3 Features of Au Pairing: Which One Challenges You?

by cv harquail on September 1, 2014

What are the real, important differences between Au Pairs and other kinds of childcare providers, like nannies, babysitters, or childcare centers?

What really influences the challenges that host parents and au pairs face when it comes to making this ‘the best year ever’?

2176773871_97a17213ea_zIt used to be that when people asked me how having an au pair was different from using other strategies for childcare, I would focus on the concept of flexibility.

For me, as an academic with non-standard work hours (sometimes during the day, sometimes at night, sometimes at home, changing every semester) the flexibility element was critical.  For our family, flexibility was the primary reason for having an au pair, and the other features of au pairing came along for the ride.

But after 11 au pairs as well as 7+ years with the Au Pair mom community, I’d explain it differently.

Now, when people as me what makes having an au pair different from another kind of childcare, I’d  say it’s:

1. Au Pairs occupy a unique place in your family’s world.

 Au Pairs are both ’employees’ and ‘part of the family’.

2. Au Pairs are from cultures other than your own.

Even if an Au Pair shares your family’s cultural or language heritage, they come from such a different cultural place that it’s hard to avoid experiencing these differences and learning from them.

3. Au Pairs are not professional childcare providers.

Au Pairs are young adults who (generally) enjoy children and are happy to spend a year caring for kids.

This ‘aha’ of mine may strike some of you readers as a ‘duh’ — but of course I was seeing the experience from my own perspective, and not paying attention to the bigger picture.

(I now think of the flexibility that was so important to me as more like a feature of the program that depends on the au pair’s unique role as ‘part of the family/employee’.    Flexibility depends on having your childcare provider living with you and/or having no other structured life responsibilities (for example, no nearby family of his/her own depending on his/her care in the evenings, weekends).)

When I look over the topics we discuss the most on Au Pair Mom, they ultimately sort out into

— challenges that are unique to Au Pair CareGiving (driven by the 3 features above) and

— challenges that are basic to being a family that uses childcare provided by someone other than a parent.

Challenges like ‘how do I get my au pair and kids to like each other?’ aren’t specific to au pairs– you’d face this challenge with any kind of childcare provider.  But challenges like “How much parenting do I need to do with this young adult?” are specifically au pair-related concerns.

When you think of the challenges that you experience as a host parent or an au pair (note: two *different* polls below), how do you rank them?

Which kind of challenge challenges you the most?


As a Host Parent, what challenges you the most?

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As an Au Pair, what challenges you the most?

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Image by Stephen on Flickr


Should be working September 2, 2014 at 12:22 pm

For me, the non-career childcare role the AP takes makes it easier for me–a non-manager at work–to manage her. When we had a professional nanny when the kids were babies, I felt awkward telling the nanny how I wanted things done, especially with the first baby, because the nanny was a (young) grandmother and I didn’t know anything.

With the AP, in contrast, I am more “the boss” regarding childcare than the AP is, and she has to do it my way, which usually they are ok with. A nanny might have her own ways of doing things that I don’t agree with.

WestMom September 2, 2014 at 1:03 pm

Definitely managing the relationship for me. Our last 3 APs had degrees in an education-related field, so they are very well prepared for the childcare part of the job. And since we pool from one country we know well, the cultural gap is non-existent for us after 6 yrs, and we can anticipate well what might cause cultural shock to incoming AP.

Figuring out how the relationship will develop is the big unknown from year to year. How much does she want to get involved with the family? How much directions she needs from us? How comfortable will she be around us? How private is she? It’s different every year, and it constantly evolves. And then within 4-5 months we know if his relationship will last long term, or if it’s only in passing…

WarmStateMomma September 3, 2014 at 9:57 am

My aha moment was realizing that I love that APs are not professional child care providers.

