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Amazing au pairs - Could an au pair be a good solution for your childcare needs?

Catherine Davies

When I was 18 I spent a year abroad and worked as an au pair for a family in Spain and a family in France. I really enjoyed myself. Things have now come full circle and we have employed au pairs to look after children since they started school 5 years ago. My husband and I both work full time and have demanding jobs. In general having an au pair as part of the team works really well for us. In this article I’ll help you figure out whether an au pair could work for you and give you some practical advice on how to find a good one and keep her (or him?)!

 

There are various pros and cons and I’ve set out the main ones below.

Pros

  • Friendly, young energetic childcare (!)
  • Economical (the going rate is £80-120 per week); we also make a contribution to language classes, phone credit, some driving lessons with an instructor just to get them used to being on the other side of the road (!), one return flight home as well as all board and lodging costs)
  • Flexible childcare - because they are live-in there is less heart-attack inducing pressure to be home at a particular time on the dot although you obviously need to be clear about when you will arrive home and make sure you stick to what you’ve agreed
  • Very good for school age children when childcare qualifications aren't so important. I don’t think an au pair could have sole charge of a baby.
  • You form a bond with the au pair and so it's nice to have someone you get to know well looking after your children

Cons  

  • Au pairs are live-in so there is a loss of privacy so no more running around the house naked (I haven't found this to be a problem in practice as ours are always out having fun with au pair friends in London when not working and I don’t generally run around the house naked!!) You need enough space in your house to make this work. Ideally you can offer your au pair her own bathroom.
  • For the au pair, living with your family and caring for your children is a working holiday so they go home in a flash if there is an unforeseen event, eg a “real” job comes along, a health issue comes up. This can be frustrating and difficult to manage and it is worth thinking about what your Plan B is if that happens (can you rope family in at short notice in emergencies?)
  • You choose someone who is going to live in your house and look after your children without having met them (some people pay for a potential au pair to fly to the UK and spend the weekend in their home for a little trial period but I haven’t found this to be necessary). I usually know when I pick the au pair up from the airport whether it’s going to work (it nearly always does).
  • An au pair doesn't usually have childcare qualifications
  • An au pair usually stays for a year (although our first one ended up staying for over 2 years). In general that means back to the search quite regularly. Incidentally, I haven’t noticed the kids reacting badly to this – they just seem to accept it for what it is. When, on a couple of occasions, our au pairs have left suddenly they just ask when the next au pair is coming!

 

What does our au pair do?

  • School drop off and pick up
  • Drops kids off at weekday clubs eg ice hockey
  • Makes kids' dinner (we usually tell her what to make)
  • Supervises homework
  • Does kids' laundry
  • Keeps kids' rooms tidy
  • Puts kids to bed if my husband or I can't get home on time (around 7:30pm)

How to find an au pair

There are lots of ways to find an au pair, including agencies – general and specialist, e.g. ones that specialise in Swedish or Australian au pairs, as well as websites and personal connections. I have tried various methods and now I just use the website www.aupairworld.com I make a nice advert to "sell" our family so that we sound like a nice family that potential au pairs will want to live with – we are a nice family of course! I provide details of what the job entails, what we offer and also provide some information about our local area. I add photos of our family, the house and our au pair’s bedroom and bathroom. You need to provide this information to agencies too. Sometimes an au pair returning home can recommend a friend which works really well.

We live in London and need a driver so I am quite specific about my requirements. I am looking for:

  • a female – we have considered male au pairs but ended up going with female ones
  • preferably Spanish - I speak Spanish people and have always been interested in Spain and its culture
  • aged 23+ – otherwise the car insurance is eye-wateringly expensive
  • who has lived in a city – so London isn’t too overwhelming
  • speaks reasonable English – so she can understand what the children are saying and vice versa; and
  • who has lived/worked away from home before – as this gives me confidence she is likely to be fairly independent and won’t be too homesick.

I message people who fit the brief, and look at messages I receive from people who are interested. I ask them some questions by email e.g. why do they want to come to London, why do they want to work as an au pair, what are they doing at the moment, what childcare experience do they have, how would they keep children entertained, what would they cook, who does the cooking and cleaning in their house? etc. I’ll answer their questions too. Then if I get a good feeling, I'll skype them and if that goes well I’ll skype again with my husband and the children. I think it’s important to be really honest in these conversations about expectations on both sides. Then I’ll check references and make a decision.  

 

The first few days

We all go and pick up the au pair from the airport if possible. They are generally quite nervous as they come through the arrivals hall and it’s kind and reassuring to do a big friendly family greeting! When I was an au pair arriving in Paris I remember getting propositioned by a weird man in a train station while I was waiting for the exiting au pair to find me. Not the best start but it got better after that!

We give our au pair a welcome letter with all the info they need when they arrive and offer to talk through it. The tone of is this letter is intended to be friendly and reassuring. It covers: basic family info (address, phone numbers, etc.), information about the children (likes and dislikes, dealing with challenging behaviour, rewarding good behaviour), meals and snacks, work schedule, health and safety, pay and holidays, directions to important places (school!), some things we ask of our au pair, phone and tv, living and studying in London. If you like, you can get my letter if you click on the button below. 

It’s worth putting lots of effort in at the beginning to get to know your au pair and to help her settle in. We also try to be as communicative as possible as I think that’s one of the keys to success. If you, or your au pair, bottle things up that’s when things can get difficult to manage. We also try to introduce our au pair to au pair friends as soon as possible so being in touch with local families with au pairs is handy. It usually takes about a month for an au pair to settle in and then you’re up and running!

I hope this has helped you think about whether an au pair would be a good childcare solution for your family. Check out the rest of my website for advice, support and inspiration for working mums xoxoxoxo