"Promise me," said my mother on her deathbed, "that you will get some help with the children. Otherwise, you won’t manage to look after them and write..."
It was the last thing on my mind back then. All I could think of was that Mummy was dying, far too young, from a cruel ovarian cancer that was not only robbing me and my sister of a funny, eccentric, loving mother but also taking away an irreplaceable granny from my children who were then aged three and one.
But as the years went by and my two children became three, my mother’s words kept returning. Perhaps I did need help. Yet unlike some of my friends who had had au pairs and nannies from birth, it went against the grain to invite a stranger into our home.
Then I spotted an ad in the local paper. AU PAIR AGENCY SPECIALISING IN SHORT-TERM AU PAIRS FOR THE SUMMER. What a brilliant idea! If it didn’t work out, we would only have to put up with the arrangement for six weeks.
Enter Julianne*, a Swiss French miss who could have been a beautifully behaved niece. She helped to play with the older children and tidy up the battlefield. For the first time in eight years, there was time to talk to my husband in the evenings. Oh how we all wished that she could stay for ever! On her last evening, I took her out to the ballet to say thank you but during our absence, a summer storm whipped up and my husband went into her room to shut the window. On top of her still-opened suitcase, sat a layer of books. My books, which she had ‘borrowed’ unknown to me.
Julianne declared it was a "mistake". But I felt deeply betrayed. If she had "borrowed" my books, what else had she taken out on "loan"? Yet we still missed her when she’d gone! So I applied again to another agency – this time for a long term au pair.
When Francine arrived, I thought they’d sent a 14-year-old by mistake. In fact, she was 18 but had had a difficult childhood that almost put Little Nell to shame. Immediately she became a fourth child. Before long, Francine grew resentful when I asked her to wash up, declaring with a Gallic toss of the head that she would rather look after the children. In a bid to restore peace, I bought her a ticket for a local youth club dance while my husband and I stayed in. She met a nice local English boy, told him how "badly" she’d been treated by us and was soon adopted by his family.
Then we moved to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Our third au pair (French again as I thought it would help with homework) was so lonely that I took her everywhere with me – including a wine bar in the local county town where the owner was French. Within two months, she had left us and moved in with him.
By now, I was beginning to feel like an introductions agency. The fourth au pair (I was determined not to give up) came from such a privileged background that she didn’t know how to turn on a vacuum cleaner.
Au pair number five had an unnerving look of steel that even silenced the baby. We stuck it out (just about) but when it was her time to go, Odile wished me luck. "You will get another au pair?" she demanded.
"I don’t think so," I murmured.
Her frown deepened. "Then how will you manage?"
I thought back to my mother’s concern all those years ago. "We’ll get through, thank you."
But we didn’t. It turned out that the combination of a crazy family life plus my writing and my commuting husband’s workload was all too much. Not long after, I found myself in the position of a single mother. But that’s another story......
*Names have been changed