This summer, I saw loads of day care groups at the local attractions. The day care kids wear matching t-shirts with the day care center’s name, so I could tell there was a mix of expensive and cheaper centers. Each group had someone barking orders at the kids constantly; the kids were rarely allowed to explore anything; and and little time was spent doing anything but lining up or sitting down together. More than a few of the day care workers act like prison guards and this holds true across the cost spectrum for day care groups I saw.

I also saw several nannies with one kid to manage. These sad sacks trudged along behind the kid, not engaging in any way with the kid. They were basically chaperones.

But we run into APs with their HKs and they tend to be cheerfully engaged with the kids. I’ve seen this when we are with our AP and when I’m out solo with my daughter. The difference in interaction and positive energy is incredible. It’s the reason why I think it’s worth it to make such an effort for hosting an AP even though my colleagues (day care or nanny families) think it’s too much hassle.

Peachtree Mom September 3, 2014 at 10:46 am

I find the managing the family and employee role challenging. I think I had it down pretty good with our first au pair who stayed with us for two years. With our second au pair who was just fabulous ( she was the grown up daughter I wish I had) I went a little too far into the family mode in that I never wanted to inconvenience her and always wanted to make sure she was meeting her friends in the evening etc. that I ended up shortchanging myself a bit. I dropped out of my running club and put on 10lbs because our club met in the evening after dinner and homework.

With our present third au pair the road has been rocky with her more serious personality and defensive posturing when I give suggestions or directives. One of her complaints that she threatened rematch with is that she is treated more like an employee than a member of the family. Before we selected her I had been looking on Au Pair Family Lounge to see if there was an extension or rematch au pair who could spend a year with us. What I noticed is that ALMOST EVERY rematch au pair who is listed states that she did not feel like a member of the family. They are seeking to be a member of the family. Because there are so many with this same complaint, it must be a common problem for au pairs and host families.

Honestly I am not sure what the expectation is for being part of the family. With our two former au pairs, we had great conversations, nice dinners, did a few activities together but both had their own friends and interests and were seldom home. My husband and I joked that we asked them for restaurant recommendations.

With our present au pair, honestly she is kind of a downer so I really do not want to spend my off time with her. We chat on a superficial level but by 9pm I am either finishing with my running group or in bed, not watching a movie in the living room. I am kind of confused on what constitutes being part of the family.

NoVA Twin Mom September 3, 2014 at 11:19 am

I’m cynical at this point – and we DO want a more “member of the family” role – but I think that “the host family didn’t treat me like a member of the family” has become a “palatable reason for rematch”. I suspect that between the facebook groups and the sites similar to this one but for au pairs, there’s a list of “reasons to give for rematch that won’t get you sent home” that’s circulated among au pairs looking to find an easy gig. At one point I thought of a few other reasons that would make the list, “not sitting down to family dinner” being another, but I’ve lost my vitriol on the topic since we’ve been out of the rematch game and had two good au pairs in a row.

Think about it. If an au pair wants to rematch because they don’t want to do what the host family wants/expects, they’re not going to write THAT up as their reason to rematch. The agency wouldn’t like it, and no potential rematch family in their right mind is going to take them. Granted, in rematch situations, I’ve not always been in my right mind… :)

So instead they say that they “didn’t feel like a member of the family.” And whatever family is in rematch thinks “Oh, we’ll be different, she’ll be a part of OUR family” and interviews her, and hopefully also interviews the other host parents and LCC.

Honestly, that’s almost a red flag in my book as a reason for rematch unless the LCC in question agrees that there was a real issue with the host family (which there may well have been. There are “dud” au pairs that land with nice families, but there are also “dud” host families that get nice au pairs). And in one of our rematch situations, our LCC did tell us that the au pair landed in a bad situation, so that kind of information does exist if you have a good LCC.

Should be working September 3, 2014 at 11:54 am

An au pair we got out of rematch confirmed that basically au pairs say they weren’t treated like members of the family because that is a “good reason” for rematch and the agency will accept it and move forward. One au pair candidate told us that, and then proceeded to tell us how much the family wanted her to be with them all the time and she wanted to go out. DUH.

