If you’ve ever eavesdropped on a conversation about “the help”, you probably wish you hadn’t. Hearing women -particularly Jewish ones -talking about the domestic inadequacies of their au pair/nanny/cleaner is never good – at least not for me – but it’s inevitable once you embark on hiring someone to help look after your house and more importantly your children.
Nannies and registered childminders are the first port of call for mothers returning to work who are not lucky enough to have a doting grandparent permanently available. Inheriting the nanny of someone you know is a recommendation in itself, but trusted agencies such as Kensington Nannies which opened 38 years ago are more likely to track down a Mary Poppins- type than you will surfing the not-to-be-trusted net.
Typically nannies get from £350 if they live-in doing a 12 hour day (Mon-Thurs) and two-nights babysitting or £500 – £600 per week if living-out.
For child minders there is an exhaustive list of organisations one can contact for suitable candidates and local councils keep lists of registered childminders who cater specifically for the Jewish community, e.g. a Kosher home. Childcare.co.uk generates lists relevant to your locality and you can see immediately those who have been CRB checked and exchange emails before setting up a meeting to access suitability.
And then there’s the Au Pairs who for a lot of Jewish women (Me) are the sensible alternative to Nanny McPhee or Maria Von Trapp when all you really want is someone to unload the dishwasher and play Dora the Explorer repeatedly.
It’s an odd setup, having an au pair. We constantly tell our children not to talk to strangers, and then we invite one to come and live with us! And the truth is that no matter how much vetting, research and corresponding we do with the au pair before she (or he) arrives, we can’t truly get to know them until they live with us.
And even then there are plenty of surprises. Like the day I came home to find mine in bed with her best friend – also female! (I’m not judging – I’d just like to have known.) I had another one who went AWOL one weekend and was later tracked down in a prison in Paris for trying to smuggle drugs onto the Eurostar in a wig… she swore she was duped.
Then there was the mystery of the disappearing cleaning products – eventually found in the au pair’s wardrobe. She had a cleaning job somewhere else and had to provide her own cleaning products, so helped herself to mine!
I had a particularly attractive one who came complete with a whole portfolio of glamour photos… and another who emptied the washing machine wearing rubber gloves because she didn’t want to touch our (clean) underwear. Oh, yes and then there was one who would only shower once a week because it’s too cold in the UK to shower more often.
Yet for every bad experience there are plenty of good ones, and having an au pair can end up being a fantastically rewarding arrangement for both employer and employee. I have a friend whose au pair has now been with her for 18 years and really is a part of the family, and another who has just returned from the Czech Republic where she attended her former au pair’s wedding.
If you do have young children they really can be a great help, and the best thing is that when you go out you are leaving your kids with someone they know really well. Even if you don’t need childcare and just want the au pair to help around the house and be there for the dog while you’re at work, it’s a great arrangement and one of the most cost-effective ways of having help at home.
Amanda Pampel, who runs Edgware and Solihull Au Pair Agency (also known as The Au Pair Shop), says the single best piece of advice she can give anyone looking for an au pair is: “Do not try and find your own online. I don’t just say that because I run an agency, I say that because you are taking a stranger into your home and you need to be sure that she or he has been properly vetted and interviewed. We, like other accredited agencies, work with partner agencies all over Europe and all the relevant checks will have been carried out.”
The process starts with the UK family filling out a detailed form sending it to the agency with a family photo. Amanda will then look through the girls she has on her books and decide on three or four who she thinks may be suitable. Once the family has chosen one she will contact the relevant agency in Europe.
A Skype interview will be arranged, and if everyone is happy the family sends an invitation letter to the au pair, who will then book her flight. At this point the agency must be paid – the fee is around £385.
“It’s vital to tell me everything you possibly can about your family and your requirements when filling out the form,” says Amanda. “If you’re kosher, I need to know. Some girls will even do their homework on this before they come so they know what to expect. Similarly if you have children with disabilities, if you have a large dog, if you have unusual working hours, inform us – the more the au pairs know before they come the less chance there is of problems.”