage of his earnings. Many Bay Area-based nannies earn anywhere from $3,000 to $4,500 each month.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Nature vs. Nurture

MANNY PIONEER Jordan Short says he'll go anywhere if he's placed, even if it is out of state. Bay Area 2nd Mom's Azariah says that she has many clients who are open-minded and say they wouldn't mind having a male nanny. And while there's a pre-existing notion that mannies are needed in homes with single mothers and young sons, Azariah says she has successfully placed mannies in homes with young girls as well. But most mannies still lag in terms of professional experience, which may stifle better pay and ultimately more respect. Most of the men who want to become mannies gather their child-care experience from after-school programs and sports camps, usually in coaching positions. Females, on the other hand, become baby-sitters while in their teens, an experience that readies them for a future career in the nanny industry. And while it's possible for nannies and mannies to earn the same amount of money, professional experience is still highly valued and is reflected in pay. While pay is viewed as the great equalizer--most agencies report both sexes are paid the same, at issue here is males, confident in their manhood, gaining ground in the Valley of the Nannies. Some, like Jordan Short, are ready.

"I have as much a right to do it as anyone else," says Short, defending his choice of profession. "It's truly about how qualified you are. I want to be hired for my skills, not for my gender. I feel it's very important they look at me as an educator and see what I can bring to their family and children, [rather] than shut the door because I'm a man."

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From the January 4-10, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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