After answering endless questions about my au pair experience, I decided it would be a good idea to write a blog post about what exactly is an au pair and how to become one. This is kind of my lazy way of informing everyone because I can simply give whomever is interested the web link 🙂
WHAT IS AN AU PAIR?
An au pair is a nanny that lives with a host family in a foreign country. Their responsibilities are primarily to look after the children and help the family in every day life. This can include light housekeeping, tutoring (homework help), and running errands. Au pairs are not maids. Au pairs should not work more than thirty hours per week. Au pairs ALWAYS have their own bedroom, and often luck out with a private bathroom as well. Au pair contracts can range from one month to two years or more. The average au pair stay is around 6 months to a year. Every family’s needs are different so if you are thinking about being an au pair, you can easily find a family who’s needs meet your needs.
Many girls considering being an au pair have this idea in their head that they will live this extravagant life with a wealthy family where they will be on an endless vacation. Unsurprisingly some au pairs are shocked to learn that their “vacation” abroad is in fact a JOB. The family HIRED you after all. This is a serious commitment, and you must take the time to really think about making such a decision. This decision does not only affect your life, but also that of the host family’s. You will want to make sure you are a good fit for the host family. It is a job you should take pride in and try to excel at. The bond you will form with your host children is the most rewarding experience of all. They really will feel like family by the end of your stay. I can guarantee you will be teary eyed when saying your goodbyes!
FREE ROOM AND BOARD: The host family is required to provide you with your own bedroom. They are also responsible for your meals. You are always welcome to eat with the family. In the kitchen, what’s theirs is yours. This is great financially because there is no rent to pay and it’s free food. You cannot complain about that!
CULTURAL EXPERIENCE: Do you love traveling and learning about other countries? Do you love discovering new and exciting places? Are you a fan of history? Do you have a passion for adventure? Then being an au pair might just be the opportunity you are looking for. By living with a host family, you are truly able to immerse yourself into their culture. No amount of studying the language, watching documentaries, or reading history books can give you a true understanding of the people in a different country. By living with them you uncover first hand their lifestyle. It can be quite the culture shock!
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE: Being fluent in more than one language is a great asset to have in this day and age. Not only does it give you an advantage career-wise, but it also enhances your communication skills. You never know when you might need to use that language. I definitely advise potential au pairs to pick a country that speaks a foreign language. My sister was an au pair in Ireland this past summer and she regrets not choosing Spain because her Spanish would have improved tremendously. I was very tempted to be an au pair in England, but I realized the importance of learning another language so I chose to go to France instead. Plus in order to obtain your au pair visa, taking a language course is often required in most countries. This is a great way to meet friends!
NEW FRIENDS: I have made so many friends while being an au pair. Many of them I will stay in touch with for life. The great thing about being an au pair is that you meet other au pairs, students, and travelers from all over the world. Two of my best friends in France were from Austria and China. Not only did I get to learn about the French culture, but I had a little insight into my friends’ cultures as well.
TRAVELING: You are in a different country and now is your chance to explore as much of your surroundings as possible! Au pairs almost always have weekends off so spend that time by going on weekend getaways. Even if you are limited to only one day, that doesn’t mean your options for fun are limited! Do your research and find what appeals to you. I was never bored on weekends, and I doubt you will be either.
LOOKS GREAT ON RESUMES: Being an au pair looks great when applying for jobs. Not everyone knows exactly what an au pair is, or if they have heard of it, they usually are not well informed. This creates curiosity and leads the employer to wanting to get to know more about you. It also shows your independence and leadership qualities.
WAGE: The trade off for free room and board, is the low wage given to au pairs. On average au pairs are only paid 400-500 American dollars a month. With proper budgeting you can get by, however I suggest saving at least an additional $500 a month before departing for every month you plan on staying as an au pair. This way you can see and do more things. Also keep in mind that you are responsible for paying for your flight.
AWKWARDNESS: This pertains to the relationship with the au pair and the host family. The host family wants to treat you as part of the family, but at the end of the day you are not. You are an employee. So it can be difficult to find an even balance between the two.
KIDS CAN BE DIFFICULT: For those who have no experience with children, let me warn you that childcare is a full time job. I give credit to stay at home moms for what they have to put up with. It is hard work. Honestly being a (good) stay at home mom is a harder job than most jobs out there. Kids view au pairs as friends that they can play with 24/7. This is great of course when you are not already physically exhausted with a bad headache. Even if you are in the worst of moods you have to put on that smile and act super excited to play candy land for the 10th time in a row. Never show the kid that you are not having fun. So besides having to pretend to be just as energetic as the kiddies, you also have to stop them from fighting and getting into trouble. This is hard when you want to be their best friend because the last thing you want to do is yell at them. Be prepared to deal with temper tantrums, messes, puke, and poop. Address bad behavior immediately and ALWAYS reward good behavior. I’m surprised how many people are quick to punish, yet they forget how crucial it is to compliment children when they do something right. With children, try to turn everything into a game. If they are laughing and having a good time, then your lack of energy is worth it.
HOMESICKNESS: Personally I have never been one to succumb to homesickness, but I know many, many, MANY au pairs who wanted nothing more than to go home because they missed it so much. This is normal. There are good days and bad days. Some days you think to yourself, “this is amazing! I am having the time of my life”, and then other days you break down and cry and wish you could be sleeping in your own bed. Be prepared to feel depressed for days at a time. Being away from home can be really difficult, especially for people who have never been away from home before. When feeling down, don’t binge on sweets and lie in bed all day (that will lead to more self-loathing). Every morning is a fresh start. Wake up, get out of bed, eat a healthy breakfast, and go for a run. The endorphins will leave you feeling great for the rest of the day 🙂
COMMUNICATION/CULTURAL BARRIER: The biggest problem au pairs will face is communication with their host family. Sometimes the expectations of what you are supposed to do are not clear. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone messes up. If you get yelled at for something you did or didn’t do, do not take it personally. There have been many occasions where I got yelled at for something I felt was unnecessary. Of course, being extremely sensitive I would go to my room and cry. But then I would realize that it really was not a big deal and that the parent’s might have been having a really stressful day and took out their frustration on me. Also, living in a different country means certain behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable. What might be considered rude in your home country, may be okay in your new country and vice versa.
