parenting

How to find a great au pair

Given that we’ve had au pairs for three and a half years, this post has been a long time coming! We are just adjusting to life with our new au pair – our fifth one – and we’ve had a great experience with this form of childcare, so I thought it might be helpful to explain how it works, and why it’s worked so well for us, so I’ve a list of ten things to think about if you’re considering life as a host family. As I’ve got a lot to say, I’m writing two blog posts: the first one is about planning and recruiting, and the second one is about preparing for your au pair, and life with them in the house.

Here’s a quick background paragraph before we start. We started looking properly at our childcare options when Hattie and Joe were nearly one and I’d been accepted onto my university course. I’d visited one local (and very well regarded) daycare centre while pregnant, and I wasn’t overwhelmed with enthusiasm for it: even with very good staff ratios it seemed like a lot of babies per adult; the hours were very fixed; it was expensive; we’d still have to pay if the children were off sick; and being at daycare made it more likely that they’d get sick. It was difficult to see much of an up-side – but, without family living locally, we didn’t really have many alternatives. We also couldn’t afford a nanny. I can’t really remember when we first thought about looking at au pairs as our chosen form of child care, but by early January 2014 we were actively trying to find one. Julie, our first au pair, was with us from March 2014 – March 2015. She was followed by Nikita, who stayed until October 2015. Foolishly, I decided that we couldn’t justify the cost of an au pair (or the luxury of 30 hours of childcare each week) when I was on holiday from November to March. I regretted that decision within about two days of lovely Nikita leaving. We then had a very short-term au pair who will remain nameless, and who was our only au pair stumble thus far. She was replaced by Pauline, who joined us in March 2016 and left in late August 2016. And now we have Lena, who has been with us since Pauline’s departure and is staying until July 2017. I’ve shared a few photos of the kids and their au pairs throughout the following post.

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And two things to remember regarding timing: au pairs are generally organised a few months in advance (we had Lena booked with four and a half months’ notice); and you’ll have the best luck with recruitment if you can start the au pair relationship in the middle of the calendar year, as this coincides with the European and North American summer holiday. Many au pairs use a ‘gap year’ between school and university as the time to travel overseas, so people become available in late July/early August, and are likely to want to head home again before late September (and can generally only stay in New Zealand for one year anyway). Our initial arrangements started in late summer, because that’s what fitted with my university year, but it definitely made life more difficult when it came to recruitment. In some ways having our unsuccessful third au pair earlier this year was a blessing in disguise, because she joined us in February and was gone within three weeks, and Pauline has moved on from her initial host family because of the host mother’s redundancy, and so was available for just a few months. We’re now in the mid-year cycle, which will make life easier going forward.

1 Examine your motives

Au pairs are young foreign people (usually women, but not always) who decide to work in private childcare as a way of living abroad for anything from six months to a year. They accept a live-in job with a family and help that family with their kids. They are paid, and charged tax, but the host family covers their living expenses (board and lodging), which means that the actual amount of cash they receive isn’t huge – typically $200 – $300 a week, depending on how many hours they work.

The host family and au pair relationship is therefore one of give and take, and if you only want to access cheap childcare, and have zero interest in the whole ‘young person experiencing life in another country’ element of the equation, then this is not the right choice for you. Similarly, an au pair who comes to your country and has zero interest in spending time with children, and just wants somewhere free to live so they can travel in the weekends, has also made a bad choice.

I can’t stress this point enough, which is why I made it the first thing on the list. If you are likely to resent having a young adult living in your house (and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s not for everybody), then getting an au pair probably won’t work for you and your family. Similarly, if you’re not curious about people from other countries, you may not enjoy the experience – the idea is that your family and the au pair both find the experience enriching.

Tied up with this point is the importance of being realistic. You’re not hiring a fully trained nanny: you’re hiring a young person who is not likely to have any professional childcare experience (although some of them do), but who has done a lot of casual babysitting, and who genuinely likes children. So, they’re not an expert – but let’s be honest: neither are you, if you’re like me and this is your first experience as a parent. And dealing with little kids may be frustrating, tiresome, and tiring on a bad day, but it isn’t rocket science. And there is great support available to au pairs if you use an agency. And remember that ‘has done a lot of casual babysitting’ point when we get to number three on this list, because it’s relevant.

2 Don’t worry about stupid stuff

After reading MANY conversations on Facebook about au pairs, I think the biggest concern some mothers have about the idea of inviting a young woman to live in their house is the fear that said young woman will seduce their husband or partner, and tear their family apart. And yes, I am sure that there is the very rare time when that has happened, but I doubt it happens often: instead, it’s a well-used cliché employed by Hollywood scriptwriters and mediocre novelists precisely because it feeds a popular assumption that all women secretly hate and fear each other, and think that everybody is after their man. And without meaning any disrespect to your typical family man, I’m not sure that many young women are fantasising about them! I mean, when you were 19, did you lust after other 19 year olds, or were you intensely attracted to men in their 40s? Anybody older than 25 was ancient, as far as I was concerned. I’ve spoken to the owner of the agency that we use to find our au pairs about the strange concern regarding ‘sexy au pairs’, and she couldn’t think of a single circumstance where it’s been an issue. She also said that her conversations with many, MANY au pairs have confirmed that they really, REALLY don’t look at their host fathers in that way. Like, ever.

