Not Quite Mary Poppins – A Survivor’s Guide to Au Pairing

Alice Mulhearn remembers her time spent au pairing (and gets lettuce thrown at her head along the way).


It was after they threw the lettuce that I started to cry.

“Stop! No…please…por favor…”

My pleas trailed into defeated sobs as the two children took another vegetable from the fridge and proceeded to lob it towards my head.

Kneeling on the floor, face in hands, all I could think of was, “what on have I let myself in for?”

Au pairing I soon discovered, would not be an easy ride. I was never quite the same after being mocked and abused by my two newly appointed Spanish charges, however, I bravely fought on. My three month stint working as an au pair in Madrid was haunted by such incidents of child guerrilla warfare. Nevertheless, despite being close to phoning Childline – for myself – on a number of occasions, it was a truly life-changing experience.

During my five subsequent au pair jobs I’ve sped through Naples on the back of a Vespa, lived like a Queen in a palazzo by the Grand Canal, and spent a good two months sunbathing by the med. So as long as you’re okay with being paid in Lego pieces and playing Gioco dell’Oca until you become fluent in board game Italian, au pairing can be the gateway to a world of opportunities.

Anyway, what you all really want to know is how to get yourself a slice of this wild action, am I right? First things first, the internet is full of au pair agencies. Many are free and most are perfectly legitimate. Once you’ve signed up you can find families from across the globe and vice versa. I’ve found all of my jobs through websites such as As long as you stay clear of any ‘family’ (read: Nigerian fraudster) that offers you an extortionate wage, a private chauffeur and a penthouse in New York, you should be fine. Of course, once you’ve started emailing a family you can proceed to Skype with them and collect references. From there, you’re potentially only a few weeks away from starting a new life as Mary Poppins.

The life of each au pair is wildly different. I’ve been paid £200 a week to live in Venice and take two adorable children out for gelato every afternoon, and I’ve also been paid considerably less to become a Full Time Nanny Extraordinaire. In theory an au pair should receive a minimum of 70 euros ‘pocket money’ a week, work no more than 30 hours and live free of charge in return. However, the reality is that each family offers a completely varied experience, so just be sure to thoroughly vet them and be 100% confident before proceeding. Oh, and if they ever drop the word ‘ironing’ into conversation proceed with extreme caution. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
I have one more nugget of advice: if you ever find yourself being laughed at by small European children, do not start swearing at them in English. These will probably be the first words they’ve taken the initiative of memorising, and the following recital to their parents will not do anything for your Super Nanny credentials….if you have any left by this point. I’m afraid I lost mine somewhere between Stansted airport and the Mediterranean.