My children don"t need the au pair any longer. But I darn well do


My children don't need the au pair any longer. But I darn well do

By
Angela Epstein

PUBLISHED:

02:25 GMT, 13 September 2012

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UPDATED:

07:48 GMT, 13 September 2012

For the past hour I’ve been sitting in a dark room with a damp flannel on my forehead, trying to coax my pulse rate back to normal.

The reason My au pair cornered me in the kitchen with a portentous: ‘Can we have [sic] talk’

From my wide experience with Eva’s predecessors, I knew this could only mean one thing: she was leaving.

Vital: Angela sees her au pair as a bridge between chaos and calm

Vital: Angela sees her au pair as a bridge between chaos and calm

My worst fears were confirmed. After 18 months in the UK, Eva felt the time had come to go home to the Czech Republic.

As she broke this news, I felt the room begin to swim and started a speedy mental calculation of how I could convince her to stay. More money A car Private health insurance

But no, she said, she missed her family. It was time to go.

Fortunately, she’d anticipated my reaction, and through an au pair agency had already lined up a friend’s sister who was interested in the job with us.

What’s more, Eva wasn’t planning to leave us for a few weeks yet, and would happily stay on to explain everything to the new girl.

‘Don’t worry — it will be OK,’ she reassured me.

I nearly expired with relief at this point, steamrollered Eva flat with a bear hug and retired to the couch to ride out my palpitations.

I’ll come clean. My name is Angela, and I’m addicted to having an au pair. Not in any weird or sinister way: I just can’t manage without one.

It’s not that I’m knee-deep in toddlers and dirty nappies — I left that particular life experience behind several years ago. But I see my au pair as a vital bridge between chaos and calm, the axis upon which my otherwise tumultuous world is able to spin with relative order.

I know I shouldn’t be so fixated. Most of my friends have long since dispensed with the services of an au pair now that their children are older.

Mine are hardly babies: Sam, 19, is away on his gap year, while Max, 17, Aaron, 14, and eight-year-old Sophie are perfectly capable of getting ready for school by themselves (well, once they’ve been dragged out of bed).

Magic! Eva transforms Angela's house from a 'bomb site' to somewhere warm and inviting with powers like Harry Potter

Magic! Eva transforms Angela's house from a 'bomb site' to somewhere warm and inviting with powers like Harry Potter

I juggle a busy home life with a
freelance writing and broadcasting career, but surely I could manage
without an au pair and rely instead on just a cleaner a couple of times a
week

That’s what friends are constantly telling me. Even my husband, Martin, delicately suggested it was time to call it a day.

But
Eva, like the girls who came before her, is at the centre of my
existence (yes, move over kids). She maintains order in my life,
remembers to bring the washing in when it’s raining, always finds my car
keys when I can’t, nips out to buy milk when we run out, and generally
ensures my domestic routine never collapses into confusion.

With
Harry Potter-esque magical power, she can transform my house from
looking like it has been burgled into something warm and inviting.

I
never have to face a sinkful of breakfast dishes or a heap of damp
laundry in the washing machine. It’s a bit like having the tooth fairy
on the payroll, since all the hideous jobs (scouring the bowl you left
soaking with the remnants of last night’s lasagne in it, for example)
are miraculously taken care of.

The dishwasher has always been emptied (my husband’s excuse for not doing so is a bad back, while my children believe the sink is the natural home for dirty dishes), and carrier bags of supermarket shopping are emptied faster than I could ever imagine possible.

There’s always someone at home for those infuriating ‘am or pm’ repair or delivery appointments. Tomorrow, for example, a man will be here ‘around 10.30am’ to service our burglar alarm — and I won’t have to be the one waiting in for him.

In other words, to adopt the words of George Michael, my au pair is a synonym for freedom. Does all this make me a pampered princess whose manicured fingers have never touched a shammy leather

Actually, no. In fact when my husband first mooted the idea of us having an au pair several years ago, I was resistant to the idea. Not because I feared he’d run off with some stick-thin Slavic goddess, but because I didn’t like the idea of sharing my home with a stranger.

But when I became pregnant with Sophie, Martin insisted we needed help. Weakened by fatigue, rushed off my feet by three boisterous little boys and blessed with a spare bedroom, I capitulated.

Hindsight: Angela rebukes herself now for not having taken on an au pair in the early days of marriage

Hindsight: Angela rebukes herself now for not having taken on an au pair in the early days of marriage

And when our first au pair, Silvia, a
smiley, strapping lass from Bratislava, walked through the door, I knew
my husband was right — particularly when we brought our newborn baby
Sophie home from hospital to a pin-tidy house.

Silvia
sat for hours cradling her on the sofa, while I gorged on the heaps of
sponge cake and trays of shepherd’s pie my friends had thoughtfully
delivered.

That was eight
years ago, and since then there have been several au pairs. Like Eva,
they usually stay about 18 months, long enough to grasp the language,
find a place to live with friends, or decide to go home.

On
the whole they’ve all been wonderful. Lenka didn’t say much, despite my
best efforts to communicate with her, but ironing is an international
language, so that was never a major problem.

My
ongoing dependence on an au pair makes me realise how much the busy
working woman needs to have some kind of housekeeper if she is to stay
within spitting distance of sanity — despite our have-it-all culture.
When I look back to the early days of marriage, when fumbling
domesticity and a full-time job were often a recipe for exhaustion and
discord, I rebuke myself for not having taken one on straightaway.

It’s the kind of menage a trois I could easily have lived with.

Instead,
I’d arrive home from work in a thunderously bad mood, having to unload a
boot crammed with shopping before throwing something vaguely edible
together for dinner while catching up with the ironing.

A good au pair is there for you. Not for the children and not for your husband, but to be part Mary Poppins, part Mary Portas.

When
Sophie refuses to go to bed, Eva slides into her room, plays good cop
to my bad cop, and grabs her attention by telling her a story.

‘You go for a walk,’ she suggests, allowing me to slip out for half an hour to jog my way back from blood-boiling incapacity.

By
the same token, it means Martin and I can be spontaneous, nipping out
for dinner or the cinema when we feel the need to get to know each other
again. In terms of emotional, financial and practical positives, it all
makes enormous sense.

I have probably been lucky. While there are 12,000 au pairs working officially in the UK — though the real number is estimated to be more than 100,000 — I’m sure they’re not all perfect.

I treasure my au pairs and treat them well, because they are the key to my freedom and well-being. And there’s always a clean shirt for my husband, too.