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The Realities of Au Pair Life Abroad

Combine Long-Term Budget Travel and Work

I lived in uptown Barcelona for seven months without writing a single rent check or mailing one utility bill. I did not even pay for groceries. Before that I spent two months free of charge in a medieval town by Oxford. How did I manage to stay so long in Europe gratis? I was an au pair—an unfamiliar concept I have struggled to explain to my friends and family in the United States.

For those who are not familiar with the term, an au pair is an individual who moves to a foreign country to look after a family’s children part-time in exchange for a private room, meals and an often very modest stipend. Most au pairs attend language classes while the children are at school. Some also do light housework. Au pair is French for something akin to “on equal terms,” indicating that au pairs are not servants or nannies, but rather young people looking to learn a new language and experience a new culture.

Benefits of Being an Au Pair

While working abroad, I met American and Australian schoolteachers, graduate students, and social workers who went overseas as au pairs looking for adventure and multicultural enlightenment. I befriended a slew of young Scandinavians just out of high school who signed up for au pair jobs to support a year of revelry in Spain. I studied with German and French au pairs at my language institute who wanted to take a break from their studies or jobs to learn Spanish. Some au pairs I encountered from Hungary and Romania used their positions as a steppingstone to settle in a new country permanently. I chose to become an au pair while in college to see England for free; it was a more interesting alternative to a summer job waiting tables in my hometown. I worked as an au pair again after graduation to improve my Spanish and explore Europe; it was also an alternative to facing a dismal job market.

The Sacrifices

Au pairing sounds like a bargain—trading in a few hours of childcare for a chance to live in another country. But in reality, it can be trying to live and work in the same space. Maintaining your dignity can be a challenge when your responsibilities can include shampooing toddlers, wiping the bottom of a five-year-old, or cutting up fruit and cheese for a demanding third-grader. I struggled to feel like a grownup when I ate early with the children in the kitchen rather than later with the adults in the dining room.

An au pair must sacrifice some independence and comfort. Even if the family treats you as an adult and does not inquire about your whereabouts or enforce curfews, you will not be free to enter the living room, flop on the couch and switch on the television anytime you wish. No inviting friends over for a dinner party or to watch a movie. Forget bringing home a guy (or girl). You will also have less control over your diet. Although the family should offer you free access to their food and invite you to family meals, it is hard to feel comfortable raiding someone else’s fridge or taking over their kitchen for your culinary experiments with metric recipes, percolators, and gas stoves.

How to Find an Au Pair Job

If you still think you can handle it, au pairing might be your best bet to get overseas. The most convenient way to locate a job is through websites that allow families and hopeful au pairs to post and browse profiles for free. However, these sites usually require one of the parties to be a paying member, as contact information is locked without a subscription.

When checking out profiles, keep in mind that flying across the world to live and work with total strangers is inevitably a big risk. Families are also gambling a lot when they invite someone they have never met into their home and entrust them with their children. For this reason, many people hire agencies that match candidates with families and provide security in the form of background checks and contracts. However, with an agency you are not allowed to directly choose your family, and sometimes the agreements they set up are less generous in terms of pay and hours than what families might otherwise offer.

If you opt not to use an agency, insist that the family provide multiple references. Doing a bit of Google research and purchasing a background check of the family would not hurt either. Talk to the family a couple of times on the phone and develop an in-depth e-mail correspondence before you commit to anything. (I knew an ultra-responsible au pair who even video-chatted with her future employers.) Discuss writing a contract for the protection of all involved. Expectations of au pairs vary depending upon the country and the family, so inquire about your responsibilities in detail when picking a position. It is best to find out that the family occasionally expects you to prepare dinner before flying over if your cooking repertoire is limited to using a microwave.

Choosing an Appropriate Location

When choosing a family, location should be a primary factor. An au pair position can be an isolating one. You will be alone with children rather than working with other adults, limiting your networking opportunities. Although a language school is a great place to meet other expats, it is not an efficient way to establish a local group of friends. A palace in the Alps might sound like paradise, but consider transportation and entertainment options. You might find yourself lonely and bored if you are stuck in the middle of nowhere without a car. In England, I had a spacious bedroom with a private bathroom and DVD player, but my tiny town had no bus stops within walking distance of my house. I had to depend on the family for rides to the train station for weekend excursions to London and Oxford. I could not have survived there more than eight weeks.

A major city usually means tighter living arrangements but usually offers the freedom of public transportation and endless cultural and social venues. In Spain, I lived in a smart, centrally-located Barcelona neighborhood half a block away from a metro stop, but my room was barely large enough to fit a twin bed. The only window faced a brick wall. No matter where you move, understand that as an au pair you will undoubtedly be spending a lot of time alone and must ask yourself how you handle solitude.

There Are Never Any Guarantees

Also, realize that even if you have shared multiple phone conversations with a delightful family, downloaded photos of your roomy would-be bedroom, and Google-mapped their lovely neighborhood, you still do not know if the children will turn out to be impossible brats. No matter how luxurious the accommodations or exotic the vacations, you will most likely be miserable if dealing with whiny terrors every day. The most effective way to get an idea of what you will be getting yourself into is to e-mail and call (via Skype, for example) the family’s former au pairs or babysitters with all your concerns and questions.

