When Your Au Pair is the Neighborhood Safety Net

by cv harquail on January 22, 2014

We’re on our fourth day of snow-related school closings this month, and I’m really starting to feel the burden of being the only adult working at home– in (what seems like) the whole neighborhood.

5507857201_0344ca6dd7For parents who work outside the home, snow days can cause a lot of childcare problems. If you have a childcare provider who ‘lives out’, the snow often keeps them from driving to the house.

If you usually take their child(ren) to a childcare center or nursery school, these institutions are often closed  on school snow days.

And of course, the schools are closed– so no matter who takes care of your kids when school is out of session, you probably don’t have someone ‘on duty’ to care for the kids who are now at home.

Unless, of course, you have an au pair. Your childcare provider is right there, safe and warm, in your own house! Ready to go.

And everyone in your neighborhood knows it.

Which is why you get the phone call, or the text message “Can Hermione come over to your house, until the late bus comes?”  Or, “Is it okay if Ron comes over to play with your kids? That way they won’t get bored.”

Today my university is closed for snow, and so I’m working from home, and –yes– I’m available if someone is having a childcare emergency. “Sure, send him/her over. Bring snow boots and extra mittens.” There were over a dozen tweens in our playroom yesterday afternoon!

I can do this because I’m the mom, and I will do it because there were too many time when I was a kid that I needed somewhere to go, and too many times when I worked full time and found myself in a bind with sick au pairs, sick kids, spouse out of town, who knows what.

What’s easy for a working-from-home parent is not so easy for an au pair.  Even if it’s okay with you (and it may feel like a burden anyway), your au pair hasn’t signed on to be the emergency childcare contact for the other families in your ‘hood.

When your Au Pair is the Safety Net

If your au pair is willing (or says s/he’s willing– s/he might feel pressured), there are a few things you can do to ease the burden for her:

  • Ask the visiting kids to bring games, toys, videos to entertain everyone.
  • Order pizza, get out that frozen tray of family-sized Mac ‘n Cheese, coordinate the food so s/he has less to worry about.
  • Create a list of things kids can do to keep busy.
  • Sketch out a schedule with play time and rest time for kids — why not pretend you’re all camping, and it’s time to sleep?
  • Tell the visiting kids (and yours) that the Au Pair is in charge and must be obeyed.
  • Make sure the parents know that they need to get their kids at a certain time, so that your au pair knows when the end will be in sight.

Then, be sure to find some way to thank and maybe even compensate your au pair.

Starbucks gift cards, a new pair of snow mittens, inviting her friends over for a family dinner, getting the au pair car washed for him, whatever treat you can imagine.

Somebody’s got to be the safety net, because we need one.

When it’s your au pair, make sure her or his extra effort is acknowledged, and make sure s/he knows how much you appreciate it.

Has your au pair had to fill in as the neighborhood safety net?

What have you done when this has happened?



Image Snow Day from Flickr, AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mgstyer


German Au-Pair January 22, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Communication is most important!
My kids were older so it was okay for me to take a quick run to the library on days we had to spent the whole day at home. They needed their alone time anyway. One day I came home, just wanted to drop them home and drive to the library real quick when my hm’s friend was standing in our living room, dumping her (HORRIBLE!!) children on me without knowing. She claimed my hm knew, but when I told her I’d appreciate a warning, she said she had no idea.
So now I had 5 children instead of 2, those 3 were much younger and needed more supervision. It was just past noon and they had not eaten. Mom dumped them with the word “Oh and they still need to eat.” (She was not working, mind you, she just had things planned…)
I was on a schedule with my kids that required them to eat dinner around 4:30, so eating a real lunch instead of a snack at 1:30 would cause them to be too ful for an early dinner which would lead to them being hungry during practice.
I’m telling this because while it seemed like no big deal to that other mom, feeding her kids at a time that would mess up our whole day and having to change all my plans without any notice (or a thank you…) was really annoying to me.
So if you have to burden your au pair with that, please communicate.

On a different note: we were told by the agency that we are not allowed to be left alone with other people’s children for insurance reasons. So technically that whole idea is probably not really allowed either.

Host Mom in the City January 22, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Wow, German aupair! That is terrible!! If I were your host mom at the time, I would have been seriously pissed at that mom.

I guess because I personally would never ever dump my kids on anyone and would never assume it would be no big deal for a SAHM to be my back-up childcare simply because she’s home already, for a long time, I had a hard time believing this would really happen. But I was definitely proven wrong by at least two moms on my street in the past couple years, so now I understand.

It’s funny – I’m completely fine helping out the parents with whom I have a good give-and-take. I would happily take their child if they have an emergency, and I know they would happily take mine. There is one mom who is always trying to dump her three children on other families when she has to run errands or other non-emergencies, and her kids are complete terrors. They will completely destroy your house and then the mom will just waltz in and take them with hardly a thank you. It really is quite shocking. There is another mom who was always trying to work out playdates with the SAHMs on the street for when she had work meetings with the tone of “I know you’re home anyway, what’s one more kid?” So annoying. Fellow moms can just say no, but I can imagine au pairs would have a much more difficult time knowing what to do and being confident enough to push back on someone that was taking advantage.

