Pros and Cons of Hiring an Au Pair
South Orange and Maplewood parents reflect on their experiences.
With the cost of day care skyrocketing, many families are opting for the more personal comfort of au pairs. These young women generally live with their host families for a year with the option to extend for another year. Au pairs are typically students taking a break from their studies to learn English and travel. Most programs require that an au pair have private living quarters and work no more than 40-45 hours per week. Beyond these requirements, most other regulations are agreed upon during the interviews.
Au pairs bring their traditions, culture and language to the host family. According to Rita Desnoyers, a South Orange mother, “We had a really good interview and [our au pair, Ingrid,] was willing to speak to me and the kids in Spanish.” Similarly, Amy McGlinn, a mother of two in Maplewood, opted for a Spanish-speaking au pair because “my husband and I really love to learn about other cultures and we have a huge love of language.”
Their intimate interactions are rarely replicated in larger day care settings. Said Desnoyers, “My children get so much one-on-one loving care with [Ingrid] that I feel that she is essential to the harmony of our family.”
However, she may also have cultural differences that need addressing. For example, Europeans can drink before they are 21 and may be surprised to find that is not the case in the U.S. Or, her personality and child-rearing ideas may be different than yours. She may be timid and shy while the family is more gregarious and outgoing, or she may be a strict disciplinarian while you are not.
For most au pairs, English is at least a second language; that may prove challenging in basic communication, let alone in an emergency. In my own case, trying to have telephone interviews with potential candidates—in our case, in Thailand—proved immensely challenging because of time zones and language barriers, and this left us uneasy when we considered the prospect of daily communication. We were never fully convinced that a young woman, half-way across the world whom we had never met, was going to be a good match for us.
Au pairs are only slightly more expensive than a full-time nanny or day care. However, host families are also expected to pay for her food, furniture, utilities, technology, petty cash, and sometimes a vehicle and its sundry costs. As they are generally considered part of the family, au pairs are typically also taken along on family-paid travels and are involved in family celebrations and holidays. They are also paid for personal vacation time.
Similarly, there is administrative work to having an au pair: arranging Social Security and tax documentation, vehicular registration and insurance, along with teaching her to use public transit, household machinery, and to drive. Desnoyers concurred: “The biggest hurdles were getting [Ingrid] settled here—helping her get documents she needed.”
Many au pairs also do general household chores if arranged at the onset, eliminating the need for, and cost of, additional domestic help. While most child care providers will do chores involving the children, many au pairs will also do family chores, like cooking dinner, family laundry and household cleaning.
Since au pairs live in the home, they are often considered built-in babysitters. This allows parents to run errands alone or work late without having to coordinate with day care. According to Desnoyers, “Ingrid really is the missing piece in our family. All things flow better with her around. I could not have my business the way it is now without her. My husband and I would not be able to go out alone as much without her.”
However, having a young adult move in as you are expanding your own family may add additional stresses. Many families must come to terms with a lack of privacy with an au pair. Beyond losing a room or two, modesty and intimacy issues also factor in. In my own case, I couldn’t imagine doubling my family size with a newborn and a young woman, particularly should she get homesick, need disciplinary action, or need my finite attention and rearranging our home for her.
Similarly, a foreign woman may experience difficulties adjusting to her new environs, especially without friends and family nearby. According to one disillusioned South Orange mom, whose au pair arrived a month late, the matching “ended disastrously. She walked out very suddenly on us.” For many au pairs, it's their first time away from home, and they can be stricken with homesickness, isolation and culture shock.
This all equates to finding a balance in bringing a stranger into your home.
“My biggest concerns were having someone live in our home and what if we were not able to communicate effectively," said Desnoyers. "Both concerns were not warranted. She is very quiet and responsible. She is eager to communicate and adapt to our needs.”
Once you find an au pair whose application you like and who you feel comfortable with on the phone, the underlying keystone to success is regular communication. Many families have written rules and guidelines to adhere to along with signed household contracts. Regular, weekly meetings to discuss issues and rearing style will alleviate confrontations and budding hostility. The agencies can also get involved to mediate conflict. That said, generally speaking, most families have a very good experience with hosting an au pair and often stay close after their contractual term has ended.