Have you ever heard of au pairs before and wondered what they were all about? Or maybe thought that live-in childcare is only for rich people? My family hosted au pairs for five years, and I think it’s one of the most amazing childcare options out there. And, surprise! It’s not just for rich people. It’s way more affordable than you think! In fact, if you have two or three or more kids, you just might be paying more for childcare now than you would be paying if you had an au pair.
Over the last five years, I got asked a ton of questions about the au pair program, so I’m going to answer the most frequently asked of them here. If you still have questions, ask me in the comments!
What is an au pair?
An au pair is a young adult between the ages of 18-25 who comes from another country for one year on a cultural exchange visa. The terms of the program are that they live with a host family and provide childcare for the family’s children and also take a minimum of 6 credits at an accredited college or university.
How many hours can they work?
Au pairs can be scheduled up to 45 hours per week with some limitations to make sure that au pairs are not being taken advantage of. For example, they can’t work more than 10 hours in a day, they need to have at least 1 ½ days off on the weekend, and one full weekend off every month.
What I love about scheduling is that your 45 hours can be whenever you need them most. If you have young kids and a busy job, that might be 8:30-5:30 every day. Or, if your kids are in school during the day, you can schedule your au pair in the evenings to help with running kids to activities. Need a date night? You can do that, too. Or, if you need help because you’ve got one kid in a soccer game at the same time another kid is in dance class across town, you can use some of your au pair’s hours to divide and conquer. As long as you are within your 45 hour per week, 10 hour per day limit, you’re good to go.
How much does it cost?
The average cost is about $350 per week. That total comes from two main things: an agency fee and your au pair’s weekly stipend. In my experience with Cultural Care, the agency fee costs about $8,000 and can be paid up front or on a payment plan throughout the year. Each week, your au pair earns a stipend of $195.75. That number is determined by the US Department of State by reducing the federal minimum wage for 45 hours of work by 40%, given that you are providing room and board for your au pair.
How do you find an au pair?
We used an agency called Cultural Care because it is the au pair agency with the biggest presence here in the Iowa City area, and we wanted our au pairs to have a good community of au pairs here to be part of. However, there are 17 au pair agencies in the US.
With Cultural Care, and with most agencies, matching with an au pair is a lot like online dating. You look at the au pairs profiles and if you think there’s potential for a good match, you can send them your profile and contact them. They choose whether to contact you back or to reject the potential match. If you they like you on paper, then you set up a time to talk, typically via Skype. You ask each other all the questions you can think of and lay out what each of you are expecting through the year.
If it’s a good fit, the host family makes the offer of a match and the au pair can accept or reject it. Our first au pair told us she had turned down more than a dozen host families before choosing us (we felt so special she picked us!), and our other two au pairs told us that we were the first family that they had spoken to.
Will the au pair clean my house and cook all of our meals?
No. Your au pair is not your maid, your chef, your housekeeper, or your slave. Your au pair can help clean up after the kids and can prepare meals for your kids. But, they are not expected to take care of your whole household. Just your kids. So, for example, our au pairs vacuumed the kids’ playroom once a week and took care of the kids’ laundry once a week. They also were responsible for cleaning their own room and their shower, since they were the only one to use it.
Outside childcare duties, their own space, and the general responsibilities of being an adult in the household (like changing the trash bag when it’s full or putting toilet paper in the bathroom when it needs it), au pairs should not be expected to take care of your home or your chores.
What if you love your au pair and want her to stay longer?
When you are about six months into your year, the agency will ask if you’d like to extend your time with your au pair. At that time, you have the opportunity to offer an additional 3-12 months, and your au pair has the opportunity to accept or just choose to go home as scheduled. Sadly, at the end of their term, however long it is, there are often ugly cries in the car on the way to or from the airport. It’s really hard saying goodbye.
What if you can’t get along with your au pair?
There is an opportunity for what they call transition or re-match. The au pair has the chance to look for a new host family and you have the chance to welcome a new au pair. Before a family can go into rematch, at least with Cultural Care, the local coordinator will meet with you and see if you can resolve your differences and continue. My personal advice is to go with your gut on this. If you really feel like you can’t work it out, don’t make your family and your au pair suffer through the whole year together.
Do I have to have a huge house and do I need to have a car just for my au pair?
No to both of these questions. The au pair does need to have her own private bedroom, but that’s the only space requirement. You do not have to provide a car for your au pair’s use. Our au pairs had access to our cars. During work time, we needed them to drive the kids to/from activities and school. And during free time, we typically had a car available to them because we wanted them to be able to meet with friends and explore the area. But, if you don’t need a driver, they don’t need to use your car.
What’s it like having to share your house?
Sometimes it’s wonderful and sometimes it’s not. One of our au pairs came to feel like a sister to me and I loved having her in my house all the time. I wish she could move back in right now! But it’s not always so easy. Sometimes there are personality clashes, just like you have in some roommate or family situations. Other times, if you are perhaps in a spat with your spouse, it can be a little tricky and you have to take your conversation to a private spot in the house.
But for the most part, it’s really fun and they’re great to have around. In our experience, they brought the energy and fun that college age kids typically have, and they really felt like members of the family.
What do I love most about the au pair program?
I loved our au pairs and how much they loved our kids. When someone lives with you like family, they treat your kids like family and they love them like family. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to know your kids are with people who care about them so much during the day.
Do you have questions that I didn’t answer here? Ask me in the comments and I’d be happy to share more about my experience with au pairs!