Don't call Autumn Backman a nanny. A lean, high-energy brunette, she speaks French, a bit of German, graduated magna cum laude from a respectable East Coast university and has lived in Vienna and Monte Carlo. "I'm more of a governess," she says.
With 15 years in the business, Backman's primary goal is to bring "a whole new level of adventure to the children's lives." That might mean heading to Central Park to find the "forest" where there are wild brambles, or hitting up the Museum of Natural History for a bit of imaginary time travel. "For them it's very exciting," she says. "My joy is to bring joy and play to the child." But there's also scheduling doctor's appointments and inculcating good manners, "It's about raising a good citizen," she says.
Backman belongs to a special breed of domestic servants. An elite nanny today can't just be a passive grandma figure who keeps the kids safe and fed. She must be well-educated, personable, travel easily in any type of society, and is usually very fit. Poor health choices would be a bad influence on the children.
"That's why you're paid that," says Claudia Kahn, chief executive of the Help Company, a Los Angeles-based agency that places nannies, butlers and other domestic workers with the world's rich. While a spiffy resume is key, "attitude to me is important to me as anything," says Kahn. "They have to say yes to any wishes that are given to them."
The difference between what uber-nannies rake in and what the average caretaker makes echoes the spread between their respective employers. The average full-time caregiver--there are some 1.2 million nannies in the U.S. according to government data--earns $26,000 a year, basically minimum wage, according to Breedlove and Associates, a firm that helps some 6,500 families with the legal side of hiring domestic help.
That figure "pops a bit" to around $30,000 in high-cost areas like Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, according to Thomas Breedlove, the firm's proprietor. This might even err on the high end since these are only families that choose to be above the board when it comes to taxes. "We don't get any Craigslist-type nannies," he said.
But for high-net worth families, money is no object when it come to mother's little helper. Top-shelf nannies can pull in six figures a year and more, depending on the client and what the nanny brings to the nursery.
But they need to be worth it. A top-shelf governess must be an ideal influence on the impressionable tots she's being enlisted to rear. They should have experience with children and some coursework in early childhood development studies, says Kahn. A National Nursery Examination Board certificate, granted by the U.K. government since 1945, is also increasingly desirable.
The perks are plush. Jetting off on private planes to exclusive resorts and lavish vacation homes; eating at five-star restaurants; hobnobbing with an elite circle that might involve Hollywood celebs, Wall Street kingpins or Washington powerbrokers. The nanny can get access to all the freebies, from designer goodies to invite-only movie premieres.
But Kahn warns that there's plenty of unseen grit in the nanny business. "From the outside it looks so glamorous because they're given free BMWs and are getting free clothes from every designer on the planet, but it's really demanding. It's not for everyone," says Kahn.
Nannies typically sign contracts for two years. One nanny equated this to a tour of military duty. "You just sign your life away," she says. Even traveling to tropical locales can be work. "It's like you're on vacation, but you're not. It's like being 10 again because you can't do what you want. You have to really look out at the ocean and say, 'That's so beautiful,' and then I have to do what they want me to do." But she takes it in stride. "I take my job really seriously, and I expect them to pay me accordingly. It's not a pastime."
A 31-year-old-nanny in San Francisco says moms with money tend to be much more involved in their children's lives, but it gets lonely for them being with the kids all the time. This crowd of moneyed hands-on moms want someone they like being around, not just an extra set of hands.
"I get paid what I get paid because I know to fit in. They don't want a nanny robot. I think the little boy I watch loves that I get along with his mom because we have fun," she says. "If you don't respect the person who's with your kids all day, why would you hire them?"
Then there are the social implications of a top-shelf nanny. "You want someone who represents you," says the nanny in the City by the Bay.
Maintaining the delicate balance between mommy, daddy and nanny can be tough. Especially when super nanny is bright and spunky and mom is tired and trying to shed some baby weight. Or if the family just wants some time away from the nanny. "It's something you learn, when to be around and when to disappear," she said.
But Backman insists that it's really about finding the right family to work for. "It's a relationship, not a job. Picking a job just for a high salary is like marrying for money. It's the wrong reason," she said.
Aside from work, Backman likes to tool around Manhattan on her cherry-red Vespa and hang out with friends in her duplex apartment. An avid runner, she's completed six marathons and volunteers with friends at the New York Road Runners Club to raise money for inner-city schools. This weekend, she's whisking her mother away to Bermuda. She says she plans to keep her job indefinitely. "I enjoy myself," she says.
For those who want to move on from nannying to other work, the transition can be tough. Breedlove says that older nannies often try to stick with it through to retirement. "Quite a few of the young ones start their own nanny placement agencies," he says.