What’s it really like having an au pair? You know – a young foreigner between the ages of 19-25 whom you interview over skype and invite to become both your roommate and children’s caregiver for 12 months at a time? I’ll admit, it’s a risky business. The rewards are incomparable, but the potential disappointments can leave you feeling completely disenchanted. As an au pair host mom of just two years, I may not be the most seasoned out there, but I’ve already experienced both ends of the spectrum. As with most things in life, the greatest benefits of having an au pair are often closely tied to the greatest drawbacks. So here’s my list of the ‘ups’ (and coinciding ‘downs’) of life with an au pair…
Au pairs are young. Even if you find someone on the older end of the au pair limit, you’re still hiring someone just a few years out of high school (or her country’s equivalent). Having someone young can be great in many ways. She can have twice the energy of some of the more seasoned nannies at the playground and actually keep up with every step your toddler takes. Her youth generally means she is more malleable and open to different parenting styles. She may even feel like more of a sister or peer to your children. Youth brings it’s own weaknesses, though. The inexperience and naivety have come back to bite us. We originally ‘matched’ with a 19 year old girl from Germany as our second au pair. She was pleasant, sweet, and seemed to connect well with our daughter over our many skype interviews. We even met her in Europe for a few days to just spend time together before she moved in with us. But after just 3 days of actually absorbing it all, she couldn’t handle the homesickness and booked a flight home. We were mortified. Not only had we invested so much time and money in her, we also needed emergency childcare for an indefinite amount of time. Her lack of maturity just didn’t come through to us until she was actually thrown into the situation.
Au pairs come from a completely different culture. This was what really sold us on the program. Even just as infants, my children could develop a better sense of the world beyond them. They could become native speakers of a foreign language and learn about life in a country thousands of miles away. I have to admit, I was pretty thrilled when my daughter’s first words were ‘dada’, ‘mama’, and ‘nein’. Right now her cultural knowledge may just encompass the different desserts and holidays in Germany, but maybe some day it will grow into a clearer understanding of global politics, art, literature, or history. On the flip side, your cultural differences may put you at odds with each other. Your au pair may be young, but she may already have completely different ideas on basic etiquette, household management, or even just free-time activities. A friend of mine had an au pair who came from a culture that embraced heavy body odor. While it may seem like just a minor issue, it drove my friend crazy having her house suddenly filled with the smell of her au pair’s armpits. What followed was an awkward, yet direct plea to shower more frequently and use deodorant. You have to be prepared for pretty much anything.
You work through one of several of government-sanctioned organizations. Au pairs are strictly regulated by the State Department and are required to work through certain approved companies. This means that you have an organization to back you up. They do the recruiting, screening, in-person interviews, background checks, visas, physical exams, CPR/first aid training, and even arrange your au pair’s flights. But they also hold families to regulations like a 45 hour work week limit and providing a private bedroom for your au pair, even in space-limited NYC. Generally their assistance and strict regulations lead to a better and smoother experience for both au pairs and host families. Even though these organization can take care of a lot of the initial work, your personal search and selection process is extremely important. Hundreds of au pairs still make it through screening who are still simply not ready to be responsible for your children (and these companies are notorious for offering little useful help or reimbursement when things go wrong with your au pair). It’s important to not only interview for her overall readiness, but also to simply see if you are a good match and well-suited to each other’s values. Yet, even after months of skyping and emailing, you are still taking a huge leap of faith. The first time you actually meet your au pair in person and observe her with your children is after you’ve already invested thousands of dollars in the company that sent her.
Au pairs are meant to become a part of your family. Au pairs live with you, eat with you, and can even vacation with you. Again, this is something that really drew us to the program, but is quite the deal-breaker for most of my friends or colleagues who are interested. We love having our children’s caregiver be someone who is more than just an employee, but instead someone with whom we often spend several hours of our free time. After dinner together each night our children are still drawn to our au pair and we get to observe it up close. I am so relieved by the fact that my baby has only ever giggled and reached for our au pair when she sees her come into the room. I love the way my daughter asks our au pair to color with her after dinner, play pirates, or simply just read a book before bed. I’m lucky to have an au pair that I even love hanging out with to just watch a documentary or discuss the refugee crisis back in Germany. We’re actually really good friends and I’ve grown to love and trust her on a whole new level. Do I ever miss having a little more privacy? Sure, there are times when I really don’t want to have to close my bedroom door to throw off my clothes when I get home from work, or even just have a telephone call with an old friend without feeling like my au pair can probably hear every word. So I guess you could say you give up some freedoms and conveniences. But the level to which this affects your comfort really just depends on your personal style. My husband and I come from big families where privacy was a rare commodity. We have both had roommates from birth through college and don’t find it hard to accommodate someone new in our home.
So even after some au pair disasters in our relative short host-family experience, would I do it all over again? I think the answer is yes. It’s not a firm, 100% yes. But it fits our family well and we’ve already seen the pros outweigh the cons.
Rebecca Hughes has a background in biomedical engineering and is now attending medical school. She lives with her husband, two young children, and au pair in Brooklyn. You can follow her on instagram @medschoolmom.