We actually have this in our handbook and I do check-ins on it frequently, especially now that our kids are elementary aged and would mostly prefer to be playing with friends every minute. I make it very clear that I will always ask her first if someone wants to have a play date when she is on duty and that she can always say no if she has something planned. I also tell her what to say if a mom asks her for child care help without talking to me first. And finally, I’ve sort of dropped into casual conversation with the parents on my street that it is illegal for an au pair to be doing any babysitting for anyone else – a few asked in the beginning, but I think now everyone understands that it’s illegal and not ok with me, so they don’t ask.

I would also suggest talking to the au pair about the give-and-take of play dates. I like her to be aware of how frequently my kids are at someone else’s house and their kids are at ours so that it’s about even. Our terrible au pair was constantly arranging play dates at neighbor’s houses during her work hours – she said it’s because the kids wanted them, and I’m sure they did, but it was mostly because it made her job easier to dump them elsewhere (not just easier, but non-existent!). So there’s two sides to this issue too.

German Au-Pair January 23, 2014 at 7:51 pm

You know, I didn’t mind jumping in at all and my host mom had dumped the very same kids on me before so they could go house shopping or something. (To be fair, the kids did get a long extremely well and the moms were pretty close friends and would help out each other). But I was just baffled at the “it’s just past lunch time and I haven’t fed my kids yet so, yeah, have fun with that. Maybe it’s me being German but that would just NEVER happen in my family.
It messed up my entire schedule and I just thought this was the rudest thing I’d seen in a long time. It didn’t help that I neither liked the mom nor the kids but that was still just so weird. Best thing was that I came up and she seriously said “Oh there you are, I’m already running late!” I have no idea where the communication went wrong but this was not a big deal to either of them at all while I’m still stunned that has happened and it went down quite a while ago.

exaupair June 20, 2014 at 7:35 pm

you should have said no if you weren’t comfortable with 5 kids instead of two. You didn’t refuse to look after the additional three at the time so you can’t really complain.

If I didn’t want to look after more kids than I’m actually paid for I’d A) tell her I wasn’t happy with that and give her few minutes to take her children back to her car and drive off safely, or B) use my usual win-win trick, i.e. “I usually take cash, however I’m happy to accept a check”.

Gianna January 22, 2014 at 4:14 pm

I have found this to be a huge problem over the years. I have learned that neighbors and parents of my childrens’ classmates can be very aggressive when it comes to exploiting SAHMs and aupairs. I am very happy to help true friends and relatives but I tell everyone else that my agency does not allow this and that they are very strict about enforcing the rule. I used to feel very bad about saying no ; then I realized that these people would just move on and find someone else.
Somehow , things work out.

TexasHM January 22, 2014 at 4:50 pm

WOW! Not only have we never had this issue, but it never even occurred to me. I would tend toward the previous posters – my cop out would always be that its illegal for the AP to watch any children other than my own. Both of our APs have babysat for other families in their free time but we made it explicitly clear that freelancing should NEVER interfere with their work schedule and we have veto-ability with anything that might cut it too close. Both APs thought that was fair and we never had an issue. If someone wants to ask my AP to babysit at their house for just their kid for extra money in their free time I didn’t feel it was my place to object but if its my APs work hours in my house you betcha I call the shots on that.
We do playdates every once in awhile with my oldest son (8) but he is very mature and mellow and has a couple very well behaved friends so our AP often asks if they can come over because the boys are good and play well together. Any terror children would definitely not be working hours playdate material and if we agreed to take them it would be under my watch so I can strict psycho parent them into submission.
Maybe its because we have 3 kids but I just don’t feel right asking the APs to watch any other kids. As mine get older maybe that will change but I tend toward the “treat others as you would want to be treated” and I wouldn’t be happy if someone let others dump their kids off on me.
If the AP was down with it and the kids were similar ages to my kids, I would tell the other moms as a one time exception if they want to pay her regular babysitting wage and she is ok with it then they could come over. If it really is urgent and needed anyone should be more than happy with that arrangement.
As a previous poster said, we have families that we are close to that would take ours in an emergency so if they came knocking we would help as well but our AP knows these families and kids well and thats different than the tone of the original post above.

Taking a Computer Lunch January 22, 2014 at 6:10 pm

When my kids were little, my APs and their friends would gather at my house. Child #2’s birthday parties were filled with APs and their kids. AP #1 when to school full time during the time we attempted to sponsor her as an employer. Because she occasionally needed daytime off she would care for a neighbor’s children in exchange for the neighbor taking child #2 (child #1 was in school). The neighbor was always the loser, because child #2 stopped napping early and always had a ton of questions. However, when said neighbor would hire AP #1 during her free time, she paid her next to nothing. With 4 kids to watch, we coached subsequent APs to ask for the going rate (especially since both kids were in school at that point and they had no need to trade). AP #1 was supporting family back home, so she took as many evening/weekend gigs as she could get (and occasionally we hired her for weekend hours at the going rate).

