If you think having an au pair is all very bourgeois and middle class, think again - it's actually a surprisingly good value childcare option. With a typical cost of £70 to £80 plus 'bed and board', in exchange for 25 hours babysitting/ light housework, plus up to two evenings' babysitting a week, it's hard to beat financially.
The hitch: au pairs 'live in' so you need to have a suitable spare room you can manage without and be willing to welcome a stranger into your family.
With a husband working long hours and often away on business trips and me juggling part-time work with home life, I've decided to get one. We've tested the water, having had summer holiday au pairs for the last two Augusts and feel it's now time to go for it properly.
Now before anyone accuses us of exploitation, consider that although our au pair won't get paid a princely amount of cash, he or she will get to stay in decidedly luxurious living quarters. There's no pokey box room here - instead, a lovely light, large bedroom with newly-redecorated ensuite shower room, king size bed, and sofa.
It's not a bad deal for a gap year or part-time student needing somewhere to live and a bit of extra money, especially as renting such a room with no bills in our London suburb might easily cost £125 a week.
What's more he or she will also get all meals, with none of those awful scenarios (and yes this really does happen in some cases) of au pairs being given supermarket 'Value' food, whilst the rest of the family enjoys the 'Finest' range.
Au pair translates roughly as 'equal to' so she will be treated as an older sister to our son, albeit one who babysits and tidies up more than I could persuade a stroppy teen of my own to do.
Now the challenge is finding someone. They need to not only be likeable enough for us to want to share our home with them, but also sufficiently sensible (yet fun) to care for our son properly when babysitting. A tall order?
Perhaps surprisingly, when I ask friends who are old hands at au pair recruitment, they recommend, not a reputable agency but an unregulated website, advising that you get good or bad au pairs whichever route you go down.
The best way to find someone reliable, honest and trustworthy, they advise, is to do your own 'due diligence' – invest time interviewing and chasing reliable references and be cautious initially until you're as sure as you can be about them. A week's trial can be a good idea as long as you're both clear upfront about this.
Once my ad is online, we get plenty of applicants. I'm particularly surprised by the number of boys, since being an au pair has traditionally been such a 'female' role. It seems nowadays half the young men of Southern Europe see this as a good way to improve their English and have a British adventure.
We've requested photos from applicants and one of them, I must confess, looks nothing short of male model-esque. I swoon at the idea of having a dishy young man-about-the-house but then see sense. Even though my best girl friends think I should hire him (presumably so they can come round and swoon too!), he doesn't actually have any childcare experience and my decision has to be based on that.
As well as the hunk, we also get quite a few frankly rather odd-sounding applicants.
There's the one who put this not very reassuring line in his covering email: "I am definitely not the best Child Carer in the world (I find it is very difficult to turn down a request for an extra piece of cake/chocolate from a kid lest I incur the wrath and teary-eyed accusing look of the little 'un'."
The young lady who started her written introduction with: "I just saw your ad and your kids look beautiful". How sweet. Except that there was no photo in my advert and I only actually have one kid rather than 'kids' anyway.
And I know that many wannabe au pairs want to improve their English but I did make it very clear in the ad that we needed a good level of proficiency already, so this one might not qualify: "If your proposition is topicality always thanks to acquaint me and I will look forward to present me more amply." Someone's online automatic translation software might have gone a bit wrong there me thinks.
Then there was the one who started her initial covering email with: I am a very passionate dancer so it should not bother you when I practice dancing from time to time. I am not going to turn on my music very loud if you do not want me to, I often use my iPod but I do not know how thick your walls are, so you will probably hear my feeds. So if you are okay with that there is nothing else from my side which would trouble a good living together.
These were some of the many who we didn't feel were quite right for our family but what of the ones who were? We managed to find three reasonably promising 'candidates' and invite each one over for an informal interview. The plan is we will chat about the role (although we provided copious background info in the advert, so there shouldn't be any surprises), ask them questions (why they want to be an au pair, what they like doing/ eating, future plans, what they'd do in an emergency) and answer theirs. After that, our son will show them round the house (he fancies taking on this role 'this is mummy and daddy's room, it's a bit messy'). Then he'll ask them to play his favourite board game - a telling way to check how good they are with him.
The first girl comes round and despite her promising CV and emails, she couldn't have had less enthusiasm if I'd just confessed that actually we don't need an au pair and she'd be working in a mortuary. I'm really not sure what went wrong but she's off the shortlist.
The next one is extremely pleasant, highly intelligent (the owner of no less than three degrees!) and certainly has the maturity factor. In fact I think she looks older than me which might make the 'big sister' thing difficult.
We don't feel she's quite 'the one' (this is beginning to sound a bit like dating isn't it?) although it's hard to put my finger on why. Until that is, she gives me a very clear reason not to hire her, by removing her chewing gum from her mouth and placing it directly onto my dining table. Thanks but no thanks.
Then last but not least, a tall, young Italian girl who looks like Liv Tyler arrives. Now some au pair hiring mothers, worried about husbands' roving eyes, might find this off-putting but I figure if mine did want to leer at someone 25 years younger, she'd be most welcome to him.
She's both charming with our son and interesting for us to chat to. I can imagine having her around would be a positive thing. And as a bonus she can cook a mean pasta dinner. I feel like blurting out, Alan Sugar, Apprentice final-style 'you're hired'!
Top au pair hiring tips:
Agencies vary in quality and can be expensive - from £200 to £500 for placing an au pair with a family. Seek recommendations if you want to go down this route.
Whether you advertise online or go via an agency, decide on your requirements (hours to be worked, tasks, age of children) and be VERY clear about these up front in your advert/ discussions with the agent and in the interview. This can be especially tricky if the au pair doesn't speak good English so take care to ensure she understands key points.
Trial periods can be useful especially if you choose to hire an au pair who is overseas and who you can only meet when she arrives at your house! Clarify whether she will have to pay for any flight home if things don't work out or you will contribute.
Think about any extras you are willing to offer as part of the package (health club membership, mobile phone, bus pass?) and check the going rate for au pairs in your area (pay varies by region). Is the room he or she will get especially nice, or a bit disappointing? This might determine how much you'll need to pay too.
It's fine to ask an au pair to do a reasonable amount of 'light housework' as part of their hours, but do discuss this upfront and avoid heavy-duty cleaning.
Standard au pairs usually get around £70 to £80 in London and other big cities for 25 hours of daytime work plus babysitting. Some families hire an 'au pair plus' who works longer hours but for more pay. However if you are asking them to do a proper nannying role, you might well want to find someone with proper childcare qualifications and pay the nanny rate.
Be careful not to under pay your au pair as she will probably meet other au pairs during her time with you and might become disenchanted when she finds out they get paid more!
Check references but bear in mind that these aren't always what they seem. Ask to speak to referees yourself rather than relying on emails they've already written.
Au pairs are not meant to have sole charge of children under three.
Welcome your au pair as part of the family and think about how you'd like your own children to be treated if they ever did this kind of role.
Create a welcome pack, including local information (nearest GP and dentist she could sign up with, transport info, a map) and a guide to your house/ family/ emergency info and any rules you have (e.g. no boyfriends to stay, no smoking). You should also include an agreement about her hours, 'duties' and pay. This means that your new au pair can digest things at her own pace and things are documented.
The bottom line to a successful au pair-family relationship is all about getting on well together.
Do you or have you had an au pair to help? Do you have any advice?