Part of the Family—Au Pairs

Having an au pair in your home means more than having live-in child care, it also means a cultural exchange and a new member of the family.

“You’re not just a guest. You’re part of the family.” This is what Natasha Wrobel, Au Pair in America’s senior community counselor for Anne Arundel County, tells her groups of local au pairs when she counsels them on the host family-au pair dynamic. And it’s true—while the young women from all over the world are placed with American families to provide child care, their role doesn’t end with changing diapers or taking kids to soccer practice; an au pair simultaneously becomes a care giver, a daughter to her host parent(s), part of an enlightening cultural experience, and a trusted member of the family.

ThinkstockPhotos 506673498A Good Fit for Your Family?

Maybe your local day care checks all the boxes, or perhaps a nanny is the right way to go. But for families searching for a unique child care experience, welcoming an au pair into the fold might be just the ticket.

Wrobel, who’s been in her role for 18 years, says if a family is simply looking for inexpensive child care, bringing an au pair into the home probably isn’t the right call. “The very first thing that I stress (with interested families) is, ‘it’s a cultural exchange. You have to be in it for that’,” she explains. Similarly, an au pair is a young person who’s still learning and figuring out who she is, so families need to understand that welcoming an au pair is very much like adding an older sibling to the mix. “You’re bringing in someone else’s daughter,” says Wrobel.

With Au Pair in America, young ladies (age 18 to 26) are available to care for children aged three months through 18. Some families may think that unless they have very small children, an au pair isn’t for them. Not so, says Wrobel; parents who need assistance in getting their older kids to extra-curricular activities could benefit from having an au pair there during those tricky afternoon windows of time. And as for cost, “if you have two or more children, it’s more cost effective to have an au pair,” she says.

How it Works

The online profile and application process for programs such as Au Pair in America and Cultural Care Au Pair is designed to make the best match possible between a family’s needs and an au pair candidate’s background and skills. Families typically have access to various screenings, background checks and references, and interviewing selected au pairs via phone or Skype allows for a more personal follow-up exchange before the final match is made (Wrobel also says this is an excellent opportunity to ascertain a candidate’s English skills, which, at a minimum, should be good enough for her to call 911 in case of emergency). Once an au pair is selected and arrives stateside, she attends an orientation before joining the family. A local counselor or specialist assists families and candidates throughout the entire process.

Expert Advice

Wrobel says that open communication and honesty are necessary for the host family-au pair relationship to work well. From discussing daily duties and behavior management to letting her know you want her to truly be part of the family, having specific expectations out in the open from the get-go (and being able to discuss what works and what doesn’t along the way) will only serve to strengthen the bond between an au pair and her host family over the course of her stay. After all, “you’re part of a team,” says Wrobel. “The way you treat your au pair is the way she’s going to treat your kids,” she explains.


Parental Feedback

We spoke with several “host” moms in the region—Theresa (whose last name has been withheld for privacy), formerly of Waldorf, and Hillary Hytken of Columbia—to see what their experiences were like.

ThinkstockPhotos 598930378Why did you decide to look into hosting an au pair?

Theresa: We had several nannies, some of whom worked better than others, but it was getting expensive. Also, my schedule varies a lot. The idea of a live-in, consistent helper who got paid the same rate to work a maximum number of hours was very appealing. We had the space for a live-in, and liked the idea of having someone from another country for a nice cultural experience for the boys. We thought of it like an exchange student who has to help out with the kids!

Hillary: I own my own business and have weird hours. My husband has some flexibility but cannot work from home. We needed dependable, affordable, flexible childcare. I also studied abroad in college and while I was not an au pair, I helped a lot with the son I lived with, and remain in contact with the family, so the idea of giving back on that level and exposing the boys to the foreign language aspect was very appealing.

What have been the benefits of having an au pair?

Hillary: The cultural exchange, the flexibility, and the relationships we all have with our au pairs are benefits. We really love that the girls are willing to give of themselves and become part of the family.

Theresa: The child care is in your home—no scrambling to get everyone ready for daycare, no worries about them being late due to traffic or weather. They quickly get to know your family and your kids, as well as your preferences. It’s fun getting to know another culture and sharing things about the U.S. with the au pair.

What have been the challenges/drawbacks?

Theresa: Sometimes it’s like having another child, especially if they are young. The first few weeks are tough—they are getting used to things and may not speak English very well, and you have to spell everything out for them, even if it’s something that seems obvious to you.

Hillary: The hidden costs are a little hard to swallow: car insurance is expensive and there are always little extras. The language barrier has been a bit tough on my husband, made more difficult because I am fluent and so are the kids. Our first au pair lived with us through my second pregnancy, which was tough and then wasn’t allowed to be alone with the baby for three months so that was a bit challenging as well.

What was it like introducing someone new into the family?

Hillary: There are always trust issues with someone new taking care of your kids. With our first [au pair], we just took a leap of trust and it went great. With our second, we paid our first to stay the extra week and that was a huge help. But our second au pair has made a seamless transition into our family and the kids adore her.

Theresa: You usually know a lot about your au pair before they come, and have likely Skyped with them at least once (with the kids, too). This helps to prepare everyone for what it will be like—where she’s from, her family (brothers, sisters, pets), her favorite foods, etc. We talked with the boys a bit about having a new person in the house, and they knew that she’d be coming to help take care of them but instead of going home like the nannies did, she’d live with us.  

They’re usually quiet and shy for the first few weeks, especially if the au pair’s English isn’t great. The boys have been pretty close with our au pairs, at least the ones that stay for the full year or more (we had two that didn’t stick, per se). It’s been fun to see how their relationships/interactions with the au pairs change as they get older. Our youngest has given the au pairs a hard time, especially around age three, but I think that’s largely because of other things that were going on, like moving to a new house, school, etc., that would rock any toddler’s world.

What’s your advice for families considering hosting an au pair?

Theresa: Do your homework! Really look into the agency (most are very similar but there are a few differences in style), and read through the au pair’s whole file including letters of recommendation, personal interviews, etc. Do the math and see how much time they spent taking care of kids, especially ones similar to the ages/stages of kids in your family.

Hillary: Trust your gut when interviewing, start interviewing early, and be patient. Remember these are young girls and they need love and support as well as guidance. Be clear about your house rules but make sure you and your spouse are clear on things before you bring in an au pair so that everyone is on the same page.

To learn more about some of the au pair programs in our area, visit: Au Pair in America (aupairinamerica.com, facebook.com/AuPairAnnapolis), Cultural Care Au Pair (culturalcare.com), EurAupair (euraupair.com), and Go Au Pair (goaupair.com).

—Laura Boycourt