8 Great Reasons to Au Pair Abroad
Article and photos by Hannah Chenoweth
|While working in Spain as an au pair, I went on a visit to the children’s Abuela (Grandmother) and Abuelo (Grandfather). I was lucky enough to see the small, beautiful city of Santander.
It all starts with a dilemma. You are about to graduate college or have recently done so. You lust for an overseas adventure, a life-changing experience to broaden your horizons before the shackles of the 9 to 5 life take hold. However, your finances are limited, and you can’t imagine a feasible path to follow your dreams.
You could always work your life away and then explore the world during retirement, right?
Absolutely not! When you are young, with energy and time on your hands, you can’t allow the basic money obstacle keep you from seeing the world. And "where there’s a will, there’s a way" is no pointless cliché to you. Cue the au pair opportunity.
Just What is an Au Pair?
An au pair is a young person who lives with a host family in a different country, providing part-time childcare in exchange for free rent and food. Not to be confused with a servant or maid, the word au pair translates to “on equal footing.” Au pairs help out with the children, often speaking English with them, and they are treated as a member of the family (think adopted big brother or sister). The stay is essentially a cultural exchange, a wonderful opportunity for both the family and the au pair to learn about a different way of life. Au pairs are given at least two days off a week and more free time to explore; it all depends on their arrangements with the family.
Your college major is seldom of importance, though citizens of English-speaking countries have a big advantage. You simply need to be young, unmarried, and childless; au pairs typically fall between 18 and 30 years old. Families from almost every country imaginable desire native English speakers to familiarize their children with the lingua franca of the world. The job, like any other, has its challenges, but the unique advantages and opportunities for au pairs far outweigh any issues. Here are the top eight reasons you should consider being an au pair:
1) Being an Au Pair is Financially Feasible
The relief of free lodging and meals cannot be underestimated. Without worrying about rent, utility bills, or groceries, you are free to spend your weekly pocket money as you wish instead of having to budget for necessities. The amount you are paid varies and won’t be a huge sum, but you will make enough for guilt-free indulgences in local cuisine, that extra glass of authentic Italian wine, and souvenirs for everyone back home. If you’re an au pair during the summer holidays, this also typically means tagging along on vacation and having your very own hotel room.
The only financial hurdle is buying a plane ticket, and even that is sometimes paid for by the family. Food and shelter—often the bulk of travel expenses—are simply eliminated from the equation, which is why being an au pair is an extremely practical way to visit a dream country long-term.
|Madrid’s Mercado San Anton—a food lover’s paradise and the recipient of a good amount of my pocket money!
2) Living with Locals is a Great Form of Cultural Immersion
Living with a foreign family is a unique look at a different culture that otherwise may not be accessible. You experience day-to-day life without rushing to cross tourist destinations off your itinerary, leading to an authentic understanding of what it means to live like an Italian, Spaniard, Australian, etc. You also receive incredible inside information and advice on what to see and do beyond the touristy side of things from people in the know, adding to the authenticity of your stay. The family will provide you with far more valuable information than you would receive from a shouting tour guide’s megaphone. Being served traditional cuisine each day from native cooks isn’t a bad deal either; host families are often eager to prepare you a sampling of their culture’s custom culinary dishes as a matter of pride. Most au pairs stay for at least a month or two, consequently experiencing not only holidays and special occasions but the motions of everyday life. Observing a family’s table manners, rules, bedtime rituals, and general interactions is a fascinating look into how other cultures operate, opening your mind to the fact that there are countless ways to live.
|You could truly feel the streets of Madrid pulsing with energy during the Pride Festival. People came from all over the world to celebrate in the streets day and night.
3) Learning Another Language is Invaluable
Learning the local language may not be on your radar for your trip, or it could be your main motivating factor in becoming an au pair. Personally, I arrived in Spain with an embarrassingly basic level of Spanish; I could say “hola” and “bueno,” and spent a lot of time smiling and nodding initially. The truth is, you’ll surprise yourself by how quickly you pick up the language when you are living abroad. If nothing else, hearing your name in a sentence that you don’t understand—or trying to soothe a toddler screaming in a foreign tongue—will motivate you to break the language barrier.
Your experience becomes more enjoyable as you learn the building blocks of communication in the native language and become more capable of participating fully. As your knowledge grows, so will your self-sufficiency and confidence as you break the surface of what you see and begin to understand the world with a broader perspective. Learning a new language strengthens your communication skills, cognitive ability, and cultural understanding. As Federico Fellini, the great Italian film director said, “A different language is a different vision of life.”
