Monday, 20 September 2010

One solution to spiralling childcare costs for the working parent

So it is two weeks since L arrived and she has revolutionised our lives. I was always a fan of having an au pair but it took a bit of convincing of the OH that it was what we needed. It is definitely the answer for those Mums out there who want more intellectual stimulation but for whom the cost of nursery makes work in any meaningful way seem impossible. This tends to be compounded for those with two or more kids. I thought I would share with you how to make having an au pair work as well as some of the funny things that have happened along the way.

One of the major bonuses of having an au pair is that it costs far less than the other options - we pay under £300 a month. It does mean that you need to be clear about the hours that they do - 25 hours is the norm but I do know of Mums that expect their au pairs to do more. A live in au pair comes into its own once the children are in some form of education. My eldest has just started school and my youngest does 5, 3 hour, sessions at nursery over 3 days so that the au pair does not have sole responsibility for the girls on any day. I think the trick to success is having an au pair that is slightly older and therefore more able to take a more considered view of her situation - mine is 27. Also because she is older, and fortunately for us has a degree in childcare studies, I don't feel as guilty leaving her in charge of the girls. All this of course is based on the assumption that you have a spare room for her to sleep in.

When I was considering the option of getting an au pair, the best advice I received was to be very clear about what I expected her to do and not to treat her like a servant. This was excellent because it made me write out a timetable for the week in excel of what I expected her to do. That was painful as it is not my way of working but at least it laid out the week clearly! The danger is that you think it is all over with at that point but I do need to keep a handle on it each week i.e for show and tell. This morning she did forget the 4 y/o's school bag which means she has not got her next jolly phonics letter/ sound.

Thinking about how to integrate au pairs, our view has been to include her as part of the family especially at weekends when she is not working but has yet to develop a social life. It does mean she has seen the other side of family life in that she is getting to know all the grandparents. I always make sure she does stuff she wants too. This Saturday I drove her to Stevenage so that she could check out Primark, a favourite destination of au pairs because it is cheap!

Talking of cars, the funniest experience to date happened on the first weekend L was here. We live in the country and so she has to drive to get the girls to ballet and get to her English classes at college as the bus service is too infrequent to rely on. I knew she was nervous about driving on the left hand side of the road but thought there is nothing to it, after all I manage driving on the right when on the continent. Well I lost count of the number of times we nearly hit a car on the passenger side because she found judging the distance very difficult!! It did not help that she was used to driving a 17 year old car so revved the accelerator rather than lifting the clutch up more. When we stalled we stayed that way for a while. A couple of left hand turns later saw us ending up on the wrong side of the road; fortunately we were not driving into oncoming traffic, one of the joys of country living. After two experiences like that I made the OH go out with her before it got dark and would you believe, he said she was a very good driver that's probably because my two previous attempts had ironed out the kinks. I still can't believe that I did not go grey from the experience.

It is a small price to pay for peace of mind. I do not have to run out the office on the dot of five pm. There are lots of other benefits too. For the first time in absolutely ages, both the OH and I managed to go out for a drink independently with our own friends. I am now planning trips to the cinema and so look forward to watching films when others do rather than months or years later! It brings so much freedom and at such a small price. The best gift she brings is her calmness and unflappable nature in the face of difficult behaviour from the kids who are finding the transition to the new way difficult.

There are so many other bonuses too. She is Spanish, my choice as I speak Spanish. I am so enjoying the opportunity to speak Spanish daily and am discovering new words and rediscovering what has lain dormant for many years. The girls are picking up some words and hopefully with time some phrases too. My hope for them is that they become bilingual, a real gift in a country like ours which has such a poor record when it comes to teaching foreign languages.

Any niggles you ask. No major ones. She does not enjoy cooking but as we love it that is no great hardship. Our response is to make sure we overcook so that there is plenty for the days we are not around. What it does mean is that she is quite prepared to wash up, a task I loathe so it seems a fair division of labour. In addition, she irons which is fab as I am hopeless at that and would rather buy a dry clean item then have to iron! She tends to spend the evenings in her bedroom out of choice unless we invite her downstairs and we have provided her with a flat screen tv and dvd player. Yes it costs more in terms of what we spend on food per week but it all still adds up to far less than other childcare options with many more benefits.

In short providing you can make time to help them settle in and make their down time fun. I am nadly introducing her to other au pairs and nannies in the village as a way of building her social life. We encourage her to get know people at college and have helped her plan a long weekend in London with friends. In two weeks she will receive a free weekend in Bath, the home of my parents, which is a great city for tourists and shopping. So if you are wondering how to make working and having a family go together, do consider an au pair. My only word of advice is that it is best to wait until your children are out of nappies because most au pairs do not have a child care qualification.


  1. I had an au pair when my eldest (now 18) was younger and although it wasn't perfect, it did free up a lot of my time to work, which was great.

    It's nice if you're happy to share your home, but in the end I valued my privacy too much!

    My youngest is now 7 months old and we have a Nanny who comes in for 3 hours every day, which gives me the space to work but leaves my home to me - it does cost a little more, but for me it's definitely worth it.

  2. I would love an au pair but only to take the kids to school and to babysit and to clean. I don't think I am brave enough to have another person in my house but the idea is nice and yes its a very sensible option for childcare.

  3. We are lucky Nikki and Naomi because there is enough space in our home for an au pair and I guess also having grown up in cultures that were not my own and with a family that had an ethos of reaching out to others, it is not such an adjustment for me. The money we save by not having a nanny is going towards our daughters' future education. Also I work better with longer blocks of time then five hours. For what it is worth my husband had the same concerns over privacy but I think he is won over. It is a great cultural experiment for us all.