The interesting thing about equality is that it goes in both directions. It's a wide-open, two-way thoroughfare. And if you're someone who's usually driving fast and furiously on the woman side, it's interesting to encounter an unexpected roadblock in the man lane – one that makes you question your own feminist ideals.
This happened to me a few months ago when I placed an ad online looking for a part-time, live-in childminder. Here in London, where rent and childcare expenses are astronomical, families often offer free room, board and pocket money to foreign exchange students in exchange for several hours a week of childcare. It's a semi-bartering arrangement that works for young people who are studying and trying to learn English as well as for busy working parents who are lucky enough to have a spare room.
Within a few hours I was deluged with responses from all over Europe and even as far as West Africa. One thing that stuck out was the number of replies from Spain, where youth unemployment is at 55 per cent and almost half of young people under 30 still live with their parents.
About a third of the Spanish responses were from young men, which surprised me since I don't know anyone with a male childminder – or "manny" as they are sometimes called. Looking back at my ad, I noticed that, unlike the other families who posted, I hadn't specified that I wanted a woman because, well, that would have been sexist.
But make no mistake, in my head "childminder" meant "female." All of my kids' carers, teachers and babysitters had thus far been women, so it just seemed natural. Plus I grew up in the 1980s when "male childminder" conjured images of Tom Selleck getting squirted with baby formula.
That's why it was such a surprise when the best applicant we interviewed happened to be Davide, a 23-year-old from outside Seville who is a civil engineering student. Davide was kind and funny and had lots of experience working with kids (he had worked as a camp counsellor for children with special needs). He also taught piano and coached soccer, and when he met the boys, the chemistry was instant. I knew right away we ought to hire him.
I'd be lying, though, if I said the notion of a male carer didn't give me significant pause. It wasn't that I had anything against the idea – it's just that I'd never imagined it. And because of this, something about it made me uncomfortable. These moments when we come face to face with our own prejudices are instructive, aren't they? When I hit that roadblock in my two-way street of equality, I was shocked by my own knee-jerk sexism.
When I asked the Internet "Should I hire a manny?" I came upon message board after message board on the subject, with comments from mothers such as "Absolutely not. Any man who would consider such a job would have to be weird," and "Of course! Provided he was young and buff. Ha ha."
I stumbled upon the misleading and outdated 2001 U.S. Department of Justice statistic that 77 per cent of babysitters convicted of child sexual abuse are male. This figure is hardly surprising because men are responsible for the vast majority of sexual abuse and violent crime in any society – and yet no one reminds you of this when, say, you're planning to marry one.
I also learned that despite the prevailing stigma (a stigma that has kept many men out of the caring professions for too long), there has been a recent rise in the number of young men looking for childcare work. Parenting magazine reported that, approximately 10 per cent of U.S. applicants for nanny jobs last year were men – a number that's increased since the 2008 "mancession" in which young males were among the hardest-hit groups. Here in Britain a "manny agency" specializing in male-only caregivers, called My Big Buddy, has been around since 2006.
As more young children find themselves growing up in single-mom or lesbian families, it stands to reason that some open-minded mothers might seek male caregivers if there are no father figures on the scene. According to Steve Biddulph, author of the seminal 2010 book Raising Boys, male children don't just benefit from male care, they need it to thrive. Between ages six and 13, boys require the attention of a nurturing male carer, and from 14 onward they need male mentors to guide them into adulthood. Responsible single mothers of sons, he points out, must find "good male role models, calling in help from uncles, good friends, schoolteachers, sports coaches and youth leaders."
So why not a manny?
My own boys are lucky because they have a devoted dad already, but I still believe our decision to hire Davide has hugely enriched their lives. For one thing, they see that being in a caring profession is not a "girl job," and that sometimes men are paid to cook and clean and play Lego. For another, they have a carer who doesn't mind kicking a ball or wrestling them in the playground for two hours every day after school.
It was also rather gratifying when another mother remarked to me in the park last week that she'd met my "husband" at toddler swim class, and that he seemed "very nice." I didn't bother telling her that I'm not actually married to a 23-year-old Spanish guy. Let's just call it one of the unexpected benefits of having a manny.