4) International Experience is a Great Resume Booster
Possessing international work experience isn’t going to hurt anyone’s career search, no matter what field or industry. To leave the comforts of home and work in a foreign land shows employers that you’re not afraid to take risks and put yourself in unknown territory. Anyone can claim adaptability as a strong suit, but having an au pair experience on your resume will be recognized as proof. It also reflects highly on your communication and creative problem-solving skills, which are strengthened by necessity when living in a foreign country. Global experience demonstrates to employers that you’re self-reliant, adventurous, open-minded, resourceful, and able to tackle issues with a broad frame of mind…the list of constructive signals goes on and on. Of course, your experience demonstrates that shows you can be relied upon to travel for work if necessary. The invaluable skills you procure while working in a different country are unattainable to those who don’t have your experience, providing you an advantage over the competition.
5) Au Pairing is a “Responsible” Gap Experience
You may be thinking, “But I’m not going into a childcare field in the future. How can an au pair job possibly look responsible?” The reason the experience is perceived as responsible is that it’s not an unexplained gap; you are proactively working, earning an income, and learning about another culture. It’s an extremely smart and practical way of seeing the world for those are interested in doing so; you’re not simply draining your finances on a 3-month European booze cruise (not that the idea sounds so terrible).
Graduating college happens like a whirlwind. Between all the festivities, Capstone craziness and goodbyes, there’s not a lot of time to think about what you want out of the future—which is for most a big deal. It’s worth acknowledging that having a little time just to experience life while also making money is a great way to add clarity to what many call their “quarter-life crisis.” You learn a lot about yourself being away from home on your own. You will realize who truly matters to you, what you are burning to do when you get back home, and what you want to do with your life before taking the plunge.
6) The Next Closest Experience to Parenting
No amount of childcare experience can prepare you for actually living with kids 24/7. There will inevitably be times when you are “off duty” but also not immune to adorable puppy eyes asking you to play. There will be times when they melt your heart and others where you swear demonic forces possess them. You may find yourself changing your mind about when you want kids, or how many you want. There’s no better time to find this information out than before you actually have a baby to take care of—for life! Living with children shows you the incredible amount of work it takes, and will make you treasure your independence while you have it—while preparing you for the day you decide you may want your own (if you still feel that way by the end!).
7) Customize Your Experience
|The fact that you could stumble upon a castle all over Spain, even randomly in the middle of a town square, blew my mind. The local children were amused at my amazement!
The universal question, “How do I get experience when every single job requires 3-5 years of experience?” becomes your agonizing reality during the post-grad job hunt. Searching for a host family is a nice change that puts you in the driver’s seat. You are the one deciding where you want to go, for how long, and the exact circumstances you desire; then you simply find a family that fits these requirements. How remarkable is it that you can pick the city of your dreams, that one place you’ve always longed to visit and make it happen?
In my case, I knew that I wanted a summer au pair experience in Madrid, Spain lasting for 2-3 months in a family with younger children. From there, I communicated with different families online and via Skype until I felt confident that I’d found the right match. I suggest that you think about what you truly want out of the experience, since there will likely be a family that can provide you such a home. Look up the neighborhood on Google Maps; figure out if there is an accessible bus, train, etc. Think about how many children you are comfortable watching, and if you’d rather live in the mountains, at the beach, or in a big city. These choices are all yours to make!
8) Only the Beginning of Lifelong Wanderlust
Wanderlust is an irresistible yearning to explore the world, a desire that is familiar to so many. It’s packing your bags and tasting the fullness of life, primed in the knowledge that time passes quickly and the world is vast and beautiful. You may think your experience abroad will cool that flame within you, but the desire to see the world will only grow exponentially once you have visited a new location. Travel has an incredible power to expand your mind while making the world seem smaller. In a foreign land, you tend to live in the moment in a manner that many of us stop doing once the magical wonder of childhood evaporates. No longer trapped by the same mundane routines, when traveling you’re constantly on the move, seeing, roaming, tasting, breathing in the air of new places, marveling—you are in the moment. Living overseas as an au pair, if only for a short period, will be an astonishing initiation into the many adventures you will undertake in your life, once you realize that to travel is to truly live.
Hannah Chenoweth is a recently graduated journalism major from West Virginia University. She lived in Madrid, Spain as an au pair. If you have any questions about the au pair experience, feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.