For years after we had children, my husband suggested participating in The Au Pair Program. I was very hesitant and worried about someone else living in our house and having to entertain them 24/7. I like my space and want to sit alone at night on the couch after everyone is in bed and watch my crime shows (fictional, not true crime).
Now, here I am, living with my fourth au pair, ready to help others decide if an au pair is the right fit.
What is an au pair?
It may help to start from the beginning. The Au Pair Program was officially enacted by the United States government in 1989. It is run by the U.S. Department of State. Here are a few things to know about the regulations of The Au Pair Program:
- Au pairs come from overseas on a J-1 visa and must be between 18 and 26 years old when they arrive in the United States.
- They can work up to 45 hours per week and no more than 10 hours per day with 1.5 consecutive days off every week and at least one full weekend off each month.
- Host families must provide a private bedroom, three meals a day, and a minimum stipend of $195.75 per week.
- In addition to working, au pairs are required to earn six hours of academic credit over the course of the year. Host families commit to providing (up to) the first $500 toward the cost of the au pair’s academic course work.
- Au pairs can stay in the program a maximum of two consecutive years (there is some flexibility if an au pair resides outside of the United States for two years after completing the program and is still within the age limits–then that person can participate in the program again).
- Host families are required to give au pairs two weeks of paid vacation per year.
- Children must be three months old or older to be taken care of by an au pair. Please note that au pairs caring for children under two need a special infant qualification.
- Household duties related to the children are within the scope of an au pair’s work (kid laundry and meal prep, etc), but they are not housekeepers and can’t be asked to take on housekeeping duties (with the caveat that they are expected to pitch in as a member of the family).
Is an au pair right for your family?
As I mentioned, I was not excited about the prospect of taking part in The Au Pair Program. Then I had my third child. We were outnumbered. I did not know how I was going to take three kids to three different places (elementary school, preschool, and daycare). I started looking into nannies, but having a nanny who could drive was expensive. My husband works long hours and I travel as part of my job, so I also needed more flexible childcare. I talked to a number of friends about their positive au pair experiences and I was convinced to give it a try.
Here are some things to think about when considering whether an au pair is right for your family:
Do you need flexibility with your childcare?
Au Pairs have limited hours per day and per week, but they can work those hours in a flexible fashion. When my youngest was a baby, I needed the standard 8am-6pm work hours most days. Now that my kids are in school, I love that I can schedule the week around my needs. I usually schedule an hour in the morning to help me get the kids out the door. Then I schedule after school into the evening depending on activity schedules. I can even shift hours around so I can make my book club meetings at night!
Are you interested in your family having a cultural experience?
Our four au pairs have been from three different countries. We have tried new foods, celebrated new holidays, learned a lot about local culture, and even some new words. I was not committed to my kids becoming fluent in another language, but that is also something that an au pair can work on with children.
Are you looking for a more affordable option?
In doing the calculations, the au pair option was much more affordable than hiring a nanny. I do want to note here that there are expenses in addition to the minimum stipend and academic contribution. First of all, there is a fee to the au pair agency that covers their travel to/from the United States, health insurance, and administrative costs. Secondly, having another person in the house does mean a higher food bill. If you are buying tickets for a family activity, it is an extra ticket. Our au pair drives, so we pay for insurance, gas, and a AAA membership. You also may want an extra car (but that is not necessary). Still, adding all of those things together, it was still a cost effective option for us.
Are you excited to welcome someone else into your family?
My concern about having an au pair was about living with a stranger. However, these women were not strangers for long. They quickly became members of our family. I am in close touch with each au pair, sending them pictures of the kids and catching up on their lives. And don’t forget: they are young people with friends and lives. They don’t want to hang out with me/us all of the time. I have plenty of time to watch my shows, and especially during the last two years, it has been really nice to have another adult to talk to throughout the day.
It worked for our family. Will it work for yours?
Hosting an au pair has turned into an incredible experience. My kids have extended the network of people who love them and who they love. Our family has connected deeply with people who are different from us and we have learned so much (and maybe taught some things too). It is not the right fit for all families, and honestly, I thought we were one of those families. It turns out I was wrong. I am forever grateful that I was open to being proven wrong.