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The Au Pair Experience

The recession's been hitting home in all sorts of ways. And as parents lose their jobs, so, too, do their nannies, writes AnnIe Gowen in The Washington Post. Nannies in the D.C. region average about $16 per hour, Gowen writes, a huge sum for most of us to swallow.

Usually, when parents talk about child-care choices, nannies or day care lead the list. Sure, there's the lucky family who can ask a grandparent. But there is one less talked about option available: the au pair.

The au pair program is run through the State Department with au pair agencies pairing families with foreigners with child care experience who want to live and travel in America for a year and improve their English. The French term means "on par" and that's how these family helpers are meant to be. Au pairs are young adults, aged 18 to 26 who spend a year living in your home. Having them there is a little like having an adult sibling living at home. They get paid for their work and are expected to go to school for part of the time they are here. They cook their own meals and clean up after themselves. And they provide child care and do other child-related tasks for between 10 and 45 hours per week depending on a family's needs. Families are also expected to help them experience the culture here. Comparatively speaking, au pairs will cost a family about $17,000 per year; a nanny working 45 hours per week would earn about $37,000.

While nannies are facing a higher unemployment rate, the demand for au pairs has been on the rise, says Elizabeth Boa, who is a local Cultural Care Au Pair program coordinator. "Data from the U.S. Department of State, which regulates the au pair program, shows that nearly 22,000 au pairs came to the United States last year, up 44% from 2004." Cultural Care is one of the au pair agencies in the region.

So, what's it really like to have foreigners living in your house, taking care of your kids, particularly from a practical standpoint? Single mom Laura Jones has 2 kids, ages 4 and 6. She's now employing her second au pair and has been pleased with the program. Jones needed flexible child care that didn't require her to take off work every time her children were sick. Because nannies were so expensive, she chose the au pair route. There were only a few agencies to choose from, she said. When selecting an au pair, she sought out the advice of other families. Because she had fairly young children, others told her to "tap someone with lots of child care experience. Someone a little older because if they are going to drive, they would make the insurance expensive [if they were too young]." Particularly in the Washington, D.C., area, Jones recommends families hire older au pairs. "There’s a lot to deal with in Washington when you’re 18 or 19. It’s too much to ask."

Other tips from Jones: "Find someone who doesn't have a boyfriend or girlfriend back home and someone who has an outgoing personality who can make friends easily because it’s a difficult transition."

Jones's first au pair was a 22-year-old from Bosnia. Initially, Jones found the two had communication gaps because of cultural differences, something that they resolved over time. Jones also found that her au pair, Niera, needed time to adjust to the difference of living in a much bigger place, something Niera managed to do. In addition to learning about Niera's life and meeting her mother, who came for a visit, Jones found herself in the role of adviser: Teaching Niera about bank accounts and Internet safety, letting her know if she was going clubbing in a safe area and setting rules up front about drinking or having friends over to the house.

"I think it’s been a great experience for me and the kids," Jones says. As for the transition from Niera to their second au pair: "The transition's been good," Jones says. Her two au pairs overlapped for a week, allowing Niera's replacement Dennis to learn from his predecessor and helping him bond with other au pairs right away.

Have you used an au pair or seen one in caretaking action? How has the experience been?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  June 15, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
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Comments


for more info on hosting an au pair:
http://eboa.aupairnews.com/
elizabeth.boa@lcc.culturalcare.com

Posted by: EBOA | June 15, 2009 7:17 AM | Report abuse

When the kids were much younger, we had three different au pairs (one each from England, Germany and Ireland). The two from Germany and Ireland were wonderful and are still family friends more than a decade later; the one from England was a disaster.

Key things to look for in considering any au pair:
1. Why are they coming to the US? Is it really for the cultural experience/education? Or to party?

2. How will they adjust to life in the US? This is typically easier for English, Irish, French, German, etc. au pairs than for those from Central/Eastern Europe, both because of language and cultural reasons. So you might need to provide more or less support.

