When I was 17 I moved to Paris. Without wealthy parents to support me, working as an Au Pair was the only available ticket to freedom and adventure abroad. With a shoe-box chambre de bonnes to call my own and 100E per week, I was living the life I romanticized as an angsty teen. I even sang on stage in the famous Caveau de la Huchette–a WWII era jazz club in the basement of a Latin Quarter building dating back to the 16th century.
After a night on the town I overslept my alarm and didn’t make it to school pickup on time and was summarily fired. Today as a mom of a baby, and a toddler, and a step-mom of a teen I can completely understand where they were coming from. Still, when my mom, who had moved in with us to care for my baby, took a spill and injured her spine, bringing an Au Pair into our family was the clear choice for me.
Working from home in my tech job, I wanted to be able to nurse my baby on demand and skip pumping completely. Spoiled from quarantine I didn’t want to commute farther than my living room to drop my baby off in care, and better than a camera with daycare pics is constant access to the sweet water cooler coos of my growing girl.
Here’s my advice for host families on how to have an amazing Au Pair experience, from someone who’s been on both sides of the coin. Yes, these are focused on helping the Au Pair have a good experience because of the inherent power imbalance. The effort you put into helping your Au Pair have a good experience will be passed forward to your kiddos.
Angie in Paris: While any experience in France would have been la vie en rose for me, I thought I would be a bigger part of my host family’s life. In reality I was only there for “business hours” and never invited to be a part of their social activities after the first week or two which was lonely!
Most host families say they’re looking for an inseparable and integrated part of their family, yet many Au Pairs arrive and find they are expected to keep smiles on all children and all toys tidy like Mary Poppins. If you are primarily looking for affordable 1:1 childcare, have a job with irregular hours and need flexible support, or are just overwhelmed and stressed at certain times of the day, be honest in your profile and say that! Whatever it is you are needing support with, the right Au Pair is out there for you–but if you’re not upfront about your needs and challenges, you’re starting off on the wrong foot and matching with the wrong person.
Make a connection
Angie in Paris: I deeply admired my host mom Parisienne who worked at an international NGO, was finishing her master’s degree, and spoke four languages. If we had connected she might have known I was interested in future work and internships and potentially connected me to resources in her network.
Take the time to get to know your Au Pair and establish your relationship and how you will communicate. Yes, with you as host parents, and also with the children separately. It is so important to know what they hope to get out of their time here to give them meaningful experiences and exposures. Some Au Pairs want to travel and see as much of the world as possible (recommend day trips around Austin, or to New Orleans on a long weekend), some are focused on their studies or improving their English (find them a language exchange buddy from ACC or St. Eds!). If you can help your Au Pair get the most out of their time away from your family, they will be all the more satisfied during the time they spend with your kiddos.
Schedule with your Au Pair in mind
Angie in Paris: My only responsibility was to pick up the older kiddo after school and play with her in English until dinner time. While this gave me a lot of free time it was also isolating and didn’t give me the chance to incorporate myself into the family culture and routines.
Taking care of our kids is hard. Really hard! That’s why we’re looking for extra hands to begin with. When you set your schedule up front with your Au Pair, think about maximizing their free time, not maximizing yours. Asking for someone to work every morning from 6:30AM to 9:00AM and then again from 3:00PM to 8:00PM and then again on a weekend day is common, but makes it difficult for Au Pairs to meet their own needs from doctor’s visits, to continuing education, to just meeting up with friends and getting to know our city.
Minimum wage is not a lot of money for the dedication and love we hope they will pour into our children. You might not choose to or be able to up their hourly rate, but setting work hours that align to their hopes and expectations for their time in Austin is a key part of mutual satisfaction.
Angie in Paris: I didn’t know how to open a bank account, let alone what to do when I stepped on a nail in the street or had a cold, and I didn’t feel I could ask them. While we had a fair exchange, the 100E per week I received barely covered my cell phone and left me scrounging for food on Sundays. Still the family was upset when I ate the cookies served at snack time (I’m a cookie monster, but I promise I shared!).
Have you ever been sick and away from home? What about in a foreign country where you barely had a bank account let alone knew how to get medicines? Try and put yourself in your Au Pair’s shoes in the good and the bad and watch out for them the way you would want someone watching out for your kiddos. Get to know their interests, likes and dislikes in terms of food and music, ask if they need anything when you go to the store. Invite your Au Pair to go out with the family, and understand when they prefer to rest at home.
Remember your Au Pair is human
Angie in Paris: Look, I wasn’t a great Au Pair. I was probably a little bit of a nightmare. But a little human connection and mentorship would have gone a long way. This coaching and involvement in my life would have changed everything for me. Given a second chance things could have been so much different!
It is so wonderful and often so tiring to spend long days with our kiddos! As much so as it is for us, so it is for our amazing Au Pairs. One long day of parenting can run into the next and the next and the next. Just like parents, Au Pairs may wake up tired or grumpy or just under the weather. This is not necessarily commentary on you or your family or your kiddos. Use that relationship you’ve built and just ask…there may be a miscommunication brewing or maybe you get to be the one to have that talk with your Au Pair about the special time in an Austinite’s life when they start developing seasonal allergies. A disagreement among your children, or worry about their family at home, or juicy Au Pair gossip could be the cause, but you won’t know unless you ask and you care.
If all else fails…rematch
Angie in Paris: Without the support of an agency, when my host family broke up with me I was out on the street (just like Ashley Park’s Au Pair character in Emily in Paris). The backing of an agency would have connected me to other Au Pairs for friendships, support, and HR support for my host family.
One of the great things about the state department Au Pair visa program is that they’re required to come through an agency. It may seem like a waste to shell out good money to the agency, but in my experience they genuinely provide a great support network for both Au Pairs and families. Sometimes relationships just don’t work out and that’s ok. Your agency will help your Au Pair find the right family for them, and help you find the right Au Pair for your family. There are many agencies available, but we’ve been very happy with Cultural Care Au Pair.
Hosting an Au Pair isn’t for everyone. You will likely play the part of manager, trainer, parent, driver, career counselor, family, and friend–not just a boss or employer. Unlike other jobs in your early 20’s, you don’t get to “play nice” and then go home–you’re often together 24/7. If you’re emotionally drained when extended family is visiting because of a house full of people to communicate and interact with, it may not be for you. If you feel you have as much to learn and grow from a genuine cultural exchange as you have to have to give to a new member of the family, you’ll have an amazing time.