Meet Bart Stephen.
He's a 23-year-old Baltimore mortgage company employee who wants to go back to school to earn a degree in occupational therapy.
In the meantime, he wants to be a nanny.
That's right, he says: a nanny. "I enjoy children. I've worked at the YMCA for the past couple of summers, and since I'm going back to school, it would fit into my schedule. And being a nanny would suit my temperament."
Besides, his 22-year-old brother, Matt Stephen, is a live-in nanny for a family of five in northern Howard County -- and is enjoying it immensely.
Move over, Mary Poppins. The Stephen brothers are among a handful of men in the Baltimore-Washington area who are doing their best to break into that traditionally very female profession, nannying. Nationwide, the idea that men can be nannies, too, is catching on -- albeit slowly.
And, as finding dependable child care becomes an increasingly tricky task, owners of a Columbia-based agency, A Choice Nanny, think they've spotted a market niche for men who want to care for children either part or full time. Last summer, A Choice Nanny began offering child-care classes for men, as well as a program called "Nanny Guard," which provides men and women with a combination nanny-bodyguard training.
"As a result of marketing research, we gained an appreciation of how a good male nanny can be helpful in society today. There's a new awareness in the yuppie marketplace that male nannies are a good idea," says Jackie Clark, co-owner of the A Choice Nanny franchise in Columbia.
Nonetheless, say "nanny" and images of stiffly starched governesses still leap to mind -- and lingering stereotypes of that sort are tough to beat, says Brent McBride, director of the Child Development Lab at the University of Illinois in Urbana and a member of the men's caucus of the National Association for Education of Young Children. Overall, only about 5 percent of early childhood professionals are men, he says.
"But there's not a lot of basis for society's hesitancy in hiring men as nannies," he says. "It is only a perception that child care is women's work. [Because of that perception] it's hard for men to go into it and hard for families to hire men."
In addition, some people look askance at men who want to break into a traditionally female-dominated profession, says Libby Killo, marketing coordinator of Au Pair Homestay U.S.A. for the Washington area, which places men and women from other countries in child-care positions as part of a cultural exchange program. "They wonder, 'Why does he want this job?' They start to wonder about child abuse or other reasons. But nine times out of 10 it's not a male child-care worker who's abusing a child -- it's a relative."
Gradually, however, societal attitudes toward men in child care are changing, she says. "A few years ago, even to bring up the subject of a male au pair caused eyebrows to go up, eyes to get as big as saucers. Now [parents] are more receptive. Occasionally, we've received requests outright for men."
When the Au Pair agency presented male applicants to the O'Briens of Annapolis, they did hesitate -- just a little. "We knew that this agency did place men, and at first we were non-committal," says Jack O'Brien, a real estate examiner.
Their hesitancy stemmed from a concern that men might not have the experience they desired in a nanny, he says. Au pairs don't do housework, but are responsible for doing household chores that are related to child care. In the O'Brien house, "either the children do them or he does them, and we would rather the children did them -- which is sometimes harder to accomplish," Mr. O'Brien says. "And from that standpoint -- of that housework -- we weren't sure a man would be as willing and able."
But the O'Briens, who now have their second male nanny -- Pablo Aranda Garcia from Spain -- living with them, also have three boys aged 6, 8 and 10.
With that in mind, having a male au pair makes sense. "Pablo is 26 and was a Boy Scout leader and really likes sports -- and I'd say that's worked out rather well," says Mr. O'Brien.
Changes in society may translate into increasing numbers of men in the child-care field, say experts. One such change, the emergence of the two-income family, has made it increasingly necessary for men to pitch in around the house -- and may have helped the male nanny cause, says Ms. Killo. "Men began doing things around the house, and the idea that 'men don't do this' began to change. Still, the vast majority of au pairs are women, especially when the child is infant-through-toddler age."