3. How flexible are they willing to be? And how flexible are you willing to be? The au pair is not a servant; she wants to do certain things while here. If you're willing to work with her to adopt a schedule that meets both of your needs, and to change that schedule when circumstances arise, things are more likely to work.

4. If they're under 21, do they understand they can't legally drink in the US? This can be a HUGE issue.

There are a lot of other issues to consider, of course, but by and large we'd recommend hosting an au pair to many, many parents.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | June 15, 2009 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I was fortunate enough to have 6 au pairs while growing up.

Overall it was a great experience, but there were definitely some adjustments for both the au pairs and us. 2 of the 6 were duds; not bad, just not good. My parents and I stay in semi-regular contact with the other 4.

While studying abroad in college I was actually able to visit with 3 of the 4 we stay in touch with and have them show me around their home towns.

I do have a few tips for people interested in having au pairs.
1) Our first au pair was an 18 year old from Germany and it was very difficult to come to the US where she couldn't drink, get into bars, etc during her free time whereas she was of legal age at home. So if selecting you au pair from a country with a lower drinking age than in the US, consider sticking to 21 and over.
2) Make sure you have a specific list of what you expect the au pair to contribute before calling them during the selection process. In our case, we needed the au pair less for day to day care and more for the frequent periods when my parents would both be out of town at the same time on business. By talking to the au pair candidates early on, they knew that they would have a little more free time during the day, but would have to work some weekends, etc.
3) Encourage your au pair to see the sights. We always encouraged our au pairs to take advantage of long weekends and or a pre-arranged week off to travel around the US and check it out.
4) This is a symbiotic relationship. The au pair isn't an employee that you are responsible for when they are on the clock and not when they are off. It may be better to think of this program as hosting an exchange student who will contribute to the household during their stay.
5) Be picky about the big details: smoker or not, vegetarian if your meals usually have meat, allergic to peanuts and your kids love PB&Js, etc.
6) It is not going to be perfect. Nothing ever is.

All in all, I had a great experience growing up with our au pairs and I would highly recommend the program to anyone interested. I certainly intend to consider the program when I have kids.

Posted by: Tiki79 | June 15, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Our first nanny had been an au pair for two years, and it was great having her. At some point, she had to leave us, and she helped us thru the au pair process. I'd looked into having one before, and always thought it would be a great experience (we can't travel so much, but we can bring the cultural experience here).
We loved having an au pair, the flexibility was wonderful. Her english was tough in the beginning, but we worked through it - she was incredibly eager to learn. She's from Brazil. She had a boyfriend back home, broke up with him after 6 months, stayed for more than a year (all things our nanny had told us would happen). She is still here, after a year, we couldn't use her anymore, she went to another family. After about 8-9 months, the family couldn't pay her anymore, so she helped out around the house for a little bit for meals/transportation, but got a 'job' to make ends meet. It's been tough in that community, from what I understand, one family had their house foreclosed on while they were hosting an au pair!
So now she extended her visa ANOTHER 6 months to stay in the US, and perhaps she will stay longer.
Our original nanny got married last fall to an American...
It was a great cultural experience, and our au pair loves our kids. We have tons of extra room in the house, so it was easy to make the decision. it's so strange, you only get an application and a few phone calls (years ago there was no internet, so we were lucky we could email her, etc), and then someone comes to live in your home. THe agencies want to ensure that they spend a lot of time doing background checks, etc, so that there will be no issues, it is in their best interest for everyone to have great experiences.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 15, 2009 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Dennis!? Whacky isn't going to like that . . . .

Posted by: captiolhillmom | June 15, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Au pairs can be great, and they can also be difficult. We've had several au pairs, and the last two were difficult. But, there is a great website where host parents share advice, called Aupairmom.com. I would recommend that anyone interested in au pairs check this out. There is advice here that you can't find anywhere else, and it has saved me more than a few times!

Posted by: mommyoftwo | June 15, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

The problem with au pair care rather than nanny care is that there are many rules and regulations for hiring au pairs.