However, the concern persists. Not long after Julie arrived – who is pretty much the dictionary definition of a beautiful French girl – a friend and colleague of Tristan’s visited us with his pregnant partner. Later, we heard via the colleague that the partner had commented on the drive home, “Jacq must be VERY secure in herself to have a girl like that living in the house”. Why yes, I am, thanks – and also very secure in the morals and sensibilities of the man I’ve married and am raising children with! . I always regard our au pairs as foreign versions of our adult nieces, and I’m 100% sure that Tristan sees them in exactly the same way.

When we were recruiting our first au pair I asked for advice about interview questions on my local multiple birth club’s private Facebook page, and somebody made the in-all-seriousness suggestion ‘make sure you choose an ugly one’. I laughed at it, and felt so sorry for that woman. Seriously, if you have genuine worries about your partner’s likelihood of trying to seduce your au pair, or being suspectible to seduction by your au pair, please put your childcare discussions on hold and seek relationship counselling.

And while we’re on the topic of things that don’t matter: don’t get hung up on cultural stereotypes and use that to limit the prospective au pairs you would like to ‘meet’, because you think that the French are unreliable, or the Germans are inflexible, or whatever. If your perceptions of other cultures are so narrow that you see the world like this then it would be great if you did get an au pair, as it might give you a bit of a wake-up call, so let me reassure you: if you’re recruiting an au pair from anywhere in Europe or North America, there won’t be any cultural barrier so immense that you can’t navigate it. For what it’s worth: Julie is French, Nikita is Dutch, the third au pair was French, Pauline is German, and Lena is German. Of the four girls who have worked out for us, their commonalities far outweigh any cultural differences we experienced. However, the one argument in favour of certain nationalities – Germans, the Dutch, and Scandinavians, in particular – is the universally high standard of English taught in school and spoken by young people. And most of the issues we experienced with our unsuccessful au pair can be traced back to a lack of English language skill (although that certainly wasn’t the only issue). To balance this, I can assure you that attitude is everything: Julie didn’t speak a huge amount of English when she first joined us, but she was so keen to improve her language skills, and also such a sunny, happy, enthusiastic girl, that her English was amazing by the time she left – and we never had any problems or difficulties, despite me speaking no French.

And returning once again to the apparent risk of sexy au pairs, and also cultural differences: if you end up with a sexy au pair who behaves in a way that you consider to be inappropriate – sunbathing topless in your garden, wandering around the house naked, or whatever – well, you are a grownup. Deal with it. Have a conversation about what you consider to be appropriate behaviour, and ask them to stop.

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3 Get help when looking for help

There are a few ways to find an au pair: you can go online and track one down through a website (Au Pair World is one that I know of, and briefly looked at); you could call on any international contacts you might have to find some suitable daughter, niece, or family friend; or you can use a reputable au pair agency.

I wholeheartedly recommend using an agency, because I’m risk averse and lack much spare time. For the cost of a placement fee – around $600, typically – you get so many benefits: people to handle the payroll and PAYE (employers’ tax) for you; people to help you and the au pair if there are any difficulties in the relationship (and this was worth its weight in gold when our third au pair didn’t work out and we had to break up with her); access to in-home education, support, playgroups, activities, and various other services for your family and the au pair; and – most importantly to me – the security of knowing that you aren’t just inviting a total and utter stranger to live in your house and help with your children. The big agencies have reciprocal relationships with agencies in the au pairs’ home countries, which means that the girls are police checked, have medical checks, are met face-to-face and interviewed, and have all of their babysitting credentials properly vetted.

I’ve specified ‘the big agencies’ because there are smaller agencies who can do the online hunting, Skype vetting, and so forth for you, but who lack the credentials and connections to provide more extensive services. While I’m usually all in favour of supporting the little guy over the big guys, personally I make an exception when it comes to inviting a total and utter stranger to live in my house and help with my children. We’ve used Dream Au Pair for all of our au pairs, and have had brilliant service from its staff at every turn. However, we initially registered with Au Pair Link, and only switched when Dream Au Pair was able to come up with somebody when we needed them. Both agencies have an excellent reputation (many of my friends use Au Pair Link). Of course, many of the smaller agencies are also excellent and can be a real help to bridge the gap between paying for a lot of help, and doing it all yourself. And other people do it all themselves, with great success. It all comes down to what suits you and your family.

4 Be honest and accurate

(I’m assuming from this point that you’ll register with one of the agencies).