WarmStateMomma September 3, 2014 at 12:05 pm

I’m registered with a few agencies right now looking for our AP’s successor. One agency keeps putting rematch APs into my account, even though there’s no way that timing would ever work. Of course, I never notice that they are in rematch until I’m almost done looking at their application package. The APs have a variety of benign reasons for the rematch, but the families generally say it’s the driving or a personality conflict (which often comes across as cultural).

TexasHM September 3, 2014 at 11:33 am

Agreed and this can also be a symptom of entitlement.

When an AP says “they didn’t treat me as a member of the family” it very much speaks to their expectations. If they expected to be taken on lavish vacations and wined and dined and then they aren’t, they could cop this excuse. If however, it was like our current AP where they had her in a basement in Chicago with no heat in the winter and told her on Christmas to stay downstairs all day so they could have “family time” alone I think thats a very different story so I would ask them – what do you mean? And then ask what they expect.

We do the reverse in interviewing – I tell them what a member of our family would do. I explain the girls have a dance recital once a year in June and a family member would be expected to try to attend even on their time off. I tell them that a family member would not stand by if they saw one of the kids doing something they shouldn’t be even if they weren’t on the clock. A family member would participate in holiday traditions (Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas morning) even if not scheduled to work and would pitch in during tough times and be flexible and gracious with us. The rockstars love the idea of being included in the annual dance recital/holidays etc, the partiers cringe at being asked to attend kids events or holidays during their off time. Weeds them out pretty easily.

In fairness, there is a substantial percentage of families that do this program because its cheaper or because they want the flexibility but they don’t want to really have to deal with the AP at all so they are treated as employees or in some cases, the help or worse so it doesnt surprise me that this is a common reason listed. Particularly in areas where the AP program saves families a lot of money (not where I am, its more expensive) I think more families are tempted to join due to cost savings but don’t want to invest beyond that.

NoVA Twin Mom September 3, 2014 at 11:45 am

Agreed. I just wish, once in a while, the “dud” au pair and the “dud” family would find each other rather than getting paired with “non-duds”.

And the Chicago winter story is similar to the bad situation we heard about while in rematch. Basically, our LCC told us that the other LCC told her that if they’d realized how many people were living in such a small place, they never would have let the family into the program. (About a dozen people must have been out of the house during the home visit…) We never had a chance to talk to her – I don’t remember why, I want to say she rematched before we had a chance to review her profile. In cases where it is a REALLY bad situation, I think the (good) LCCs really go to bat for the girls to get them placed rather than sent home.

WarmStateMomma September 3, 2014 at 11:53 am

I hope the AP in the Chicago basement spent that day packing her stuff and emailing the LCC about a rematch!

TexasHM September 3, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Nope she is mine and stuck it out two months and that wasn’t the half of her story! Too funny NoVA I have had that same thought – give the dud families the dud APs or vice versa.

skny September 3, 2014 at 10:46 pm

For me there are 2 hard things:
1. because I was an au pair, I tend to go huge lengths to help and I feel I over spoil… I put too much energy and work trying to make sure au pair is happy
2. I hate that au pairs get to see my worst (my messiest moments, or the day I loose it and yell at a child, or am grumpy….). I can live with it, but not so fun (specially if au pair likes to share those)

Katie September 10, 2014 at 9:37 am

I absolutely identify what skny just wrote about the challenges of being a host mom as I feel exactly the same way. I spend too much time concerned about how the au pair is doing (it doesn’t help that ours is a bit fragile and you can see every emotion on her face); plus, I find it hard that she sees me at my worst – for instance when I had mastitis on vacation and was in terrible pain, and when I’m breastfeeding our newborn and exasperated with my older children’s misbehavior!

I find it very hard that our au pair is so dependent – although I understand she is new here – I would like her occasionally to go out for coffee, even just to get out of the house! I don’t enjoy it when she hangs out the entire time when my friends are over. I’d like a bit more space.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 4, 2014 at 6:54 am

I’m hosting my 10th AP, and I do think managing the family member/employee issue – from the HF point of view – gets easier over time. It’s easier to find a rhythm with a new AP.