For example, au pairs can work a maximum of 10 hours a day and 45 hours per week even if she is sleeping, if she is caring for children alone those are considered work hours. Au pairs are not allowed to work longer for extra money. That would be a violation of their Visa.

Au pairs are also not allowed to do housekeeping. Parents cannot even pay the au pair more money to do housekeeping. To do so would violate their Visa.

And then, of course, an au pair's Visa lasts one year, while nannies can work for the same family for many years.

Of course nannies can negotiate any household responsiblities for extra moeny they want and can work flexible hours the parents might require.

Au pairs are not professional child care providers. But, of course if a 45 hr work week without additional household chores works for the parents than an au pair can be a great cultural experience.

Posted by: BeTheBestNannyNewsletter | June 15, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

An au pair can do any household chores, as long as they are related to child care, i.e., housekeeping (cleaning children's rooms and bathrooms) and children's laundry, etc...

The one thing is, as mentioned above, the au pair is not a servant. We had a party to go to (more of a gathering) at a friend's house a week after the au pair was to arrive, and I spoke with my friend about having the au pair come with us. My friend was actually incredibly rude. To me, it was concerning that the au pair would be home alone while we were somewhere where she should and could be. Whereas my friend kept referring to her as 'the help' and 'if she's looking after the kid.' To ME - my babysitters, my au pair, my nanny, well, they are part of the family. They are not 'the help.' It is someone who is looking after my KIDS for goodness sakes...it was just weird to me...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 15, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

All of these posts are very helpful for anyone considering an au pair. One thing that they don't talk much about that I want to comment on is the importance of the choice of au pair agency. The au pair agencies are all different in their levels of support. I currently host an au pair with Cultural Care and know the importance of a great coordinator and support agency. I have been very pleased with their ability to take care of my family. Do your homework when you are looking and ask each company what they provide that makes them stand apart. You will find a company that you can feel confident working with. The other thing I would say as a bit of advice is that you have to remember that au pair means "on par" and that means that these young people are not here to be your employee or your maid. Sometimes it can be challenging to find time to invest in your relationship with your au pair, but it is very worth it. Every day, when I see my neighbor piling her kids in the car in the snow at 7 am while they scream and kick her, I smile as I look at my daughter, eating her breakfast in her pajamas just as happy as a clam with her au pair Julia. For a busy working mom, an au pair is a strategy for maintaining sanity.

Posted by: hostmom | June 15, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

oh, one more thing....
there is a new VLOG that is really helpful for new host parents out there. Check it out at www.aupairanswermom.com.

Posted by: hostmom | June 15, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

hostmom: definitely. Our au pair was part of the family and always invited to family stuff. Of course, after a month or two, she was more interested in hanging out with her friends, but hopefully in the beginning, we helped her to adjust. The best part was on Saturday nights, when we would go out - we'd maybe have dinner at 8, be home by 10 - at the latest.
Well, it worked for the au pairs schedules, they were just getting ready to go out for the night at that point. Was very nice to have a weekly saturday night babysitter, too...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 15, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

We have had 3 amazing experiences with au pairs. We work with AuPairCare and have been very please with the support we have received. We have a local area director who is there to support our family and the au pair.
All three of our au pairs have been in our home for 12-months and have really become members of our family.
I encourage everyone with a need for high quality childcare (and who isn't?) to look at the au pair option.

Posted by: beck1985 | June 15, 2009 1:29 PM | Report abuse

We have had 5 au pairs and our 6th will be coming in July. #4 was homesick and left early and #5 her replacement ended up being a dud. So we've had very good to the very not so good. Overall, I feel it is very successful and nice that my kids are getting to learn another language and meet other children from other au pair families. Most of our au pair are from Germany and that is where we have found the most success. It provides flexibilities and definitely when it is a good match, the girls have always been accomodating to our schedules as we try to be with theirs.

We encourage our girls to go and see the sights also. Sitting at home is a way to get homesick. It is good that they get out but also allows your family to be a family while they are not there.

We continue to keep in touch with our first 3 au pairs. #4 and #5 we do not since it do not workout.

