When my oldest daughter was born, I couldn’t imagine dropping her off, alone, at a daycare. I toured many and asked the questions, but never felt a connection strong enough to trust them with my one and only. We had family nearby, but no one who could watch her full-time, and as a dual-income family, we needed consistency. A friend suggested an au pair, and the idea intrigued me. So I spent countless hours researching the program, then countless more perusing the profiles of the women who applied to the program.
Now, many years and three different au pairs later, I can say it was one of the best decisions we ever made. The convenience of in-home childcare can’t be beat: regular date nights, fewer days home with a sick child, and no last-minute scramble because of closed daycare. Plus, the bond and memories we created with each of our au pairs are irreplaceable. I’ve gotten a lot of questions from potential host families who are considering an au pair. In response, here are my pro tips to navigate the process:
Pro Tip #1: Find an agency that has a LAC (Local Area Coordinator) in your town.
All licensed agencies adhere to the same Department of State guidelines for the au pair program, including visa requirements and weekly stipend amount. Where the companies differ is in their program fees and support of their in-country au pairs.
We specifically chose the first company because we wanted an au pair from Paraguay, where my husband was born. The au pairs had monthly meetings at local events to check in with their LAC and connect with each other. But the closest LAC lived in a city about 20 miles away (and across a bridge). Getting our au pair to and from the meetings was not a problem. However, there were no other au pairs with the same company in our immediate area. She felt very lonely and isolated until she made friends at college. The second time around, we chose a company with a LAC in our town. This au pair made many close friends with the au pairs in our town. She had emotional support, company, and the bonus of easy play dates for our children.
Pro Tip #2: Make a list of what is most important to you, and do your research!
We all want a loving caregiver for our children, but have you thought about that person’s conflict resolution style? Their willingness to clean up? Do you want your au pair to have their own social life outside of the home? Or do you want them to spend most of their free time with the family on weekends? In addition to the regular search criteria experience, ability to drive, and/or English proficiency, take some time to think about the personality traits that you want this individual to possess. He or she will be living in your house as a family member for a year or more. You want their personality to mesh with your family’s dynamics.
I also don’t want to over-generalize how people from different countries behave, but there are regional differences in au pairs. Take some time researching those traits. Talk to anyone you know who has hired an au pair from the country you are considering, but take all the advice with a grain of salt. There may be some truths that you uncover, but remember that each au pair is an individual, and the best course of action is to discuss expectations when interviewing.
Pro Tip #3: Schedule multiple interviews with a potential au pair – one with just adults, and another with the kids. And once you match, communicate regularly via Skype or Facetime!
Our oldest child was only six months old when we hired our first au pair. However, our last two matches happened when our older children were in grade school. We scheduled first interviews while the kids were at school to vet the credentials of our potential au pairs. We then asked the short list to Skype with our children to see how they handled that communication.
Observe the conversation between children and au pairs, but refrain from stepping in. Some au pairs looked overwhelmed with our three girls chatting at once. Others were not able to engage the girls when they were feeling shy. One potential au pair interacted beautifully with my talkative two middle daughters. She also honed-in on my quiet oldest daughter, asking her pointed questions about some of the hobbies listed in our family profile to connect with her. That was the moment I knew she was the one.
Pro Tip #4: Budget accordingly.
The cost of hosting an au pair is comparable to full-time childcare for two kids, but comes with other hidden expenses. This includes increases in food, utilities (which can be substantial if your house is usually empty during the day), and phone bills. There is also a mandatory payment toward educational expenses of $500/year. If driving is required, you will need to add your au pair to your insurance, pay for gas, and potentially purchase another vehicle. We also transformed our office into her bedroom which added the cost of a new bed, dresser, rug, and curtains.
Pro Tip #5: Listen to all the advice, but do what works best for you.
Compared to other host families, ours is laid-back by not regulating many aspects of our au pair’s free time. We received a lot of advice about hosting an au pair, but approached it the same way we approached parenting. Listen to all the well-meaning advice, take what works, and discard the rest.
What we have learned is that one style doesn’t work for everyone. A lot will depend on your family dynamics and the personality of the au pair you match with. For instance, we chose not to set a curfew for our au pairs. Some families do, but we didn’t want to assert a parental role over her. Similarly, we gave her free use of the extra car on her off time. We wanted her to enjoy her time in California and spend time with friends and making memories.
Constant communication, a written weekly schedule, and treating everyone with trust and respect have been the keys to creating and maintaining successful relationships between all of us.