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Why nannying isn’t child’s play

We've all seen Mary Poppins. And as stressed-out mums we'd quite like a singing, dancing, smiling childminder of our own. Or at least one of the TV supernannies because they always know everything. After all, a baby is the one commodity that arrives without a list of useful instructions.

But wait! Somebody experienced could soon be running your home like an efficient but friendly sergeant major, allowing you some badly needed free time. Sound blissful? But what happens when your doting tot decides he prefers to cuddle her instead of you? And when your hubby waxes lyrical about her childminding skills? Is there ever really room for three adults in any relationship?

Au pairing has always been a popular option for young girls who want to travel. Writer Marita Conlon-McKenna went with her French family to Saint Tropez as an 18-year-old au pair. She didn't expect to be taken to a nudist beach, however. "I was hugely embarrassed," she says. 'I didn't know where to look. The parents were odd. They slept in a different wing of the house to the child so that they wouldn't have to hear him crying. When their housekeeper walked out they expected me to take over her duties. When I finally quit, the father left me on the roadside outside the airport and threw my case at me. Later on, when I got an au pair for my own kids I made sure I treated her extremely well."

Au pairing should be fun. But fathers may be looking for fun, too. After actor Jude Law's young nanny bedded him, ex-wife Sadie Frost subsequently replaced her with a much older, more "mature", plainer woman. So should attractive nannies watch out for randy dads?

I was a teenage au pair. Aged 16, I carefully packed my favourite teddy and set off to Vienna to mind a toddler for the summer. Mum wanted somebody to meet me at the airport. She wanted me to be safe. The child's father had no problem meeting me at the airport. But I was anything but safe.

From the moment he gave me a welcome kiss on the cheek, I disliked him. I had never before met somebody capable of having full conversations with my chest. En route to his house he beeped his horn at every woman in a short skirt, muttering "very sexy". I was appalled. His house was stunning, with two swimming pools. However the first (and last) time I got into one of the pools, the dad jumped in too, trying to grab my legs. He also liked playing footsie under the table at dinner time.

When my mother phoned I foolishly said everything was fine. But it wasn't and the night the baby's mum went into hospital to have her second baby, the dad celebrated by trying to break down my bedroom door looking for a kiss. I quickly packed my case and spent the rest of the night in a park, feeling safer surrounded by the prostitutes and druggies.

I also worked briefly for a French couple who handed me a cloth to clean their empty swimming pool. I didn't stay long with them either. While "light housework" may be acceptable as an au pair, heavy duty work such as pool cleaning, mowing the lawn and washing windows is certainly not. The problem with au pairing is that some families don't understand that you're supposed to be treated like a family friend, not a skivvy.

Cathriona Daley, from Kerry, remembers her excitement at landing an au-pair job abroad. Sadly, it was to be short-lived. "The family was very money orientated. The mother, in particular, was from a wealthy background and thought all her staff were way beneath her. My job was to look after her children.

"She had no interest in them whatsoever. It seemed to me that the only reason she had kids was to keep up with the Joneses! Besides me, she also had another woman who would come in every day to clean her house. She used to look at me like I was somebody who wasn't fit to tie her shoelaces yet she was still happy to entrust her children to me? I'll never understand it. I now have a three-year-old and I mind him myself. Even if I had the money to pay somebody to mind him I'm not sure I would."

Currently, thousands of Brazilian girls work here as au pairs and nannies. So why is our country such a popular choice? Maria Prince explains: "It's easier for Brazilians to get visas to come here to work than it is to get visas for the UK and America. Unfortunately though, many of these Brazilian girls are taken advantage of by Irish families who try and use them as slaves.

"Notwithstanding my good experiences in Ireland, many Brazilian girls are taken advantage of. Some I know had to flee their host families after being forced to work long hours and deprived of basic things such as food. Some were even forbidden to socialise. Irish families often think all Brazilians are dirt poor and we have no money. This is not true.

"Some of us are from wealthy backgrounds but we know that working for a family with children is the best way to learn English. That's why we come here, not for the money. Of course it's nice to have extra pocket money to go sightseeing. We are also far from home so it can be lonely but we're not desperate."

Maria is a reliable and enthusiastic au pair. However, not all Brazilian girls are South American angels. Last summer I employed one who partied till dawn and liked to sleep till noon. After a while I suggested she nap elsewhere as she was always yawning around my baby son and seemed to view him as an inconvenience. I soon replaced her with an Irish au pair who has lived happily with us every since. She even sings and plays the flute! So yes, in real-life Mary Poppins does exist. Sort of.