Keep in mind that au pair expectations and family relations differ drastically. Some families might be like my British hosts, a pair of academic, fashion oblivious vegetarians, and insist on giving you a tour of their college town and showing you family photos and taking you to an authentic pub. They may pay half of your transcontinental airfare, never ask you to stay home with the kids at night and invite you on weekend excursions to castles in the countryside. But in exchange for your international adventure you might find yourself, as I did, living out a sort of housewife nightmare, devoting a couple of hours a day to ironing, scrubbing, and vacuuming.

Or your family might be like my family in Spain, a pair of tweed-wearing, polo-playing Andalusian aristocrats, and just consider you an employee—never inquiring about your hobbies, family, or national traditions. They may leave the chores to their housekeeper but often ask you to stay in with the children at night to accommodate their dinner plans. They could leave you flabbergasted, as my employer did, asking you to quiet the children when they start screaming at 7 a.m. on Saturdays so that they can get some rest. While accepting that au pair situations fluctuate, beware of families who use au pairs as cheap, convenient babysitters or as a sort of status symbol instead of exhibiting a sincere interest in a linguistic and cultural exchange.

Some Experiences—Good and Bad

Some au pair experiences are enriching, memorable and advantageous for all involved. A recent sociology grad from Germany worked for the brother-in-law of my Spanish family in a suburban Madrid mansion where the chef cooked her a personal lunch. She genuinely cared for the two small boys she looked after so much that she did not mind accompanying the family to their country home on the weekends to babysit. Such satisfied au pairs sometimes stay with their families for up to two years.

Many other au pair attempts do not work out. An Atlanta college student I met in Madrid took a year off to work for a family she soon discovered owned an international clothing company. She felt trapped when yachting with them in the Mediterranean, finding it hard to separate her free time from work hours or feel comfortable in her role with the family. After a couple of months, she quit and found a job tutoring English. Another au pair friend, a future med student from South Carolina, flew out of Barcelona before her final Spanish exam. She could not take another hungry, sleepless week living with a family who subsisted on dinners of boiled hotdogs and rice, and whose baby howled all night. Despite her employers’ hospitality and the light workload, she felt miserable living in the cramped, downtown apartment and frustrated with her role as caregiver for two grouchy girls.

Indeed, there’s no shortage of au pair horror stories. No one predicted that the little girl I had looked after would exhibit behavioral problems and be diagnosed with a severe case of celiac disease shortly after my arrival, or that my Czech friend’s employers would file for divorce a few months after she moved in. I met an au pair from Utah who moved to Madrid after her college graduation to live with a family who asked her to accompany them to an out-of-town wedding to watch the children. A few days before the trip, the mother reminded her to buy an expensive wedding gift. An au pair in my Spanish class ended up returning to Sweden when her employers complained that she broke the house rules of tidiness when she hung up her gym clothes to dry in her bedroom and left the children’s crusty oatmeal bowls to soak in the sink. Perhaps most unnerving, my Finnish friend worked for a woman who entered her bedroom to log on to her personal laptop while she was out.

Conversely, families have their own stories of disastrous au pairs–my British host family’s new au pair never showed up at the airport, and the next one only lasted two weeks, citing homesickness. My Austrian friend left her host family for another family in a location better suited to her clubbing habit with barely a week’s notice.

Keys to a Successful Au Pair Experience

The key to a successful au pair experience is thoughtfully choosing a family whose expectations are in sync with yours. Do not immediately accept a position in tropical Tenerife before pausing to consider whether you can handle four children, and do not contact a family living in London’s hippest neighborhood even though your bedroom would double as the playroom. (That scenario actually came up with a family I contacted–the mother sent me a photo of a bed squeezed between towering shelves of red and yellow building blocks and board games.) If you have never changed a diaper and are vulnerable to loneliness, do not consider committing to a job caring for a newborn in a village just because it pays well.

Above all, be aware that although the convenient au pair arrangement can be enticing to any victim of wanderlust, it can be torture for someone who lacks the personality for children. No matter how tempting you find the prospect of an easy route to a stay in cosmopolitan or idyllic Europe, the situation really best suits the flexible and independent individual who has some childcare experience—or at least a mild affinity for little ones and a fierce combination of determination and patience.

For More Info
  • Browse websites like www.greataupair.com and www.aupair-world.net that connect au pairs and families to locate a position.
  • Find an agency to facilitate the au pair process through the International Au Pair Association at www.iapa.org.
  • Get insured before you leave the country. One option for U.S. travelers in need of temporary medical insurance is the Patriot International Plan available at www.imgglobal.com.
  • Research your destination country’s visa requirements listed on its embassy or consulate’s website. Most European countries require that U.S. citizens obtain a visa for stays longer than 90 days. Soliciting a visa can be a complicated, expensive, and generally painful process—so start as early as possible. (Although many au pairs from the States ignore visa regulations without problems, you have been warned.)
  • Do not assume that au pairing is only limited to women—men can work as au pairs as well. Although it is harder for guys to find jobs, some families with boys actually prefer a big brother figure. You may read about this trend in The New York Times.
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