The Mail on Sunday
5 Aug 2018
by Nicole Mowbray
MOVE ASIDE, JEEVES: Maddie Gray, far left, is among the new breed of ‘family assistants’. Many help with household admin, leaving parents free to enjoy time with their children
MADDIE GRAY’S working day begins at 9am, when there are bills to be paid, invoices to issue and dozens of snags and queries to fix – the kind that come with any family business.
Hers is a wide-ranging job and, as the day wears on, 23-year-old Maddie might be asked to help with the shopping or mind the toddler before settling back down to a few commercial reports. Yesterday afternoon she helped put up a swimming pool for the children at the discreet family home in leafy North London where she works.
Yet all this is par for the course for Maddie and those like her who form the burgeoning ranks of a new professional army of family PAs, or household personal assistants, staff charged with everything from arranging dinner parties to sorting the household accounts.
Move aside, Jeeves, your time is up – because the discerning lady or gentleman of today has dispensed with the traditional butler, maid or valet to help around the house, and is seeking a live-in personal assistant to ensure their lives – and in some cases, even their businesses – run without a hitch.
Domestic employment agencies are reporting a surge in demand for staff who are as comfortable booking flights to the Azores and a box at the Royal Albert Hall as pressing a suit or choosing the wine. They must help the children with their homework, order the groceries (and wait in for the delivery) and, crucially, synchronise the family’s home lives with their work commitments.
In the argot of the business, their employers are known as the Principals – an echo of the term used by Royal courtiers when referring to their master or mistress.
This trend for ‘Home Secretaries’ comes, of course, from the United States, where busy professional families have long struggled to reconcile working lives with daily family demands.
Film- star- turned- lifestyle- guru Gwyneth Paltrow famously has an assistant called Jeffrey. When a reporter recently asked if he was her butler, she replied: ‘No, he’s a house manager.’
Now, domestic PAs have become Britain’s latest status symbol.
As designer and commentator Nicky Haslam explains: ‘Having a full-time household PA is a completely new thing in this country. And a new job. They are neither upstairs nor downstairs, they’re on the ground floor by the grand entrance hall. They are a combination of a nanny, housekeeper, PA and, in a way, friend.
‘You have to have someone whose taste you can trust if they are going to buy your clothes or arrange the flowers in your house. That’s why it’s best to choose someone who is versed in your ways.
‘They are not like old-fashioned domestic servants because they
You have to have someone whose taste you can trust
Why pay more for a nanny who has to go home on time?
The job is just amazing – you get to be part of the family
…or rather, a ‘Family PA’ to book your private jet, sort your social diary AND help with housework
book the private jet, rather than doing the cooking and cleaning. You need someone who will make sure there is champagne in the fridge and that the house you have booked for the summer is perfect.’
Such is the high demand from ‘ultra high net worth’ families that agencies are struggling to fill vacancies. One ‘high-profile British family’ in St John’s Wood, North West London, is currently asking for a ‘Private PA’.
The advertisement declares: ‘Salary £45,000-£55,000 a year. Duties include: diary management for the Principals, organising social events and birthday parties for the children, personal shopping, scheduling appointments, liaising with the children’s school and medical professionals, running errands, travelling overseas with the family, assisting with the management and recruitment of household staff, managing household budgets and accounts, organising travel and holidays, taking the youngest child to activities, managing the children’s timetables.’
Another vacancy, offering a salary of up to £40,000 a year to work for an employer in the entertainment business, has an equally vari ed j ob description, i ncluding ‘all-round support for the two principals and the main point of contact for contractors throughout their property refurbishment’.
‘Family assistants essentially act as personal assistants to the whole family,’ says Stephanie Middleton, owner of TGNC, a nanny and au pair recruitment agency in London, which has several celebrity clients.
‘They order school books or uniforms, sort out flights for the family holiday, wait in for deliveries, all on top of looking after the children. While they are not a full-time housekeeper, family assistants also help clean and tidy the house and make the children’s meals if necessary. The aim is for complete family care. The family assistant is there to make the parents’ lives easier.’