I host APs with direct experience with children who have special needs, mainly Extraordinnaires (although I have hosted regular APs who narrowly missed the mark to be Extraordinnaires – having not quite 2 years of work experience). Many have gone on to careers that directly relate to caring for or educating children.

I’m prepared for the culture shock, but it often surprises me – because each au pair reacts so individually to it.

In the Throes of Rematch September 4, 2014 at 10:58 am

For me, I like that the au pair is not pursuing childcare as a career. Knowing it’s a 1-2 year max, I personally think they can throw themselves into the role of being the caregiver because it’s not a forever thing. I agree with the PP who notes that a lot (but of course not all) of the daycare providers *seem* very disengaged. My kids attended a one-week summer camp run by local parks & rec one summer, as a gap solution in childcare. It was all about exploring various parks and learning about ecology and nature, and the kids were pretty psyched about it. The brochure talked about taking the kids on boat rides in various local ponds/lakes/bodies of water and showed pictures of happy, dirty kids knee-high in mud holding frogs and looking at things with magnifying glasses.

Know what the kids did all week? Ride around in a short bus, getting 7-11 slurpees, watching videos about ecology, and walking around various parks that had lakes and playgrounds. No lie. They went on a boat ride once the entire week. For an hour. The people working the camp couldn’t have been younger than 40 and were downright surly. I wanted to pull the kids out, but we really had no backup plan whatsoever so I told the kids to let me know if it got unbearable but otherwise enjoy the slurpees.


Seattle Mom September 26, 2014 at 5:36 pm

Wow, that is ridiculous!

I put my kids in a parks & rec 1 week camp last summer too. It didn’t promise the moon like yours did, but part of the reason I chose the particular location that I did was because it was in a community center with amazing outdoor facilities- great playground right outside, nice track around a lake, etc. I was shocked to learn that my kids spent the whole week indoors. They were doing crafts and other fun activities, and they were happy, but I just couldn’t believe the wasted opportunity. Next time I will call and ask how much time is spent outdoors before I register. No more assumptions.

TexasHM September 4, 2014 at 11:31 am

I do feel like APs have a more vested interest in the kids/family, thats one of the advantages I usually highlight when explaining the AP program.

Yes, you are having another adult live in your home but YOU ARE HAVING ANOTHER ADULT LIVING IN YOUR HOME! :)

For us that means now we are no longer outnumbered by children so we see enormous impact via little things like AP makes her bed so my daughters want to make their beds. AP helps fill up drink cups while I get dinner on the table, AP helps gather up dishes after, AP offers to drop my son at gymnastics on her way to the store to save a trip since she is going right by there anyway, AP helps third kid through the chinese buffet line, you get the picture.

Having someone live in our home creates an additional bond that you don’t always get with other childcare options. We have been lucky in that none of our APs have been clock watchers punching a timecard and I can’t say the same for other options we have tried. Our APs ask us what they can do better and suggest new activities so the kids don’t get bored and genuinely want our kids to be engaged and happy. We do invest in our APs, take an interest in their interests and make an effort to help them have a great experience and so far, we have gotten that back in spades.

I am convinced that all three of our APs would have taken a bullet for my kids, maybe not for me at all times, but them absolutely. :) And I agree that it being a 1 or 2 year program does seem to allow them to give more effort because just like they want to get a lot out of their AP year, they seem to realize that my kids grow quickly and time is fleeting so they want to bond and spend time with them while they can. All three APs have told me their biggest fear is that the kids will forget about them when they leave and it bothers them because they love the kids and they are so bonded the thought of them moving on or forgetting them is unbearable.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 5, 2014 at 7:19 am

Several of my APs have set a picture of at least one of my kids as their cell phone wallpaper. That’s love.

TexasHM September 5, 2014 at 8:56 am

Mine too! All three!

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