The Mornington Peninsula is proving a popular destination for au pairs keen to help out time-crunched parents, as Samantha Robin discoversed
When the Weekly visits the Southall family's Mt Eliza home, there is a warm greeting by two energetic young boys and the offer of home-made lemon tart.
Thomas Southall, 9, has been busy in the kitchen baking up a storm under the watchful eye of au pair Damien McDowell, 25. Thomas' brother Jack, 7, has already enjoyed having a kick of the football with Damien, who looks after the boys five days a week.
Damien is part of a growing network of au pairs caring for children on the peninsula, with about 25 working in Mt Eliza alone.
They are scattered from Frankston to Hastings - and everywhere in between - and love the region for its relaxed lifestyle, excellent beaches and diverse marine life.
The Southall house is neat and tidy and the boys are well behaved as Damien shares his time equally between them.
Jack is keen to talk about his relationship with Damien - "he is the best because he knows about football". The die-hard footy fanatic is ecstatic to have someone to kick the football around with, aside from mum and dad.
Damien is the boys' sixth au pair - just the second male to take on that role in the house and the only Australian.
He says men have a lot to offer in a job usually dominated by women. "I think it is good for the boys to have a male au pair," Damien explains. "It's good to be able to be a good male role model in the boys' lives."
Like many au pairs, Damien, from Perth, found the advertisement for an au pair online and seized the opportunity.
"I have a public health degree but noticed there wasn't much work in the industry here so when I saw the advertisement for an au pair I thought I would apply. When I met Mark, the boys' father, we immediately hit it off."
Mark Southall had nothing but praise for Damien. "Damien is an extraordinary young man," he says. "'Is there anything he can't do? He cut the boys' hair today and his girlfriend is giving them guitar lessons. We are renovating at the moment so when the kids are at school, Damien puts on overalls and helps with the renovating."
Damien provides about 30 hours of care for the children each week and also helps prepare meals and lend a hand with cleaning chores.
As au pairs are not classified as approved childcare providers by the federal government, parents hiring them cannot claim childcare rebates.
But far from being a lifestyle choice only available to the rich and famous, au pairs remain a cost-effective child care option. They make anything from $150-300 a week, depending on the hours they work and duties required.
This compares favourably to long-day care, which ranges in cost from $62.50-$93 per child per day.
'Damien is an extraordinary young man. Is there anything he can't do? He cut the boys' hair today and his girlfriend is giving them guitar lessons.' - Mark Southall
At the lower end of the scale, the cost works out at $150 a week for two children with an au pair against $625 a week for long-day care.
Most au pairs receive free board and meals and some have access to a car and cash towards petrol and mobile phone costs.
Els Heijenga, 23, from Holland, is also looking after two boys in Mt Eliza. After completing a media and communications degree at university, she was keen to travel and came to Australia on a working visa.
"I looked at fruitpicking and other jobs, but I think this is easier," she says. "This way, I have a house to stay at and weekends off to do trips and see other parts of the country."
After growing up with four siblings, it's not much of a stretch for Els to look after two active young boys. "I am used to pulling my weight around the house. It's just like being part of the family."
When the Weekly drops by, Els is busy building a castle with Ryan Smits, 7, and brother Benjamin, 5. "I enjoy the variety of work," she explains, between adding to the Lego fort. "There is a bit of everything. I do some cleaning and I am also kind of a personal assistant to the boys' mum Shannon."
Neither au pair has professional childcare qualifications but it seems the parents are happy with the life experience each helper brings to the table, not to mention the extra, unhurried time they can spend with their children after work.
"This way I can finish work and have quality time with the kids rather than worrying about having to rush around cooking dinner and organising the household," Shannon says.
Having an au pair also gives her peace of mind that the children are being cared for in their own environment. "It means if one of the kids is sick, they can be looked after in their own home and it saves me having to take time off work.
"Yesterday I had to be in a meeting in the city at 8am. If I had to take the children to childcare I would have had to drop them off at 6.20am. This way they can have breakfast in their own home."
Shannon first looked into getting an au pair when her usual child minder went on holiday. She struggled to find a vacancy at local childcare providers and was left with very few options. "We had a really good experience with our first au pair and decided it was the best fit for our family."
While Els admits it will be hard to leave the boys at the end of her stay, neither she nor her charges seem overly concerned about it - "I am their ninth au pair, so they are used to it".
Ryan and Benjamin are benefiting from the culture and experience offered by a care giver from overseas.
"My husband is Dutch, so we always get Dutch au pairs," Shannon says. "I always had exchange students when I was growing up, so I like being able to experience other cultures and it's great for the kids. Ryan can understand nearly everything in Dutch and Benjamin can understand a little bit."
Although she understands that it may be hard at first to welcome a stranger into your house, Shannon believes the benefits far outweigh any negatives.
"You do have someone else in your house but they aren't around all the time. They go out with friends and go travelling, so they aren't constantly under your feet. It is a win-win for both sides."
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