When Michele Macfarlane started to lose her eyesight, she got an au pair to help with the children. But she fell in love with the younger woman and realized she was gay
What is an au pair?
A young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or child care in exchange for room and board.
By: Viv Groskop/UK Guardian
It’s a well-worn cliche to fear the arrival of an attractive au pair. The threat, it is assumed, is always that the husband will stray. “There is so much written about this,” Michele Macfarlane says, laughing. “I remember that early on I said to my mother, ‘You know, I think our new au pair is gay.’
“My mum joked, ‘Well, if she is gay, that’s a good thing. At least you won’t have the problem of your husband running off with the au pair.'”
In the end, as the title of Macfarlane’s account puts it bluntly, her story has a different ending: I Left My Husband for the Au Pair. When the au pair, Marizette arrives, Macfarlane emails a friend: “She’s done a lot of competitive sport so she’s nicely built – tall with broad shoulders, a flat tummy and strong arms.” Massive alarm bells.
Although she was born in South Africa, Macfarlane, 46, is British, having spent half of her life here. She and her former husband, Peter, who is a chiropractor, met as drama students in Coventry. They started a family in their early 20s. By 24, Macfarlane was a full-time mother. In her early 30s, the whole family moved to Cape Town.
Fast forward 10 years (since the au pair joined the family) and Macfarlane is still a full-time mother. Only things have changed. She divorced Peter and married Marizette, with whom she split two years later.
Now Macfarlane lives with a new (female) partner, Skye Grove, 46, a communications manager, in Cape Town – with five children. There’s Grove’s 16-year-old daughter, Macfarlane’s three children by her ex-husband (two sons, of 12 and 20, and a daughter, 18) plus a six-year-old daughter adopted by Macfarlane and the au pair. We meet in central London where she is on a three-week tour (with new partner in tow) promoting her book.
Macfarlane’s story contains all the elements you’d expect when an au pair is involved in a marriage breakup: the horrified spouse, the bewildered children, the furious in-laws. But it’s also a later-in-life coming-out story: despite a drunken fumble with a female friend of her brother’s at university, she had always “known” she was straight.
As soon as she realized that she was in love with Marizette, and was actually gay, things happened quickly: within two years, they had married and adopted a child.
As a stay-at-home mother, Macfarlane had a specific need for an au pair. “My eyesight was deteriorating,” she explains. She has a degenerative eye condition that was diagnosed in her teens and now has only 10% of her sight left. When she first sought help with childcare in 2002, her vision had begun to fail suddenly and rapidly. She stopped driving. “At the time I was very content being a mother. But I was less content being a wife.
“And when you have a relationship with an employee, it’s intimate … I was starting to become discontented, you could say. And I wanted affection.”
In this case, because of Macfarlane’s condition, it wasn’t an average au pair’s job: the au pair was required to drive her everywhere and take her by the arm when she walked.
Within months, Macfarlane realized she had developed a crush on Marizette, who was 23. Michele was then 37. “I suppressed it and didn’t think about it for long periods. Then it would flare up. I thought it was just a silly crush and had no idea it could end my marriage. I would have laid my head on a block and said it would not end my marriage.”
After Marizette had worked with the family for almost two years, she and Michele went out one evening with other friends. Peter was meant to go but had to cancel at the last minute. That night out together does not seem like a sensible idea in retrospect. “It was an incredibly un-boundaried relationship,” Macfarlane admits, “A friend told me, ‘You have to sack her.’ I said, ‘But you have to give several months’ notice.’ My friend said, ‘Just sack her and pay the money.’ But I couldn’t.
“Then we went on that night out. It wasn’t pleasant for me but I was in love. It felt like the ground beneath me shifted. I was crazily in love with her.”
She told her husband almost right away. “We were washing the car before my mum came to visit. She knew. He said, ‘Why are you so unhappy? Do you still love me? Will you always love me?’ I could not answer that. I told Peter I was in love with Marizette. He broke down on the spot. It was awful to watch. He was devastated.”
They sought advice from a psychologist who advised that the au pair should continue to work with the family but no longer sleep at their home. “The children all say now that telling them I was gay was not the problem. It was the fact that their dad was moving out. It was excruciating.”
What about the betrayal of trust by their carer? Macfarlane hesitates. “If we [she and Marizette] had stayed together [as a couple] … It would have been an ideal scenario. She really loved the kids and they really loved her.”
At home in Cape Town, her account of the story has turned her into a poster girl for coming out later in life. This week she was reading an extract from her book at the Polari salon at the South Bank in London, which is a showcase for new LGBT writing.
In some ways, Macfarlane feels lucky that she realized she was gay at all. “I only came out late,” she says, “but I think you can be gay and not realize it at all. You get women who define themselves as bisexual but I know that I am not. I don’t want to sleep with a guy again. I have spoken to many gay women who have said to me, ‘Come on. How could you not know [that you were gay]?’ I can only reply that you just do not know. You fall in love with a man. That’s it.”
She does not regret what happened. “It affected the family so badly and I am so sorry for what I put them through. But I’m not sorry about where I am now. My children are sorry that I split up with their father, but they are not sorry about what happened afterwards. They will say, ‘If you hadn’t left Dad then we wouldn’t have [their adopted sister] in our lives.’ She was two months old when we adopted her.”
Macfarlane is on good terms with her ex-husband and they still raise their children jointly. Her mother is supportive and sent a text to everyone in her phone address book: “Michele is now gay and has left her husband for the au pair.” She and Marizette, who now works in sales, also look after their adopted daughter jointly: “She’s not an au pair any more. She did initially ask me for a reference but …”
What she would most like is for people to realize that what happened to her could happen to anyone. “In any kind of split, you’re affected in the same way. My in-laws don’t speak to me and it was a heartbreak to lose them. A divorce is painful whether you are gay or straight. Whatever happens you are still a family.”
Macfarlane still needs help with the childcare because of her eyesight and still hires au pairs. She once found herself saying to a young woman who had come about the job, “‘Er, yes, I did get married to my last au pair, but I would never come on to you …’ She didn’t come back for a second interview.
- I Left My Husband for the Au Pair
- by Michele Macfarlane