How did you do it all, Mum? This question is posed more frequently now by my thirty-something progeny as one balances business with motherhood, the other a thriving Patisserie owner whose work entails long, long hours.
When I became a mother in my 20s, I expected to be a stay-at-home Mum, a home-maker, creator of noisy Italianeque round-the-table family meals and just be there for my children. Alas, the 1990’s recession combined with some unfortunate decision making on the part of the family Hunter-Gatherer put paid to such bucolic dreams. I set up in business when FirstBorn was about a month old; by the time YoungestOfAll came along, business was flourishing.
How to manage childcare then? Initially we employed a nanny, a cost that justified itself when balanced with the fees for two children at nursery. Eventually, with both Girls at school we were able to settle for an Au Pair. We provided full board and lodging, £50/week and help with learning English, in return for about three or four hours a day childcare
O was our first – and for the children and Husband one of the best. She was proactive, homely and adored the children and Husband. With our marriage by this time not in the best of shape, my working hours were judged by O to be unsuitable, a view that became all-too-apparent when returning home for a wedding anniversary dinner that I hoped would go some way towards ameliorating the deteriorating situation, Hunter-Gatherer announced there was No Dinner.
It was explained to me in hurtful tones that he was aware I had “enjoyed” a business lunch that day and suspected an affair was in progress. I sat at the balefully empty dining table astonished and baffled … but the best was yet to come. With impeccable timing, O approached with a decorated cake presented to Husband: this for anniversary, she said with a beaming smile, turned her back on me and left the room. She left the house soon after.
Turkish L arrived next; the agency having assured me of her excellent English had lied. She could barely speak a word. Building up to the grand finale of her first and only week she looked shabby and tired; she did little, and simply stared at The Girls as though they were aliens. I returned home necessarily early every day that week to find her sitting on the sofa in dejected fashion until asking when husband home? My reply would propel her to her bedroom, from whence she returned made up to the nines, with pendulous cleavage and barely-there skirt, thighs bursting forth with promise for anyone so compelled to take advantage of their certain solace.
E was our next Au Pair and this time we struck gold; interviewing her however, was no mean feat, for the family for whom she worked (employed would be too generous a term) locked her in her room when not on duty, forbade her from using the phone and withheld payment if they deemed her to have done anything outside of her remit.
On the date of her first interview, Husband had taken the Girls to see his family in the North; I raced home to meet her, waited … and waited … and waited. Eventually the phone rang and I struggled to hear the whisper: they are out but I am locked … please forgive, I must leave this place, please help me, please.
We agreed that she would come up with an escape plan and we would work together. A couple of days later beautiful E arrived on my doorstep with a small case and tears; a neighbour had been persuaded to watch the house and at an appropriate moment provide a ladder against the wall to her bedroom … and so E escaped to my house. I wanted to report this family to the police but she was too scared – Father was apparently a lawyer and she worried she would end up in a worse place. We chatted and I loved her immediately; she had an underlying strength, humour and warmth. E stayed with me through the break-up of my marriage, cared for The Girls as if they were her own; she was loyal, kind and now with children of her own remains to this day a friend with whom I keep in touch. Thank you, E for those warm and funny years.
The sitcom of Au Pairs that followed created much entertainment; The Girls being by now older and able to look after themselves to a greater degree, the Au Pair was needed mainly to ensure homework and piano practice was at least begun before Mama got home.
With chaotic H, roles were reversed and The Girls looked after her; she seemed to have no idea how to cook, what timekeeping meant or now to navigate the world … she returned home for a flying visit to Poland but lost her passport there. My 40th birthday weekend was disrupted by numerous phone calls from Polish customs to verify her identity and Au Pair status, she and her parents begging me to visit Poland to fetch her … suffice to say, her employment ended there and then. A debacle!
M was more entertaining. Keen to learn English she worked hard with the Girls at their homework and spent time conversing with neighbours … she had a few boyfriends and it was not unusual for me to return home of an evening to find the sitting room door shut and deep lowing sounds coming from within.
I was subsequently reliably informed that she was a great comfort to a man in our road whose wife was in hospital dying of cancer. The wife duly passed away and M spent increasing hours comforting my neighbour … I was given to understand this comfort received financial compensation although I don’t know the veracity of that intelligence… before too long she announced she could afford a flight home. Bye-bye, M!
Our last but by no means least engaging Au Pair was L, diligent, lively, fun, energetic, always busy away from the house during her time off. L joined an expensive gym, was out every night, bought clothes in the height of fashion and seemed extremely happy. She was great with the Girls, cooked well and we had no complaints. Eventually she decided it was time to return home at which point I asked: I pay you the standard £50 a week … how do you afford your incredible lifestyle?
L laughed …. Sex phone! she announced. I make Czech voice husky. I make much money. You should try – your life difficult. It would help a lot.
Reader, tempting though it has, from time to time, been I have survived without embarking on a sex-line career (is it ever too late?!) I confess however, that all my hats are raised to bright and entrepreneurial L and hope her financial status has continued to flourish in whatever way she deems appropriate and safe.
Enterprise should after all, be celebrated in whatever form it takes.
What are My Girls doing now?