Hiring a stranger to provide live-in childcare seldom involves a cheerful song-and-dance Mary Poppins style. Instead, the very idea can provoke a hypothetical nightmare reminiscent of a lurid scene from the film The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Most parents agree that the contemporary world is full of eccentrics who belong on the front pages of newspapers, not behind nursery doors.

Such was Pennys opinion just two and a half years ago. When she discovered that a close friend was hiring an au pair, she thought that the decision would disrupt and ultimately destroy her domestic bubble.

Penny began to reform her view after watching her friends relationship with the au pair blossom and her home become a relaxed, manageable environment. After she discovered that she was expecting a second child before the deadline of her thesis, Penny commenced her own hunt for a capable au pair. The thought of nursing a newborn, chasing a two-year-old and finishing intensive academic research seemed like a strenuous feat for one woman.

Enlisting the aid of an online agency, Penny and her husband selected a 22-year-old recent college graduate who was a native English speaker. Today, Penny cannot imagine approaching her busy year from any other avenue, explaining: I talk to my friends who have two or more children without regular help, and they are often very exhausted. Having an au pair helps me to enjoy being a mother in an affordable way.

Indeed, a key advantage of hiring an au pair over live-out help is the cost saving. Since the family provides the au pair with room and board, several major expenses are factored into his or her wages, cutting the cash salary almost in half. Au pair agencies require that the family provide the employee with a private and ample bedroom.

Other advantages of living-in include flexibility and increased availability. Owing to a sustained presence within the household, an au pair can offer the family more flexibility than a babysitter, ideal for parents whose work demands late hours or weekends away. Moreover, an au pair is at hand in the case of an illness, medical emergency or any other circumstance that could result in one or both parents absence.

Salaries for au pairs vary according to the number of hours worked per week. For example, an au pair working 24 hours per week could earn from e220 to e320 per month (if the hours of work are longer than this then the employee comes under the category of nanny). Extra qualifications, such as level of education and years of experience, can raise the au pairs salary by a variable amount. As in the corporate world, the best way to retain a valuable au pair is to pay above the minimum rate.

Since June 2004 the Italian government only issues au-pair specific visas to individuals from European Union (EU) countries. Prospective au pairs from outside the EU must submit a certificate of enrolment and a receipt of payment for an Italian school or college. A visa is then granted for study purposes, allowing the applicant to work while he or she is enrolled in the school. Au pairs from outside the EU must also provide their own travel and health insurance. Generally, families cover most of the au pairs airfare to the destination city, and the au pair covers the return flight. Responsibility for airfares can be worked out between the two parties.

The family must declare the presence of an au pair to the local police station or commisariato within four days of arrival and then make social security payments (contributi), which vary according to the number of hours worked per week. Also, the family should give the au pair at least one week of paid vacation for every six months worked. By law au pairs should not have to work for more than three to four hours a day, six days a week, the idea being that they should also have time to study; again if they work more than this then they come under the category of a nanny.

The foremost challenge is that often the family does not meet the au pair until he or she arrives on the doorstep with suitcase in hand, a daunting circumstance for both parties. Before considering or selecting candidates, it helps to sit down and work out what sort of person will best fit in the family, determining the cultural background, religious beliefs, years of education, language and values candidates should possess. Going through an agency can help; alternatively, try to find someone who is already in Rome. Before either side signs a contract or makes even a verbal agreement, both the au pair and the family must clearly state their expectations. That way, neither side can say you never mentioned this at the beginning!

Even if an au pair seems the perfect fit, conflicts of varying magnitude are inevitable. Consider periodic sessions to share thoughts on how things are going in order to alleviate tension. Maintaining honest and open communication reduces the gravity of disagreements between the family and the au pair.

Situating the au pairs residence in a private area of the house relieves some of the anxiety that comes with a drastically different living situation. The new arrangement requires both the au pair and the family to surrender a degree of privacy; it helps if, at the end of the day, both parties can retire to their respective areas of the house and spend a few hours undisturbed.

Au pair agencies proffer useful advice for families considering hiring an au pair, in addition to matching families with eligible au pairs. There are several online agencies (such as www.greataupair.com) that, in addition to listing thousands of profiles of available au pairs, provide legal, financial and practical minutiae. There are also agencies in Rome (see English Yellow Pages, www.englishyellowpages.it) and numerous notices in the international bookshops, in some of the churches and schools and under the jobs wanted section of Wanted in Rome and on its website (www.wantedinrome.com).

Mary Poppins may not float onto the doorstep via an enchanted umbrella, but she could come to a familys rescue. If hired conscientiously and with both eyes open, an au pair will not only help with the children and sometimes with domestic work in the house, but he or she will also nurture a camaraderie that endures long after the contract is fulfilled.

Wanted in Rome invites au pairs to write in with their experiences of living and working with a family. Please write to the editor at editorial@wantedinrome.com.