Life & Culture

Why I let a stranger look after my kids

Lianne Kolirin had a nightmare childcare problem. Was an au pair hired over the internet really the solution?


Would you entrust your children to the care of an au pair you had met, interviewed and hired over the internet?

When a friend first suggested the idea, I was horrified. How could I leave my kids with a stranger I had never laid eyes upon? A businesswoman and herself a mother of three, she assured me the web offered good, affordable childcare and that she had recruited several reliable au pairs this way.

I was unconvinced, but the reality of looking after three young children was taking its toll. My maternity leave was ending and our childminder was not going to be able pick up the slack. A new arrangement was needed.

I was always amazed by the calm in my friend’s house, compared with the war zone in ours. What is more, she and her husband had a social life and gym membership they actually used. Our evenings and weekends were spent tidying up, bickering about tidying up and sitting on the couch in a TV-induced coma.

After much debate, we decided to take a chance. Coincidentally, we heard about a Hungarian au pair who was looking for a new family. We met her, I took references, spoke to her employer, then asked her to start when we returned from holiday. The pre-arranged date came around… but our au pair didn’t. I repeatedly tried contacting her, but to no avail.

It was back to the drawing board and I was running out of steam. My friend stepped in and pointed me towards a popular au pairing website. The idea appealed more now. We had misjudged the previous girl after meeting her. Online there were hundreds of hopefuls — but where to begin? My friend helped me create a family profile with a description of the kind of person we were after. I nervously pressed enter…

The response was underwhelming. No one suitable came back to us. So I started to trawl through the listings, seeking out appropriate candidates. With three boys under five, the last thing I needed was another child in my house. I wanted someone independent, sensible and in her mid-20s. All I had to go on were brief bios accompanied by thumbnail photos posted on the site.

My inbox soon filled up with messages from women I had contacted. Some were no longer available; others were keen but had no childcare experience. Then there were those who wanted to come to London to join their boyfriends. I was not expecting fireworks, but they all felt wrong.

Until Alice. She was 26 and worked in a special-needs nursery in Prague. She had a teaching degree and had previously spent a year in France looking after four children. She returned to the Czech Republic with fluent French and hoped to do the same with her English. I was impressed and contacted her immediately. We exchanged emails and chatted over the phone. She sent pictures and described herself, her family and her addiction to bikram yoga. We replied with photos of us and a taste of life in our family. Something seemed to click. I took references and contacted the French family she had lived with. The mother told me we were “lucky to have found her”.

Alice arrived in May. We were excited, but guarded. I worried that our internet “connection” may not extend to real life, despite a good first impression. One night my anxiety ran riot as I awoke with a start, panicking that her references could be fake. “Who is this girl?” I wondered, terror-stricken. “She could be a serial killer!”

Fortunately, there has been no bloodshed, nor any major disasters. In fact, from our perspective, things are going well. Alice gets on with the kids and our mountain of housework has been downgraded to a minor molehill. Now that we have a regular babysitter my husband and I have been going out more, getting on better, and have even rejoined the gym.

Of course Alice’s French employer was right — we got lucky; it could so easily have gone either way. So when Alice eventually decides to head home, will we go back to the internet for her successor? Maybe, maybe not. We will cross that superhighway when we come to it.

Find your au pair

● Do know what you are looking for in terms of age and nationality.
● Do ask for checkable references and a medical certificate.
● Do make sure the au pair understands what living in a Jewish home entails.
● Do follow up emails with phone conversations and exchange lots of recent photos.
● Do trust your gut instincts.
● Don’t expect your au pair to have huge childcare experience.

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