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In search of a top-notch nanny

Agencies say demand for quality child-caregivers is on the rise — and college degrees are a plus

Illustration by J.D. King

Illustration by J.D. King

Illustration by J.D. King

On a recent Monday morning, 28-year-old Meagan Phillips gently rousted 1-year-old twins from their beds, and expertly coaxed them into their clothes and to the breakfast table.

Thirty minutes later, the kids were fed and ready for play. Their parents — dad’s a lawyer, mom’s an engineering manager — kissed them goodbye, climbed into their SUV, and drove off to work as Phillips watched, holding one squirming toddler in each arm.

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Phillips is one of more than 3,000 full-time nannies — or home child-care workers — in Greater Boston, according to the International Nanny Association, a Hyannis-based nonprofit that functions as a guild of sorts for nannies across the globe.

At a time when 20-something college graduates like Phillips — who holds a degree in early childhood education — are pounding pavement in search of elusive corporate jobs, Boston-area nanny agencies say their placements are rebounding as the job picture improves in the state.

Many of the new nannies? College graduates in their 20s.

Nicole Steel, 29, is a nanny for 6- and 3-year-old siblings on the South Shore. This is the second family she’s worked for since she began nannying full-time four years ago, and she says she’s determined to make a career of it.

“I have a degree in communications, and honestly, that’s where I thought I was headed after college,” said Steel, who worked briefly in newspaper advertising in the Seattle area. “But I was asked several years ago to nanny, sort of on a temporary basis. And I loved it.”

One of the main draws for Steel is the close bond she forges with her employers — both parents and kids.

“It’s difficult to explain, but you become a part of the family,” Steel said. “It’s funny, but when [the kids] are happy with me, they express it the way they would to their mom. And when they’re unhappy with me, they show that the same way a child would with his mother, as well. They pout. They get angry with me. It is the real parent-child experience, without me literally being their mother.”

Given that most nannies placed through top local agencies tend to begin working with families so early in an infant’s life, such connections aren’t surprising.

“Almost all nannies start with their families — the families that employ them — within three months of a child’s birth,” said Susan Tokayer, a veteran social worker and co-president of INA. “So there is a steady supply, if you will, of new clients. And I would say the Boston area is an excellent example of a rich, fertile market for nannies,” thanks in part to a young, well-educated populace and an array of local industries.

And yet, regardless of a nanny’s academic credentials, some say there’s still a frustrating stigma to taking care of other people’s children for a living.

Jennifer Russo, 31, says she’s lost count of the number of times she’s been asked, “So, a nanny’s basically a baby sitter, right?” She holds a master’s degree from Tufts in child development, with a concentration in clinical child psychology. She now works as the head placement counselor for the Newton-based Boston Nanny Centre.

Illustration by J.D. King

“It does bother me a little, because I was a nanny for six years before becoming an administrator,” said Russo. “I know how rewarding a field it is. And it’s no exaggeration for me to say I plan to do this the rest of my working career.”

But even Russo’s mother had to be persuaded that the child-care field was the right path for her daughter.

“I still remember my mother’s reaction, when I told her after getting my master’s degree that I planned to go back to the job I’d held for summers during college and do it full-time,” Russo said. “She just asked, ‘Why would you do that? You have so much potential.’ And she was right. But I feel like I’m living up to that potential.”

A huge segment of home child-care workers are not placed through agencies. Instead, parents comb Craigslist for promising candidates, or friends of friends know someone who’s available. The cost, while still high, is lower than going through an agency. Lucky families may connect with the nanny of their dreams. Many others find one who works out for a time before moving on. Others, well, don’t ask.

For Russo, at the Boston Nanny Centre, the greatest reward is being able to put her master’s degree to use counseling nannies and their hiring families, and helping new nannies understand and cope with the psychological demands of being alternate parents. The compensation’s not bad either, especially when it comes to the elite tier of nannies who work for affluent families and are often placed through agencies.

Those nannies earn an average of $40,000 a year for 40-50 hours of work per week, according to those in the industry. In addition, agencies generally require employer families to contribute $100-$200 per month toward a nanny’s health insurance premium. There are other costs too, including taxes and fees to the agency.

Salaries do climb higher. The most experienced and sought-after nannies can earn as much as $80,000 a year in Boston, Russo said, and may also get bonuses and overtime pay. A top-notch education and an advanced degree make a nanny more employable, but 15-20 years’ experience and stellar references can count just as much at the top end of the pay scale.

“These jobs come with benefits that equal or surpass virtually any other career option in early child care,” Russo said.

Jackie Edwards is considered one of Boston’s elite nannies. Placement agencies across the area know her name and say that she’s a catch. She’s been a nanny for more than 12 years, she’s the rare nanny who is also a mother, and she has the experience that comes with age. Unlike many of her newly placed peers, Edwards is in her early 40s.

“I’m originally from Brazil, and there I taught day care. I taught English as a second language. I even studied psychology in college,” Edwards said. “And I’m a mom. And that combination of experiences allows me to appeal to families who want a nanny for their older children.

“You know most nannies switch families every few years, because once the kids reach pre-school age, the parents no longer need full-time care. I’m fortunate, because my skill set is also beneficial for much older kids, for a variety. Right now, I manage a household with an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 1-year-old.”

Edwards is also able to give parents a freebie they’d otherwise pay handsomely for: immersion-style Spanish lessons for their children. (She also speaks Portuguese, of course.)

“Definitely, special skills like languages earn you more,” Edwards says.

Meagan Phillips is on her third family as a nanny — a sign, she says, that she loves the work, though it isn’t all fun and games.

“I do a lot more than baby-sit,” Phillips said. “We feed the children, clothe them, bathe them, take them to school or day care, if that’s part of it. Care for them throughout the day, cook, clean, do laundry. We do the things — all the things — the parents would do if they were able. So there’s a reason this is a full-time job. It has to be.”

Besides working with a family she adores and earning a good salary, Phillips gets two weeks of paid vacation each year, and they are not required to coincide with her employer’s. Meanwhile, her employer family traveled three weeks last year, during which Phillips was paid, even though she didn’t come along.

To be sure, not all employer families are so generous. But Amy Occhialino, Phillips’s employer, says that while nannies can be expensive, she finds them — especially Phillips — to be invaluable.

“Let’s face it, having a nanny is a luxury,” Occhialino says. “Financially though, it’s not a luxury if you have two kids. It’s cheaper than most day cares because you don’t pay twice for the nanny. And, I have to say, having Meagan here has been amazing. She’s not just someone who clocks in and out and does a job and goes home. She loves our children. And we trust her with them like ourselves. She’s family now.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@
globe.com. Follow him on
Twitter @jamesburnett.
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