I live in a three-adult, two-child household, with a high maintenance dog. No, we are not Mormons. We have an au pair.
When my husband suggested we look for live-in help, I was worried. How soon before it all went wrong? Was I signing up for another child? Instead of “more help”, I heard “more mental load”.
“Let’s write down everything that could possibly help us. I’ll put together a rough weekly schedule for an au pair,” he said. We listed kinder pick-ups, trips to the park while I’m nursing the baby, fun excursions, another adult mucking in with the constant laundry and washing up.
An au pair offers around 30 hours of help a week in the house in exchange for room and board and a weekly allowance. It’s a cultural exchange, but it can’t be denied that they also see the breakfast table with fresh eyes rather than a parents’ early morning obstacle course.
It was hard to give “mum” tasks to someone else: I wanted to be liked, even when every dinner time stressed me out. “You hate cooking, why don’t we look for someone who likes it?” said my husband.
The thought of someone rescuing me from my meal plan hell worked. I signed up to a website that charged me to message potential au pairs, I joined Facebook groups, I sent texts to every mum I knew in Melbourne, I tried to recruit my neighbour’s au pair.
Then, magically, I found someone. A post on a Facebook group that was two minutes old. A young woman moving from Auckland with life experience and a love of cooking. “Pick me!” I commented.
We arranged a Skype call, and then a Facetime video call between Lisa from New Zealand, 3-year-old Layla and I. I thought: You sound fun and smart and kind, I can’t wait to meet you.
After 18 months, the most frequently asked question is: “Isn’t it hard, having someone else in your space?” The quick and easy response is: not when they help you.
We’re now comfortable ignoring each other in the morning until the caffeine kicks in. We talk about having meals together, or not. It’s hard to join another person’s space, and it helps when a newcomer has their own plans and own identity outside of their relationship with you.
The subtext to the co-living question is: Do you feel threatened? Does having a kick-ass twenty-something living with us turn my husband into a hound dog and me into yesterday’s woman? Again, no.
Soon after Lisa moved in, Hugh raced home from work to help with our usual evening chaos. Only, there was nothing for him to do. No smell of burning food or tight-lipped wife. Lisa and Layla were in the kitchen ahead of a delicious meal. We sat with our newborn son, Ray. We changed him together and talked about our day. I’d missed my husband and here he was.
It’s this sense of a family enhanced rather than splintered that Wendi Aylward, AIFS agency director and spokesperson for the Cultural Au Pair Association, noticed when she hired her own au pair.
“I pulled up in the driveway after work and could hear the sound of real belly laughing from my kids,” she says.
When asked about the effect of live-in assistance so that she and her partner can pursue their careers and share the parental load, she is passionate: “I can honestly say it’s been life changing.”
Lisa’s presence in our lives has helped me in so many ways. Her good humour, passion for food, her take on life: she is so much fun to live with. It’s invigorating.
Hugh and I have time to talk about our life outside parenting. I can spend time with the kids and be present in that moment, rather than stressed over the day’s tasks, invisible things my kids don’t care about. I’ve got the mental space to carry on building my career. I know how privileged I am to experience this.
With a younger woman in the house, I do not feel fossilised or threatened. I feel youthful, more attractive even, because I am vibrant, not stationary.