ESSENTIAL QUALITIES THAT MAKES A GOOD AU PAIR
(If you are considering being an au pair and lack the majority of these, then I suggest finding another option)
– LIKE KIDS. (If you hate kids, why would you want to work with them?)
– BE RESPONSIBLE AND RELIABLE (Do what you are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it. Pretty simple isn’t it?)
– BE MATURE (You are an adult. The family does not want to hire a child to watch a child. Just because you are 18 years old does not always mean that you have the mentality or capability to be in the real world just yet. You can’t run to mommy and daddy for every problem when you are in a foreign country unfortunately)
– BE FINANCIALLY SECURE (Save and budget yourself. TRUST ME the last thing you want, is to be bankrupt thousands of miles away from home)
– BE ACCEPTING/UNDERSTANDING OF CULTURAL VIEWS (Do not judge people who are different from you. Chances are you are going to meet people with conflicting opinions and lifestyles. You may not always agree with them, but at least attempt to understand them…. Oh and try to avoid discussing politics…)
– POSITIVITY (A positive attitude keeps you sane)
HOW TO BE AN AU PAIR
1) If you believe becoming an au pair is right for you, then the first step is to choose the country you would like to live.
2) After selecting the country, then make sure you can obtain an au pair or basic work visa. Every country has different rules. Depending on your nationality you might or might not be able to get the proper visa. If you are American you cannot be an au pair in the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales). They feel that the main purpose of being an au pair is to learn a foreign language, and because Americans are native English speakers they will not accept au pairs from the US. However, they will accept au pairs from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand because they are under the commonwealth. These nations can be granted two year work visas. Americans can stay in the UK for up to six months with their passport but are not allowed to work. If Americans wish to stay longer than they need to be a student or professional so they can apply for a student or work visa. A mexican friend of mine first wished to au pair in Italy but found out Mexicans could not get the proper visa so she chose to go to France instead where Mexicans were allowed to be au pairs. So before talking to potential host families, make sure you can work in that country legally!
3) Search the internet for LEGITIMATE online au pair agencies and websites. Some websites have au pair placement options in numerous countries while others can be exclusively one country, region, or city. I chose an independent website called http://www.aupairworld.net for its great reputation and access to a variety of families.
4) Once registered for whatever agency you choose, you will begin interacting with potential families. PLEASE do your research, and make sure you choose a good host family. ALWAYS request to speak with their current or previous au pair. This is the best way to get an honest idea of the life you could eventually be living. You will usually be communicating with numerous families, exchanging emails and doing Skype interviews.
5) Keep your safety and wellbeing in mind. While I had a great au pair experience, and the majority of au pairs do, I have also heard horror stories of bad families. One girl arrived in Paris to find out she was living in a crime ridden and violent neighborhood. She could hear gunshots in the street and the family was horrible. She ESCAPED days later by running to her home country’s embassy in Paris. Another girl I spoke with left after only one week because her bedroom smelt like urine, and her host family refused to let her eat meals with them. Instead she had to serve them as if she was a waitress. These situations could have been prevented if these two au pairs had learned more about the host families before making any decisions.
6) Finding a great host family is the most important, and the second most important by far is LOCATION. Location is key. I cannot emphasize this enough. The last thing you want is to be stuck in the countryside with nothing to do (unless of course you love the country and rare human interaction). If the public transportation isn’t that great, then you probably do not want to be in a suburb either. Look for host families that live in areas where you can easily meet other people your age, and also where you can have a great time. I lived in the historic center of a city during my stay as an au pair. It was ideal because the action was right outside my door. I didn’t have to rely on transportation to meet up with friends or go to the stores. Everything I needed was right there.
7) The host family chooses you and you have the decision to accept or decline. Always go with your intuition. You might not find the right fit immediately, and that is ok. Take the time to make the best decision for yourself.
8) Once you have a host family, get whatever travel documentation you need (passports, visa, ect…), book your flight, and continuously communicate with your new host family as much as possible before your departure.
9) Do not overpack. Bring the essentials but leave room in your suitcase for all the things you will buy while abroad. Also buy some gifts for your new host family that represent your home town/city/country. They do not have to be expensive. I live in a very touristy area at the Jersey Shore, and I also live near New York City so I bought the girls souvenirs, and I bought the host parents NYC mugs for their morning coffee.
10) If your destination speaks a different language, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE before you depart!
11) Board your flight and start your new adventure!
This experience truly opens your eyes to the world. You will get to see and do things that most people never have the chance to do in their lifetime. I can honestly say that I feel like a new person after returning home two months ago. I have always known what I wanted in life, and going abroad is something I felt was impossible and out of reach. I made this happen and it has lead me to realize that I may be surrounded by doubters, but I no longer doubt myself. The impossible is possible! If you feel unsure about what you want to do in life, or you feel you cannot do what you love, the best thing to do is to escape the negativity that surrounds you and take a risk. Many Europeans take a gap year before starting college so they can travel and discover their passions. Maybe more Americans should take note and do what they love to do instead of doing what society says they should do. Education comes in many forms, and I have learned more from my au pair experience than from years of college. I am not condoning college in the slightest, but simply making a point that sometimes the most valuable education does not come from sitting in a classroom and reading books. Sometimes it comes from the adventures we choose to take.