Earlier this week we carried a report that au pairs thought British women were 'lazy and selfish'. The article provoked a huge response from readers divided between outrage at au pairs' comments and outrage that anyone should employ an au pair in the first place.
Well, I'll fess up. We've had au pairs living with our family for the past 11 years. And no, that doesn't mean I'm an indulged lady of leisure with too much money and too little inclination to read my children a bedtime book.
Having a live-in au pair quite simply stacks up as the cheapest form of childcare available to working mothers with more than one school aged child, as long as you can create a spare room.
I pay £80 a week 'pocket money', plus a travel card and living expenses, for after-school-until-I'm-home-help and one night's babysitting. The children's after school club would cost me £90 a week, I'd have to pick up by the dot of 6 and I'd still have one 12-year-old home alone. A nanny (in London) costs £8 to £10 an hour, the same cost as a childminder.
Having an au pair means children can relax at home after school, hopefully in the company of an interested and interesting companion.
When you get on well, having a live-in au pair is a joy, rather than a grim economic necessity. And it's fun for them too - usually here for a year or two pre or post university, they get to experience a new city and country, improve their English and work out what they want for the future.
Several of our past au pairs still visit regularly, email with the children, and send bags of exotic sweets for birthdays. Thanks to Marketa, Ivona, Lenka, Kristina and Ines my children can do everything I can't, like dance the rock, blow bubble gum, whistle and apply perfect eye make-up. They were the good'uns - bright, emphathetic, happy to be a valued member of their 'host' family and happy to hang out with my children.
And then there were the bad'uns. When you have an au pair living with you, you accept the deal – no nakedness, washing up every night so as not to appear slovenly, muttering at your husband instead of shouting, in exchange for their help. When you all get on well, the pros far outweigh these cons.
But what a reference from an extortionate agency and one interview won't tell you is how petty annoyances can become all-consuming, how in your own home you will be beset by a constant internal dialogue of 'Is it just me or is she really irritating?'
Forget all those old chestnuts about mammoth phone bills and flings with your husband, this is what you'll never know until you've had the misfortune to live with a selfish, lazy or just plain strange au pair:
* That every morning you will fall over her slippers/boots/trainers/flip flops at the bottom of the stairs before fighting for soap space in a shower holding 20 beauty products, none of which belong to you.
(It's an unspoken rule that all au pairs must have the largest slippers ever featuring Homer Simpson or other cartoon characters for extra trippability.)
* That she will have weird eating habits. Our last au pair ate 28 (I know because I bought them online) tins of lentils and chickpeas a week - three for breakfast washed down with cold coffee and sweetners.
* That she will meet a new man every week at a dodgy nightclub and have his mugshots plastering her bedroom the following day – did she frogmarch them to the photo-me booth?
* That it is possible to text on two phones simultaneously in the middle of a family meal.
* That the dishwasher can become a passive-agressive war zone (who emptied it last, how long can it be left for).
* That it is possible to leave the front door wide open two nights in a row. Ditto forget your keys.
* That it really is possible to shout 'Oily' for Ollie 100 times a day.
* That when she says she can cook, she will find heating up pizza traumatic and will destroy all your pans in a week making popcorn in the early hours.
* That when a close relative dies, she will huff and roll her eyes at having to babysit an unarranged night.
You see, there are two sides to every au pair v mum story - and usually the truth is somewhere in between.
What do you think? Have you employed au pairs? A success, a disaster, or a bit of both?
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