Meet the mum who found the perfect childcare solution – a granny au pair. Helen O’Callaghan reports
There was the au pair who overfed your toddler, the one who booked a trip home that coincided exactly with mid-term and the au pair who ran the washing machine for three pairs of knickers.
Twenty-something au pairs are often full of energy, enthusiasm and charm, but the life experience is low and – while they might have one eye on your child — the other’s firmly trained on their smartphone, their new boyfriend or the weekend’s social possibilities.
So why should only young women be au pairs? Exactly the question Michaela Hansen, a 50-something mum-of-two asked before setting up Granny Au Pair in Hamburg in 2010. As a young mother, she’d had a Spanish au pair — “a lovely young lady but not a big help: she couldn’t fry an egg and was mainly interested in parties. It was like having an extra child”.
Older au pairs, says Hansen, have more life experience and can rise to most challenges. “They don’t easily get flustered if confronted with a tantrumming toddler. They’re more focused. They’re not out all night. They can turn their hands to many things. They’ve raised their own children and have that experience to fall back on.”
Mum-of-three Clodagh Barry from Headford, North Galway, a regional development worker, heard about granny au pairs from her German sister-in-law. She was amazed at such a well-kept secret. “I’m a working mother. I know many others like me. We’re all looking for childcare solutions – when au pairs are so pervasive, why hadn’t we heard of granny au pairs?” The concept “fit my thinking”, says Clodagh – as a child, her own granny lived in the family home. “It meant another voice, another pair of ears – if you were in trouble, there was someone else to talk to. She represented a different way.” The older generation has a lot to offer, she feels, in support of the middle generation and to share with the younger.
Since September 2015, Clodagh and husband Colm Muldowney have had three au pairs aged 20-24 to care for Emmet, 8, Norah, 6, and Eoin, 4. While these girls were “a great help”, the notion of a granny au pair appealed big time. “They come with experience of children and with their lives lived. They’re not in the middle of a pathway, trying to figure things out. They’re very sure of themselves – younger women are still figuring their way in life. That’s their priority, whereas for us it’s the children.”
With younger au pairs often tied to their virtual world, Clodagh felt a granny au pair would be unlikely to spend so much time online. “With young au pairs, there’s this constant social media over and back. It’s inherent to their way of life. From a young age, the children are watching someone – who’s responsible for them – online a lot. I wanted to choose something else for my three.” Clodagh signed up on www.granny-aupair.com in December 2016. In Kiel in northern Germany Ingrid Willnat put her profile on the site in early January. Two days later Clodagh messaged Ingrid. “It was all very quick. It was like a feeling in my tummy this was the right family,” says Ingrid, a former travel agent and women’s rights campaigner.
The minute Clodagh read Ingrid’s profile, she thought Ingrid was a good fit. “We wanted someone flexible, open-minded and active. Emmet and Norah cycle to school – there’s a trailer attached for Eoin. We needed her to be physically able to go to the school. Ingrid has kids and grand-kids, she liked walking and the outdoors. She’d been to Ireland so she knew the weather and what to expect.” Both parties skyped frequently over three weeks. “We wanted Ingrid to understand what we were hoping for and we needed to understand what she wanted from it,” says Clodagh.
“I heard them. I saw them. The three children were lovely,” says Ingrid, who wanted to be a granny au pair after reading Michaela Hansen’s book.
“I retired eight years ago. I felt a change was coming. I thought why not a granny au pair? Living with a family, you really get to know a country’s culture,” says the 69-year-old who wanted a destination relatively near her German-based family. Ingrid arrived in Dublin on January 31 and took the bus to Galway. Colm collected her. “I had presents for the children that first night. It was lovely.” Clodagh says the children were excited. “But it takes a while to figure each other out – get to know one another.” Since then, Ingrid has connected with each child. “She’s an explorer – so is Emmet. She’s reading a book about Ernest Shackleton – now Emmet’s favourite book is about Tom Crean. Ingrid spots that Norah is shy – she’s very supportive, recognising how good Norah is with her brothers. She has her hands full with Eoin – he wakes up negotiating. He’s really absorbing the German – she sings him a [German] song that he loves.” Ingrid’s day begins at 7.30am preparing breakfast for the children. She accompanies them to school, does some light housework, collects them, oversees lunch, homework and play and is off duty when the parents return at 6pm. “I got tips on how to be tolerant and succeed with a family at a workshop in Hamburg. For me, the most important was: I’m not here to change anything but to accommodate the way the household is.”
Clodagh’s learning from Ingrid. “She has a quiet, calm way. She’d be at the table and there could be a lot going on – ‘I want salt’, ‘Where’s my water?’ It doesn’t seem to faze her. She stays steady. Whereas I’d be responding and correcting – ‘you don’t need that’, ‘can you go get the water?’ Ingrid sits back but she’s still there. I’m learning other approaches and the children are getting a different response and having to figure that out.” Granny-aupair.com has 70-80 grannies available for placement. Since setting up, they’ve placed 1,000 grannies on “every continent except Antarctica”.
Grannies hail mostly from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, with “quite a few” from France, New Zealand, South Africa and South America. (There’s lots of demand abroad for Irish grannies). Upon signing up, the starting point for finding your ideal granny/family is compiling a comprehensive profile of yourself, including likes, dislikes, hobbies and languages.
Granny au pairs are generally aged 55 to 60s – the oldest was 78 and under-50s have begun applying as a sabbatical/year off work option. Women want the gig because they’re retired and feel fit enough to work with a family.
Families want grannies because they “feel safer with more experienced women”.
In Headford, Ingrid has joined a choir, taken up Zumba, is teaching a 16-year-old German and meets a women’s group weekly.
And people constantly ask Clodagh: ‘How did you find her?’
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