au pair: noun, a young person (usually a young woman) from a foreign country who lives with a family and helps to care for children and do housework in return for the opportunity to learn the family’s language – merriam-webster.com
November 2013 – Exhausted. That’s what I remember. It was when my husband was traveling weekly, I had a newborn and two boys under seven, and I was teaching part time that my husband and I opted to dive into the world of au pairs. Soon thereafter, we were picking up our new housemate at the airport with a single suitcase and a stuffed bear. Jet lagged from a long flight from Poland, it was our young au pair’s first time on an airplane, first time in the US, and all of this with a single year of college English on her tongue.
Our au pair, whom I’ll call Poppins, was from a university town in Poland and flew almost six thousand miles to San Francisco in January of 2014. She and our family signed a contract for 12 months through an agency called Au Pair Care. Although some people have coordinated an au pair from another country on their own, it’s a seamless process (and, ahem, did I mention legal?) to use the services of an agency. It is not, I repeat, not, cheap. However, it’s important to know that it is still cheaper than the price of a full time nanny.
The low down on the cost: Here’s a great breakdown on Au Pair Care’s website about the cost of an au pair. After the agency fees, we end up paying Poppins about $5/hour for three children, for up to 43 hours per week.
I think most people in need of full time childcare would go for this option with the exception of one tiny thing: you must have an extra bedroom. Poppins has told me a few (slightly horrific) stories about windowless rooms and makeshift basements. But most agencies require a home “inspection” before a contract is signed.
I do not think having an au pair is a sign of affluence, although often I’m embarrassed when mentioning it in conversation (I resort – sheepishly – to calling her a babysitter). I’ve come to understand that having an au pair is akin to living in a small village where the oldest child takes on the responsibility of being a third parent.
Poppins was 23 when she arrived. 23 is at that delicate age when one is an adult yet only recently finished their teenage years. Some au pairs are as young as 18, and maturity levels definitely vary. Here’s the thing, you can’t not want an extra child. Or maybe an extra dependent is better diction. Over the course of the year I helped Poppins sign up for English classes by driving to the local community college and applying in person, I took her to get emergency dental work, I watched her get her heart broken by an American boy, I’ve helped her buy her first iPhone, and I’ve taken her to the DMV for her drivers test(s).
With that being said, it’s amusing to have a young twenty-something in the house again. It’s always fun to see her get glammed up for a night at the clubs. Poppins is respectful about coming home quietly (many au pairs are given curfews, we chose not to), is never (obviously) hungover when we need her early on a weekend morning, and she pitches in with household chores even when she’s not on the clock.The kids treat her like a big sister/auntie and they relish the fact that someone will get down on the floor and play. We feel lucky since rematches are common. A rematch is when the host family and the au pair have agreed to go their separate ways before the term of the contract is over. For some this means moving to another city. But if an au pair cannot find another family to match with, she/he will have to go back to their home country.
Lastly, the international exposure broadened our family’s experience. We are all exposed to another language (which has huge benefits), culture, history, food and lifestyle. My middle son laughs so hard when Poppins slathers her pizza with ketchup, my daughter just stares when she microwaves her bowl of honey nut cheerios and milk, and my oldest son has convinced her to become a Cholula hot sauce fanatic. They have learned Polish tongue twisters, I’ve learned about her father who commutes weekly to Germany to drive a taxi, and she now loves the newfound delicacy of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
With all of this being sad, when it’s time for Poppins to return home we won’t opt to sign with another au pair. Our daughter will be heading to school and we won’t need as much help going forward. But someday we hope to make a family trip to Poland, and visit Poppins when she has her own brood to watch over.