We enjoy the experience and learning about them and their families and cultures.

Posted by: boopah | June 15, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

One other comment:

The cost is slightly misleading. It is not just the weekly pay that you pay for the au pair (which, by the way, has been increasing with the minimum wage).
Other costs are food/boarding (so an increase in your utilities is likely), insurance on your car if you allow the au pair to drive, paying for their gas/car to get to classes and drive the kids around. So just adding up the weekly stipend and the fees to the agency isn't exactly the whole picture.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 15, 2009 3:09 PM | Report abuse

We had mixed experiences with our eight au pair matches. Three were super stars; three were mediocre; and two were disasters we sent packing in weeks (one of those was actually dangerous). We traveled to Germany to attend one former au pair's wedding, and last week, another former au pair visited us with her husband and baby. The super stars become life long friends and members of your extended family. The mediocre ones become the subject of insider family humor. You would rather just forget about the disasters.

We, too, endeavored to embrace our au pairs as full members of the family, inviting them on vacations with us, taking them to family weddings, etc. Some were more willing to be embraced than others, but that was the goal. I also was scrupulous about observing the rules/Visa requirements, and except for a couple weeks in the summer and the occasional school break when we did not travel, the au pairs provided an average of 20 hours of child care per week. We found this a reasonable expectation for their age, experience, and program goals. But we needed the flexibility an au pair provided for sick days, snow days, teacher conference days, and what not.

I think that the drinking age issue would be my first concern if matching again today. There were times in my children's lives that whether the au pair could drink and go clubbing was irrelevant to me, and I was happy if my au pair could be out late partying. Then as my children got older, I didn't like having that as part of our family atmosphere so choose under 21 au pairs who were not party types. It can work well either way, but you have to decide what you want to live with.

The boyfriend back home issue worked the same way. Our first au pair had a boyfriend in her home country. The relationship endured her stay, but he came to visit three or four times. He stayed in her room. I was ok with that when I had a four and six year old. I was not ok with that after the second au pair, so had to be clear when matching and hosting to avoid conflict.

It can be daunting to figure out what you are willing to live with in a 20 year old from another country when you are a 30 something parent of young children. The more you embrace the au pair and hold her up as a member of the family and possible role model for your children, the more important it is that you consider key values and life style matters. But the clearer you are about that, the happier you and your au pair will be.

Posted by: anonymom | June 15, 2009 3:13 PM | Report abuse

our (now former) nanny told us the whole scoop - it was kind of funny.

How the au pairs would be telling the parents that they were staying at another au pair's house. Then when the au pair parents got together, to discuss (oh, so and so sleeps at your house a lot, huh?) - the other parent would say: what? Because said au pair was really at boyfriend's house...but many of them think of the 'kid's' parents as someone who wouldn't 'allow' them to stay at their boyfriend's house...when in actuality, there's a fine line there between caring for the au pair as you would your own child (or as you'd want someone to treat your own child) and actually telling an adult what to do. Very interesting...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | June 15, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Years ago I shared notes with other friends with younger au pairs and we concluded that you can count on having to deal with at least three of the following in your au pair's stay:
1) a major incident with alcohol (like throwing up in the foyer)
2) an episode of serious depression
3) an eating disorder
4) a pregnancy scare
5) an unauthorized boyfriend sleepover
6) a fender bender and/or traffic ticket

In my case I experienced them all -however, my overall rating of the experience was fantastic. Jenny was a loving caregiver to our children and a delightful member of our family. If you think of an au pair more like a distant teenage niece visiting for a year, rather than an employee it works better. You end up needing to be a "mom" to your au pair pretty often. Our au pair is now a mother herself in Sweden and we all remain very close to her and her parents (with regular trips back and forth). If you go in with the right expectations it can be a wonderful experience for both you and your children.

Posted by: Bmoremom | June 15, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

While I think this is a nice article, it did not tell about the problems with the Au Pair Program.

