Why Lisburn woman Claire is the Aussie answer to Mary Poppins
Mum-of-two Claire Carlisle Stranger got the job of looking after children by chance, but now she has been voted Australian Nanny of the Year, as Una Brankin reports
A good nanny is a god-send to hard-pressed parents and a vital component of good child-rearing when mum and dad aren't available round-the-clock.
In fact, child minding is one of the most important jobs in the world when you think of it – and one Lisburn-born woman has just been recognised in Australia for her excellence in her crucial role of nanny to the children of a wheelchair-bound mother-of-two.
Claire Carlisle Stranger is the Oz answer to Mary Poppins, and having just won Australian Nanny of the Year, she's all set to compete for the international title in Los Angeles in March.
Melbourne has been home to the 48-year-old since 1990 but she frequently travels back to Hilden to see her father, widower Arnold Carlisle (82).
"I never set out to be a nanny but it is such an important job and often underestimated – it is far more involved than just babysitting," she says with a half Antrim, half Aussie twang.
"A good nanny provides a key developmental influence in the life of a child. I'm so proud to have received this award and I hope it reinforces the message that a nanny makes an invaluable contribution to the education of children."
A former cordon-bleu chef, Claire first left home at 18 to study in London and travelled for two years with a large catering firm before deciding to take a year-out in Sydney with a friend. She met her husband Garry (57), a stock broker, during the trip, in Melbourne.
"We stayed in my friend's aunt's house and we wanted to travel all over Australia but we had no money," recalls Claire, down the long-distance line.
"So we went to Melbourne and got casual jobs. I met Garry within the first few months but he wanted to travel round Europe. So he did that while I took off round Australia, and we got engaged when he came back."
The couple were married in Lisburn in 1992 and had their reception at Belfast Castle. Claire was 27 at the time and initially wanted to settle back home, but the job opportunities in finance weren't there for Garry.
"We had to make a decision – Garry is a very nice man and he was prepared to live here, and went to the job agency in Belfast to see what was available, but he would've had to go to London for work. Rather than having to commute and be apart, we decided to make Melbourne our home. It was a hard decision to take and it was pretty hard on mum and dad, but mum was always so open and kind, and I remember her saying, 'anywhere in the world you are, if you're happy, I'm happy'."
Sadly Claire's mother Margaret passed away in her early 70s.
Claire went on to have two girls of her own, Chantelle (18) and Chloe (16).
"I was homesick definitely for a while and missed my family," she admits, "but the best thing for that was time and experience, and having the children made a big difference."
Claire had given up her job running a sandwich shop in Melbourne city when the children came along, feeling it was important to stay home with them in their early years, as Garry's job could support the family comfortably. As the girls grew older she decided to do some voluntary work with the local Rotary Club's family network, a decision which led to her starting paid work as a nanny, five years ago.
Claire said: "We were very fortunate that I didn't have to go out to work, but not everyone can. I always had a love of children, particularly babies, so when I had more time on my hands I started helping new mothers out. The Rotary Club scheme is fantastic – there are so many families out there who need support. Melbourne is a very busy place but it can also be a lonely place for a new mother at home. I loved it and it was very rewarding."
Excelling in her voluntary role, Claire found herself in such demand she eventually signed up in 2008 with the agency Placement Solutions, which have been providing nanny services for almost three decades. For the last three years, Claire has been nanny to a six year-old boy, Calum, and a four year-old girl also called Claire.
"Their mother actually works from home as an occupational therapist but she is confined to a wheelchair," Claire explained. "I work there nine to four every day and have become part of the family. It's great – you get to see the children growing up. You're not their mum but you have that lovely connection with them."
Claire was nominated by an agency colleague for Australian Nanny of the Year , run by the International Nanny Association (INA), and found herself up against 300 for the title.
Her daughter Chantelle made her a portfolio for her application and it was her glowing references, which convinced the judges she was the runaway winner. Her prize includes a round trip to Los Angeles, accommodation and the chance to compete in the International Nanny of the Year, from March 27-29.
With no formal childcare qualifications as such, Claire got the nanny job through her experience as a mother and voluntary work.
"I'm 48 now and there's not much I don't know about it! The Australians place as much importance on experience as anything else. The most important thing in childcare is for it to be fun but disciplined.
"Slapping isn't allowed here but I'd never touch a child anyway. I've a bee in my bonnet about reading; I bring the children to the library every week and read with them every day."
Like most ex-pats, Claire finds the weather and the outdoor life in Australia the biggest difference from drizzly home.
The transport and sporting events are good too – she can hop onto a tram two minutes from her house and get dropped at the entrance to the venue of the Australian tennis championships, which are on at the minute.
"It's a lovely lifestyle and a fabulous place to live, and I get to meets lots of people from home, like the wives of surgeons who come over on work experience. And there's a UK shop where we can buy Tayto Cheese and Onion, which the girls love, and you can get HP sauce in the local supermarket. Can't beat that!"
Irish nannies in demand down under
Nannies in Australia earn an average of £13 per hour ($22-£26) and Irish Mrs Doubtfires are in demand there.
Louise Dunham, managing director of nanny agency Placement Solutions and chair of the INA Ethics Committee, said of Lisburn-born Claire Carlisle-Stranger: "She is an outstanding example of what makes a fabulous nanny. It might have something to do with her Irish heritage, as Australia has been privileged to have the services of many Irish nannies and they are held with such high regard.
"Irish nannies fit in so well with Australian families and Placement Solutions are always looking for nannies. Irish nannies we have found to have been warm, friendly and hard working."