The term "au pair" has become a loaded, emotion-laden concept since British au pair Louise Woodward was charged with murdering baby Matthew Eappen.
Families who have never had an au pair may now never try the program. Families who currently have an au pair may be too spooked to have another one.
But amid all the highly charged coverage and commentary, the happy au pair stories aren't being told. I have had two au pairs from EF Au Pair, the same agency that sponsored Ms. Woodward, and while the first one didn't work out, the second one has been wonderful. We are dreading her departure in January.
Our first au pair, Nina, from former West Germany, came a year ago, and her goal clearly was to have a full and satisfying social life - not fall in love with my easily lovable children, who are now almost five and seven. Her job was not difficult: Help us get the kids to school in the morning, pick them up in the afternoon, take them home, play with them, feed them. She did occasional duty on evenings and weekends. Nina did the work competently, but not enthusiastically. After three weeks, we agreed to part ways, and she transferred to a family in the suburbs.
After the New Year, Katrin came into our lives. She is a delightful 19-year-old from Greifswald, in former East Germany, who had coached kids in judo, thought she might want to study occupational therapy some day, and had a penchant for dying her hair fascinating shades of red.
She has also, over the year, pierced her navel and the top of one ear with a metal bar. A row of clunky shoes sits proudly by our door.
My kids love Katrin, whom they affectionately call "Weenie." She coaches Evan, my second-grader, in his homework and encourages him at soccer. With Rebecca, my kindergartner, she plays games and draws pictures. When Rebecca was still in preschool, Katrin regularly volunteered at the school.
In the evenings, after the kids are asleep, Katrin and I have sat down over hot tea and talked college, boys, life under communism, life in America. She has studied philosophy and literature at Georgetown University. Her English was fine when she arrived, and now it's excellent.
And, yes, Katrin has enjoyed a rich social life. Some of her closest friends are also au pairs, and I would have been happy to have any of them as caregivers.
When her parents, both academics, came to visit this fall for 2 1/2 weeks, I had the pleasure of introducing two intelligent, engaging foreigners to life in America. They had never been here before, and had a grand time driving their little rental car all over the Northeast.
Has Katrin been "exploited" in her time here, as some reports on au pairs would have us believe? Hardly. She gets her weekly stipend of $139, which may seem low, but she also gets free room and board, free vacations with our family, an educational allowance of $500, the use of my car, health insurance, and airfare to and from Germany. We get the support services of EF Au Pair, including a local representative who mediates any problems and holds monthly meetings with "the girls" (and a few boys).
The Woodward case has confirmed my instinct not to have an au pair when my kids were babies. But as they got older, I watched friends welcome some wonderful au pairs into their homes, and hold onto these friendships long past the women's return to Europe. I also figured that since my kids could speak, I could ask them what the au pair was up to (drives too fast? talks on the phone all day?) And I consider myself a good judge of character.
Taking in an au pair has some risks. The agency says it carefully screens the applicants and that the au pair you get is "matched" to your needs. I know that any screening process can't be perfect, and I doubt Katrin was somehow "matched" to our family. But when I talked to EF Au Pair's office about who I wanted when Nina didn't work out, the woman dug around through her files and announced: "I've found someone who I think will be great." She was right.
* Linda Feldmann is a reporter in the Monitor's Washington bureau.