Even for middle-class families more likely to travel EasyJet than private jet, there is a growing trend of hiring budget-friendly family assistants, part au pair, part secretary, part housekeeper – and mostly cheaper than a traditional nanny.
Kate Freud, a 36-year-old mother of three from London, has employed a live-in family assistant from the Czech Republic called Karla to help with her children – six- year- old Jago and Georgia, three – while she nurses five-month-old Willow.
‘It’s been a game-changer for us,’ she says. ‘Karla is as bright as a button. She looks after the older children for a bit of time every day, takes them to tennis lessons or to the playground or swimming.
‘She makes sure the playroom is tidy after they’ve been in there, cleans the kitchen after I’ve cooked, mops up the bathroom after bath time. When I come down from putting the children to bed, the sitting room has been tidied.
‘ Karla does the chores I don’t want to do so I can be with the children when I can and enjoy the time instead of thinking; “I have to load the dishwasher.”
‘She even reads them a story if my husband is running late home from work, so I can put the baby to bed.’ Mrs Freud’s family assistant – who lives in and works 35 hours a week plus two nights of babysitting – also does the food shopping and runs errands. And t he wages involved are considerably lower.
‘All of my friends who pay through the nose for regular nannies have people who are militant about leaving on time, don’t tidy up after themselves and are very inflexible if a parent can’t be home promptly,’ Mrs Freud said.
‘They’re all considering switching to a family assistant. I have a friend who has been paying £600 per week for a nanny who has switched to a family assistant for almost a third of the price and is overjoyed.’
TV executive Claire Horton has had her ‘invaluable’ family assistant since January to help with her children, aged eight and six. Having had nannies since her children were born, Ms Horton is impressed with her new helper.
‘She’s 32, she’s bright, fluent in Spanish with very good English and she was in fact a primary teacher in her country, so I know I can leave her to it when it comes to looking after the children,’ she says.
‘ I’m a busy professional and I don’t get home until about 7pm, so I don’t want to have to spoon-feed someone or be patient while they learn English, as can sometimes be the case with an au pair. The children also have no need for a fulltime nanny at their age.’
Ms Horton’s family assistant manages washing, sorts out sports kits, organises after-school clubs and arranges and schedules playdates.
‘ It’s all organised,’ she says. ‘There’s lots of juggling and she is invaluable. For me, childcare is not just about the children but about helping me run my life.’
A more specialised niche popular among families with younger children is the ‘Nanny-PA’, who is contracted to do childcare plus any admin associated with the children – buying school uniforms, keeping an online family diary, researching the family holiday, and even attending parents’ evenings or medical appointments if a parent cannot.
This hybrid role is especially popular with what one agency calls the ‘mass affluents’ – families in which both parents are working professionals, yet don’t have the kind of money to employ a team of domestic staff. At this level, family assistants are paid less than nannies but, as the salary is lower, the agencies stipulates that the assistant must live in the family home.
Generally, Ms Middleton says, the person has experience of childcare already – many have been au pairs or teachers in a foreign country, but neither job is enough experience to become a nanny in the UK.
But if the wages seem comparatively low, the assistants themselves don’t seem to be complaining.
Viviana Arboleda, 31, is an assistant to a family with two children in London. ‘Being a family assistant is a paid job, whereas being an au pair is just pocket money,’ she says.
‘I help out in all areas of the family’s life, from childcare to errands to cooking and keeping the house tidy. It’s a varied role and I like the different aspects it offers. I live with a lovely family and am treated as one of them, yet I’m still able to continue studying while working, which was important for me.’
And back i n North London, Maddie Gray has no complaints, even though she is on 24-hour call. ‘I love it,’ she says. ‘I think it’s an amazing job.
‘ When you’re working closely with a family, to get to be a part of that family… it’s something you don’t get in many other kinds of work – certainly not in an office.’