Here is a link to what some parents have had to say who have used the program
Read http://www.insiderpages.com/b/15238574272

I work for a Nanny Agency and had a client who saw this story, I talked about hiring a Nanny and this is what the client had to say in an email back to me. "
Here is why...I can get a live in nanny - house keeper for $150 per week + room if I don’t have to hire an American citizen... that’s why!!!!!!!!!! If I hire someone with papers it cost three times as much, also the quality of care is better because they are happy to be here. God Bless Capitalism baby........

That is part of the problem as well the Au Pair program tell the families the Au Pairs will do housekeeping and child care with the 45 flexable hours. The Au Pairs become angry, feel they were lied to and leave the program, become illegal and our government does nothing.

I think if there is going to be a story in a major publication both sides pro and con should be told.

Posted by: marla2 | June 15, 2009 8:51 PM | Report abuse

The Au Pair Cultural Exchange Program has been in existence since 1986 and for the most part, has been quite a success. It allows host parents to engage young women from abroad to care for their children in a cost-effective, safe manner. While there have been problems throughout the last 2 decades with some of the au pairs and the agencies that recruit them, overall, the program has more pros than cons.

That being said, a parent does need to do their homework and research the 12 au pair agencies that are designated by the USA Dept. of State. Not all au pair agencies are the same. They can have hidden fees; young and inexperienced managers and counselors; inadequate screening of prospective au pairs and poor customer service.

To check out individual agency reputations and services, visit www.aupairclearinghouse.com, the first and only national consumer website that reports on the au pair industry. We review and compare agencies by costs, service and complaints, using reader surveys compiled and analyzed by an experienced staff of professionals who have worked in the au pair industry for over 2 decades.

We also provide a Contributing Writer's page, with articles on parenting, au pairing, children, and advice from our staff psychologist, Dr. Lawrence; a Family Forum where parents discuss their au pairs, share advice, ask questions, etc., ; a Complaint Page; Au Pair Blog and many articles on au pair agencies and au pairs.

We just published out Top Three Au Pair Agency Picks for 2009. Visit us at www.aupairclearinghouse.com for unbiased, factual and current news on the au pair industry. We look forward to hearing from your readers!

Edina Stone
Founder & CEO
edinastone@aupairclearinghouse.com

Posted by: edinastone | June 16, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

My family has hosted 4 au pairs over the last couple of years and we've had great experiences. Our first au pair's stay was a little rocky because we were all brand new to the experience, but clear and concise communication is really the key. My husband, au pair, and I have a family meeting every week to talk about what needs to be accomplished in the coming week, any concerns, questions, or comments about the previous week, and anything else that needs to be discussed. Our Area Director was very helpful our first time around and assisted both us and our au pair with the transition process. She continues to be a great support system and arranges fantastic monthly events for all the local au pairs.

I would definitely recommend hosting an au pair. After having seen our success at being a host family, two families at my kids’ school have also hosted au pairs. In addition to fantastic childcare, my whole family has benefitted from the cultural exchange. We’ve also added 4 girls to the family! All of our au pairs have kept in touch too; we even visited one of them on our last family vacation!

Posted by: esnyder1 | June 16, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I just read something on a nanny newsletter blog that I agree with. It is not the polictically correct thing to say but during an economic recession Americans should hire Americans.

When nannies are losing their jobs parents should hire America's unemployed.

I really like au pairs and do not mind the program. I think families and au pairs can benefit from the cultural exchange. When the economy is booming hire au pairs. But we need to support one another right now and give other American's jobs.

Posted by: lovebeingananny | June 17, 2009 6:35 AM | Report abuse

It is obvious by reading the posts above that everyone has different opinions in regards to au pairs. I have hosted au pairs for 5 years, plus I ran a nanny business for 3 years at the same time. There are pros and cons with each and I think that each family needs to educate themselves as to what will work best for their personal situation. I love au pairs and the cultural experience they have given me and my family. I suggest a website www.InfoAboutAuPairs.com if anyone wants to explore the program in more detail before making a decision.

Posted by: teldert | June 21, 2009 12:33 AM | Report abuse

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