I DID a three-month stint as an au pair in Milan in my 20s. The best bit was gathering with other au pairs in the mornings after we’d dropped our young charges to school and exchanging horror stories: families’ expectations that we would clean the whole house, dads with roving eyes, out-of-control kids — one boy rang an alarm clock in his au pair’s ear whenever she was on the phone.
We were young and wanted to live life to the full in a vibrant European city but when it came to children, we had little experience and even less patience.
But why should only young women be au pairs? That’s the question 52-year-old mum of two Michaela Hansen asked before setting up Granny Aupair in 2010. She had once had a Spanish au pair and says it was like having a third child.
“She couldn’t cook or help the children with their homework.”
Older au pairs, says Hansen, have more life experience and tend to be more efficient.
“They draw on a wealth of life experience and take daily challenges in their stride. They know how to run a household. Many have raised their own children.”
Today, Granny Aupair has 150 grannies available for placements. The organisation has placed more than 500 grannies with families in over 40 countries.
“We’re interested in attracting Irish grannies for expat families overseas, who want English speakers. A lot of our grannies are keen Ireland fans so we’re also looking for families in Ireland, who need an au pair. We’ve just got a request from an Irish family in Switzerland for a granny for three months.”
The organisation doesn’t match grannies and families — they find each other. Once you join their website, the starting point for finding your ideal granny or family is compiling an extensive profile of yourself, including likes, dislikes, hobbies and languages. Families and grannies email and Skype quite a bit prior to deciding they’re a match.
Grannies — mostly from Germany and Austria, with some from Switzerland, France and Italy — are aged between 45 and 75, with the average aged 60-65. They’re mainly motivated by a wish to get to know another country.
“Many are retired. They feel fit enough to work with a family and to use their skills. They still want to feel needed. Many are nurses or kindergarten teachers and are not yet grannies in real life. Most are quite adventurous. They’re nurturing and quite a lot are in a couple — we’ve seen husbands visit while they’re with the family.”
Advantages of an older au pair include dependability. “Their total interest isn’t in partying. They can weather all kinds of issues with young children — illness, minor accidents. They know what to do without panicking. They know a lot of games, baking, cooking and crafting.”
Granny au pair duties include helping with childcare, meals and light housework, bringing kids to school and babysitting one or two evenings a week. However, just as with younger au pairs, grannies and families occasionally clash.
“A mature woman in your home may have her own ideas about bringing up children. Sometimes it does come to personality clashes.”
Do couples find it hard to ‘tell’ an older person what to do? “It depends on the chemistry between family and granny,” says Hansen.
Most grannies stay three to six months but German ‘granny’ Marianne Ahlers spent 14 months with a Wexford-based family up to July last year. She looked after an 11-year-old boy and nine-year-old girl. “I was responsible for bringing the children to play dates, football, Irish dancing and collecting them from school. I prepared breakfast every morning, school lunches and dinner — mostly for the kids and myself. I more or less managed the whole household and worked in the garden.”
Now 61, she says the children “learned to eat more good food and not to look at so much TV — I am a typical German housewife, I love it to keep things in order. I really enjoyed it and travelled a lot in my free time to the South and West. I’d recommend it to women my age or older — it’s important to get out of your comfort zone and learn new things”.
* Signing up to www.granny-aupair.com for one month costs €99.90 with a declining scale of fees the longer you join for. Grannies get free board and lodgings. Amount of pocket money is negotiable, as is cost of flights.
‘Granny’ au pair Maria Mletzko with Frieda.
GERMAN couple Stefanie and Felix Berger, both IT workers, live in Maynooth with 15-month-old daughter Frieda Luna. Granny au pair Maria Mletzko from Germany was with them from January until April this year.
“My maternity leave was up and the crèche wouldn’t be ready to take Frieda for three months. Her grandparents live in Germany and were unable to stay with us to look after her,” says Stefanie.
“I felt more comfortable leaving my child with someone who had raised their own children. My child wasn’t the easiest — she was walking very early. It was a challenging time.
“Within two weeks of signing up with Granny Aupair, we made a decision based on character and personality. Maria seemed interested in Frieda and in Ireland. She’d be looking after Frieda three days a week so she needed to have something to do the other four days — I didn’t want someone sitting bored in the corner.
“Maria bonded very well with Frieda. She had a really big talent for dealing with children. Lots of people just pick up a child straightaway. On her first day, Maria gave Frieda the time she needed to approach her. She was patient and calm. On her second day, she asked if she could put Frieda to bed. I was surprised — it takes such a long time to put someone else’s child to bed. Frieda’s own grandparents wouldn’t ask to do it because they’d feel a bit lost, but Maria got on really well.
“She was good at keeping things simple so Frieda would understand. I name objects with different words but Maria would say only one word and keep that same word in different circumstances — so Frieda said more words with Maria than she did with me.
“Do I miss Maria now she’s gone? Yes and no. No, because it’s still good to get one’s house back to oneself. Sharing a house, you have to make arrangements you wouldn’t on your own. But I miss her because I’ve been so busy since she left.”