There is nothing I want more than to spend time with my family, making them happy and making sure they have everything they need. I give it my best in terms of our relationship, finances, and happiness overall. On the other hand, I want to be able to focus on my own career not only because of financial reasons and independence but also because I am good at what I do. The mental challenge, stimulation, and fulfillment beyond home are some of the things I’m deeply passionate about. I also believe mums are role models for the next generation which is why I want to help re-define what a mother’s role should be.

Let’s be honest, juggling motherhood and developing a career is a lot to handle. I mean I’m not a superwoman (despite my hubby reassuring me). I can’t do everything all at once, although I have to agree, mums, are very good at multi-tasking. But there’s got to be a way to focus on one thing without sacrificing the others, right?

Once my husband worked on a project out of town weekdays, for eight months. Still working a full-time job and placing our kid in childcare full time, I struggled to juggle it all. Working in the city, I had a daily hike to work each morning, rushing out at 5 o’clock in the afternoon (yes got the looks and the ‘part-timer’ comments too) just to get there in time to pick up my kid. My son often looked tired, sad and unhappy. And then I started receiving the calls from childcare asking me to pick up my child because he has got a strange rash (turned out a reaction to new food), he’s got a runny poo (teething), his temperature is high and that they feel uncomfortable to give him Panadol. My world started to crumble. I did not have my partner to help me – poor guy was working long hours each night and we would sleep in turns on weekends. We were miserable without our village. 

I did a lot of research and found that most of the standard childcare arrangements, aside from their expensive costs, just don’t offer flexible childcare hours for many families. Like many others, we, unfortunately, did not have family support around us. However, I was among the thousands of lucky mums who discovered au pairs. They are young people traveling overseas to gain more experience working with children, learn a new language and experience a new culture. They usually stay with a family as part of an exchange. The family provides them with their basic needs while they help look after the children and do minor house chores.

But it took a bit of time to adjust. Delegating was not my strength and I struggled with mum guilt. You know that decade-long conditioning through observations, subtle comments, and perfect Instagram feeds by well-meaning citizens around us that sediment over time in our brains as the minimum standards to be always upheld.

Seeing my children being happy with the au pairs put me at ease, and I gradually learned to let go a portion of that guilt and my own expectations of myself as a mum. Often my au pairs felt like my partners in crime. They got it! The mum gig is tough, and they would pick up the slack so that I could spend more quality time with my children – read a book, play chase or just be silly. I stopped worrying about fixing everything in the house since our au pair was happy to take up some of those tasks. And along the way I felt like they have learned something for their future – If you want to have a career/business and a family, start to build your village around you.

There are some raising concerns that the cultural exchange is being turned into a ‘cheap housekeeper’ alternative. While most au pairs have their expectations met or exceeded during their exchange, some fall trap to the lack of a written agreement or it’s missing to cover the most basic details (i.e. working hours and pocket money). Families can also get blindsided by making wrong choices and can be left in the lurch without childcare. Families and au pairs need to know what a cultural exchange entails. A significant investment in patience, understanding, and willingness to learn is required from both sides to ensure the families have the help they need, and the au pairs have the adventure and personal growth they seek. 

Most of our au pairs are smart and driven young people. And we pride ourselves in mentoring them and sharing our experiences with them to help to discover themselves and have a successful life. Most of them went on to study, got scholarships and we are still very close with a few chosen ones. Our son’s second au pair is now his godmother, if that’s not a bond for a lifetime, I don’t know what is.

In our village, life is still a sometimes a struggle, but the moments of ease, joy and relaxation and quality time with my family are way more frequent!

By Irene Becker, Bentleigh East mama and Founder of The flexible support every mum should have.