kids

"The difference between a nanny, babysitter, and au pair, from a mum who's considered all three."

I’ve been a sole parent (no shared custody) for almost ten years, but I can’t say I’ve done it entirely alone. Yes, there’s been family help – but they’re all crazy-busy, too. But even if they haven’t been, I’ve always preferred to rely on help which I’ve organised myself, and am in control of.

Yes, you may call me a control freak.

But there’s a lot of different sorts of help out there; babysitters, nannies and even live-in au pairs. Finding the best child-minding arrangement is a deeply personal choice every parent makes for their own family. And it’s so dependent on what you actually need – and are prepared to pay for.

As a parent of a now 11-year-old, I have had lots of experience with the first two, and have explored (and witnessed in other families) the third option extensively.

Here’s how I made the decision that two were right for me, but one wasn’t.

Babysitter.

To me, a babysitter is great if you want a casual arrangement.

Anyone you trust can qualify as a babysitter; from your 13-year-old neighbour to your step-dad. Because of this, you don’t pay top dollar – I think the most I’ve ever paid for a babysitter is $25 an hour – and that was too much. Usually it’s around $15.

If I have a work event, or something social at night, I’ve always hired a sitter. However, I’ve never gone through an agency, preferring a person I know through someone else. For example, I’ve used a young woman from my son’s childcare and I’ve used the nieces of my friends.

Also inherent in a babysitter is low expectation. Not of care – of course not. But in terms of other duties. I’ve never expected someone I’ve had a casual arrangement with to do any sort of housework, or supervise homework, for example.

They just need to keep my child safe, and engage with them, and if it’s at night, put them to bed. And whilst the arrangement is casual, the way they act toward my child should not be.

I once had a sitter who yelled at my then-eight-year-old because he got up after he went to bed. Yep, she was fired immediately.

I also never used again the woman who put salt on a packet of salted popcorn, and made my son vomit. Just because a sitter isn’t a professional who necessarily babysits for a living, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t understand children.

Another risk factor with a sitter is that because it’s a casual arrangement, they can cancel on you at any time. I worked out with one young lady that she would do this when her dad had agreed to pay her phone bill that month; that is, when she didn’t need to work.

But those are exceptions. At the moment, I have a nanny who’s a real friend to my son, and thinks of his wellbeing as a priority. I couldn’t ask for much more.

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Nanny.

As a career woman, I’ve regularly employed nannies. To me, a nanny is next-level to a babysitter; they should have some basic children-based qualifications, or be studying them, understand my son’s needs, and be available at pre-arranged times on an ongoing basis – like an employee.

For example, I used to engage a nanny on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and she had set duties and expectations; homework, dinner, shower, all needed to be sorted by the time I walked in the door from work. (But of course, you make your own rules – which the nanny understands and agrees to.)

For that nanny, I paid $45/hour, and she was worth it… until one night, my son told me she had used a calculator for maths homework, when she was meant to be explaining things to him (remember, I was paying $45/hour).

When I raised this with her, she denied it. The next time she looked after my son, she confronted him about ‘dobbing’ to me. He texted me this information, and I felt sick to my stomach reading it at work. Not only was I being ripped off, she was being horrible to my son.

So, you guessed it – fired.

But then, one of the most important people I left behind when I moved to Sydney 15 months ago, was our nanny. She was nurturing, smart, tutored my son in his homework and in his music. She was a real friend to both of us, and I miss her every week. To be honest, I knew I’d never be able to replace her, and I had to make a conscious decision to manage without her support in my decision to move.

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I’ve had friends who’ve employed nannies by contract, and in such a situation, if all the paperwork is right, you can claim the childcare rebate. That’s another thing to consider.

LISTEN: Zoe Marshall shares her advice for dealing with strangers on Mamamia’s podcast for new parents, The Baby Bubble.

Au pair.

People think having an au pair – a young woman usually from France who comes to live in your home for six months – sounds very glamorous. But the reality is, if you need help a lot, it works out cheaper than paying a nanny an hourly rate.

Generally, an au pair comes to Australia on a special visa for a limited six-month period, so her time here is defined. She stays in your home, and you’re expected to provide food and board – like an exchange student – but with established times for nanny duties, which usually involve housework such as cooking and laundry, too.

In exchange for the duties, you’re also expected to pay the au pair a basic hourly wage for the time she’s engaged in your home. That’s something you negotiate with the agency who organises the arrangement – and yes, the food and board is factored into the equation.

So, if you’re a family who needs a lot of help – such as my friend who is a lawyer married to a doctor, where both parents work varied and long hours  – an au pair could actually be the most economical arrangement.

I’ve looked into this myself, but never went through with it because I didn’t want someone in my home all the time. It’s just not my thing. But I’ve had friends who’ve had lots of au pair experiences.

There’s the great ones who fit in really well with the family immediately, and ones who take some time. Ones who think they’re simply on an adventure to Australia so shirk their duties, and ones that become so loved, they’re impossible to say goodbye to.

The worst situation I know of is when an au pair had misrepresented how much English she could speak, which created a difficult situation for my friend with an autistic eight-year-old – especially because a six-month commitment had been made.

To me, the risk factor of not meeting an au pair first to see if they fit with your family, is crucial.

Currently, I am nanny-less after the maths-homework-nanny debacle. Luckily, my son is now a little older and doesn’t need as much support – and I just have a wonderful babysitter on speed-dial, instead.

If you’d like to hear more from Nama Winston, see her stories here, and subscribe to her weekly Mamamia Parents newsletter here.

How do you organise care for your children? Tell us in the comments below.

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