Au pairs, nannies, babysitters but certainly not "the help".
There is quite an au pair culture in this little country town. For working mothers, or at-home mothers sinking in the sea of baby days (I have been both), they are a godsend providing an otherwise unaffordable level of childcare.
An Aboriginal friend teased me about having a nanny, "that's what you whiteys do, you're happy to leave your little ones with anyone". But she also acknowledged when her kids were little, she received huge support from her family and community as she pursued her career. She didn't have a nanny because her family and friends were willing to babysit her kids. And she was willing to ask.
At least from my experience, anglo saxon mothering is a job done alone. To participate in things like work, with tiny kids who don't yet go to school, you need a husband to stay at home, or a job with very flexible working hours and very few outcome-based expectations or you need to pay someone else to be there. I cannot count on a granny to babysit every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Both my mother and mother-in-law are very involved, loving grandparents but they are enjoying the freedom that comes with being 60 plus. They like travelling and after so many years of giving up so much to look after their own kids I certainly do not begrudge them for this in the slightest.
An au pair might sound like a luxury, but assuming you have the space to accommodate them - something that is much easier to do in a country town where real estate prices are a fraction of those in bigger cities - nannies are the most affordable childcare option available.
What you pay an au pair a week, plus food and board, is more or less the cost of sending my three kids to daycare for one day. (And if you want to get picky and include the rebate, I guess that means it is equivalent to two days).
But there is a catch. This is Australia, not Singapore where people are happy to sleep in a windowless cupboard and iron underpants for peanuts, sending whatever money they make back home to their family in Sri Lanka while keeping their thoughts to themselves. Au pairs (from the french "equal to") are typically young, educated Gen Y travellers looking for a three month Aussie bush experience before they return home to start their careers or go to uni. They are part of the family, like an older sister who is very good at folding sheets while snap chatting, rather than "the help".
That means the mums are not all sipping cocktails by the pool together while the backpackers do all the work. (Not that they are in Singapore either - or are you??) It also means that when shit hits the fan and a nanny is involved in a sex tape scandal gone viral, you are involved in hunting down the weasel with the footage. It means that when a nanny doesn't like mushrooms, your family doesn't eat mushrooms. When a nanny breaks her leg, you make sure she gets it fixed properly. All this takes time, of which you don't have much, thus the need for a nanny in the first place.
It is hard to get the give-and-take balance right all the time. Sometimes it would be easier to just pay someone by the hour, but there are only so many hours you can do that.
So now that I am back at home, our nanny days are coming to an end. When I think of the girls who have lived with us, and I am getting a bit nostalgic here, I feel enormous gratitude ... gratitude for helping me when I was at my lowest, for easing the dinner-bath-bed routine, for enabling me to go to work, for pouring so much love into our kids (if you were to hear a group of nannies talking together at the park you could mistake them for a firstborn mothers' group. "My Harriet does the cutest thing .... my Johnny is so funny ... You should see the twins, they are divine!!" Their emotional investment in kids that are not their own is incredible to witness). They have all brought something to our house and the town. The local boys at the pub think it is the greatest thing ever. Emma, who lives with us now and is, off her own bat, whizzing up some homemade paddle pops as I write, feels like an exotic creature when she goes there. One man proposed. "It's because I'm fresh meat," she says.
So thank you for everything girls. Thank you for living with us behind the scenes and I hope the things you have seen have not freaked you out too much. (There is a story that gives me a lot of comfort about a nanny who worked for a woman who was a midwife. The midwife would discreetly bring home strangers' placentas from the hospital and cook them up for the family dinners without telling them. I can't be as freaky as that, surely). And as most of you are English, here is a quintessential British pudding for you all. I know I said no more cakes but this is not for me, it is for Emma, Faye, Claudia, Henrietta and Skylar.
Summer au pair pud from Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion
1 loaf thinly slice bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup water and 125g of sugar
Around 600g of berries - preferably fresh. I used two parts fresh mulberries (thank you Bec and Hamish) and one part frozen raspberries
Simmer water and sugar in a saucepan until sugar has dissolved. Add fruit, first frozen and then a minute or two later, the fresh berries and give a good stir. Cover and bring to the boil, then remove from heat. Stand in a colander over a bowl (keep the juices) and let the berries cool completely.
Use the sliced bread to line a bowl or tin with approx a 1 litre capacity, base and sides. Spoon in the berries fruit right to the top. Add a little of the reserved juice so it is wet "but not swimming". Then cover with more bread - like a lid. Place the bowl onto a tray and cover with glad wrap or foil and press in a saucer that just fits inside the rim. Weight saucer with tins or whatever heavy-ish is at hand and refrigerate overnight.
To serve, remove weights and foil, place a serving plate on top and flip with confidence. You may need to be run a knife along the sides of the bowl to loosen first. Slice and serve with whipped cream and the reserved juices.