The first – and most time-consuming – element of hunting for an au pair is filling in the family profile on the agency websites. It is a long job, often best tackled in a couple of sittings, but it’s really important because it gives prospective au pairs an opportunity to learn about you and your family. It’s therefore crucial that you don’t make up stuff. There are six billion people in the world, and there’s bound to be the right au pair with you, so don’t pretend that you’re very organised if your house is actually super relaxed with no fixed bedtimes, for example. Au pair arrangements work best when both parties are totally realistic about who they’re potentially dealing with. Even then, there’s always an element of chance – like any blind date, or recruitment situation – everything can look good on paper, or in the first meeting, but then fail to work out because of a lack of chemistry. You can’t legislate for that, but you can minimise the risk of it happening if you tell the truth about your family. You’ll get asked to include information about your religious beliefs, cultural practices, choice of leisure time activities, children’s interests… it’s extensive. Just get through it. It’s actually quite a useful reflective exercise! And you can definitely ‘sell’ your family and your living situation at this stage, which will broaden the number of prospective au pairs that will want to talk to you. I always mention that our kids are great sleepers, that we live near a beautiful beach, and that we have an old car for our au pairs to use in the weekends.

You’ll also need to specify the kind of person you’d like as an au pair. Again, be realistic about what will suit your family. If you are hyper organised, don’t claim to be relaxed about timekeeping, for example. If you want an au pair who can make the kids’ dinner a few times a week, make sure you mention that. But again: be realistic. Asking for a gourmet chef with extensive child-rearing experience pretty much guarantees you a fruitless recruitment process.

Although this step can seem like a real chore, it’s a crucial stage of the process. And it’s easier after the first year: you can just review your profile and update the bits that may have changed (children’s routines, etc).

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5 Ask the right questions

After you’ve completed the family profile the agency will send you details of prospective au pairs. If you like the look of them (and again: be realistic and not ridiculous in your expectations), you say so, and the agency forwards that person your family profile. If they also like the sound of you, the next step is to set up a Skype call. This is your chance to interview the au pair, so read their profile properly and figure out what missing gaps you want to fill in.

I’d done quite a lot of recruitment back in the day, so – in retrospect – it’s quite embarrassing to reflect on why we ended up with trouble with the third au pair: we asked too many ‘yes/no’ closed questions, which meant that we didn’t realise that her English skills weren’t what we needed in an au pair. And we didn’t ask her enough questions that required her to explain things, or talk about how she’s handled child-related challenges in the past, so we didn’t realise until she was living with us that she wouldn’t be willing or able (I’m still not sure which one it was) to follow our routines and ways of dealing with the kids, or that she’d think that it was a good idea to pretend that she understood things when she hadn’t a clue what I was saying (which was particularly frustrating, given that Tristan’s a fluent French speaker and she could have easily asked for clarification). Anyway, live and learn. We were possibly a bit complacent after having two amazing au pairs in a row. We won’t make that mistake again!

If you really can’t think of what to ask the au pair, ask the agency for their advice – after all, they deal with this kind of thing a lot. But you can figure this out: just think about what really matters to help your family to run smoothly. We’ve realised that, for us, we need au pairs who can: stay calm when dealing with two little kids; be organised and routine-driven, but also flexible if our needs temporarily change; be intelligent and resourceful if faced with unexpected child-related situations; and have a good sense of humour and a great sense of fun – after all, we want to enjoy us all living together, and we and the kids are happy souls. And although we haven’t always done this, after our experience with the third au pair we now take a close look at academic performance – we’ve realised that we need bright au pairs who will be able to show initiative when required.

Anyway, after you’ve talked to the au pair, a good move is to suggest that you both go away and think about it for a day or two (although be aware that some au pairs will be in hot demand and have several families chasing them, so don’t muck around too much – but also be aware that there are always more au pairs coming along, so don’t be gutted or take it personally if the one you wanted chooses another family). You can then give your decision through the agency (which is yet another reason why an agency is worth its weight in gold – fewer direct “ sorry, it’s not going to work out” conversations).

If you’re happy and the au pair is happy, you’ll sign an agreement and things will proceed. Dream Au Pair runs compulsory two-day orientation sessions for its incoming au pairs, so this starts the experience for girls who are recruited through them (although we’ve nearly always had our new au pairs arrive a few days earlier, to spend time with our family and our out-going au pair before going to the orientation).

I really recommend staying in touch with your incoming au pair over the months before they arrive: check in with them via email occasionally, at the very least. It makes them feel welcomed and excited, and settles their nerves about travelling to the other side of the world. Remember, you’re often dealing with 18 – 22 year olds, and they’re exactly as nervous about moving across the world as you’d expect. I suspect it’s also reassuring for their parents, who are usually sending their kids out into the world for the first time.

To follow: ‘How to be a happy host family’ – getting ready for your au pair’s arrival, and living with them!


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