At this point, child #2 is a teenager, so if he’s hanging out with friends, the AP needs to be around, but mostly to make sure they put their dirty dishes away (we aren’t ready to leave him at home with friends in the house and without an adult present for more than 1/2 hour at a time – but we do permit him to spend hours at home alone). Child #1 has special needs and requires constant supervision.

Occasionally neighbors have paid our APs to watch kids while waiting for a schoolbus – $15 a week or the equivalent in gift cards – but only if the AP were willing. Some APs have been sticklers for the rules, and that is fine with me.

We have a piece of equipment in our back garden that is very attractive to the neighborhood children. I say that the kids are welcome to come if an adult is present, but my AP is not the babysitter (and make it clear that child #1 is her priority). Parents have been cool with that – and now the older kids can use the equipment as long as there are at least 2 children present and DH or I are home.

LookingForwardToBeAP January 22, 2014 at 9:13 pm

I recently came across a facebook meme that has my HM and me joking around: “children are like f*rts, you can only take your own”

That being said, I would be more than willingly to take the close friends’ children any time, whether emergency or not, my HF has a nice circle of friends and children come and go very often, I have to say that this circle of friends treat me really nicely, considered me for christmas and invite me as a member of my HF, so I would never expect (or accept) compensation from them.

If other children would be left here on a real emergency (say someone needs to be taken to hosp), I would take them also and not expect any kind of compensation, I am a neighbor too and that is what good neighbors are for. Now if it is about the snow, or something more trivial, there is a need of a caregiver for a child and I would definitely expect a payment or a compensation, not from my HF but from the parent of said child, as I am acting as their babysitter, what I would expect from my host parents is for them to be the mediators, because yes, I imagine that it would be a tricky position to be in. I guess if this happened once there would not be a problem, the problem would be if this repeated, but now that I have read and thought about this, if this ever happened I would ask my host parents to set rules to the neighbor after the first time so it doesn’t create a pattern.

American Host Mom in Europe January 23, 2014 at 6:11 am

Interesting discussion, and I think there are two different topics being discussed — one is serving as a safety net in emergencies (real or imagined!), and the other is having other children over for playdates. My kids have various friends from daycare over about once a month after daycare. I always arrange to pick them up those days as I don’t want to be responsible for my au pair driving someone else’s child. We discuss it ahead of time, but I see it as part of my children’s social development (learning to be hosts), and wouldn’t expect my AP to refuse (I have three children – one nearly 6 and 4,5 yo twins). We generally find that on these days the AP has far LESS to do than normal, as the children are totally occupied. I see that as a completely different scenario than what CV described in the original entry — being the emergency cover for others (especially when it may not really be an emergency). Fortunately, I’m unlikely to be in a similar situation often (we live rather remotely), but it is interesting to think about. One time, I got a call from the mom who’s daughter has been here several times asking if I could take both her children from daycare and watch them until after dinner as she had a work-related conflict come up, and then I did discuss with my au pair, and we re-arranged dinner plans so it would be something simple with more people. I made sure my AP knew I was appreciative, although actually, it probably made her afternoon less work than normal! There are no laws governing this here, so there was no issue about her watching anyone else.

German Au-Pair January 23, 2014 at 8:01 pm

It’s not about refusing, it’s about having another adult there. Luckily, my kids didn’t have that many playdates. Here in Germany we are so much more liberal about that kind of stuff but in America you’re always told what will happen if something happens to a child while under your watch.
The only time I actually refused to watch a playdate was when my girl (11) had a boy she liked over and my hm asked me to basically constantly watch them, have them keep the door open and stuff like that. I tried it once but “your mom wants me to” was just not a good excuse and it was such an awkward situation -especially because I personally believed it was unnecessary and really intrusive. Next time said boy came over I made sure to clarify I’d think it best if that happened during my off time.
Again, I think communication about that kind of stuff is key. Au pairs should be able to say no to something that technically is not in the rules either.

RetiredAupair January 28, 2014 at 5:40 pm

I wouldn’t say having other (small) children over is less work at all. It might be when the children are a little older… I was watching a 2 year old boy and a 5 year old girl who were really good listeners (most of the time ;)). One time the older one’s two best friends from Kindergarten came over for a playdate (that was the first time the three of them got together for a playdate). They all were sweet girls but the three of them together… It was just a crazy day. One of them was scared of our dog so I had to lock her out and she was barking all afternoon and then the girls constantly came up with crazy ideas as sticking play dough to the walls, scribbling all over the little one’s pictures, tying a scarf around the cat’s belly… I ended up sitting and playing with them and couldn’t get my other chores done. Another time my hm invited over a girl who wanted to play with the older one though my hm knew her daughter didn’t like that girl and didn’t want to play with her. She was such a cute girl and tried to talk to and play with my older one but she was really rude and refused to play with her. I felt so bad for that girl… Finally the little one went up to her and the two of them played together.
I just couldn’t understand why my hm couldn’t plan those playdates when she was home… At least the first time the kids get together. Btw I didn’t get extra money for watching these girls.

Momma Gadget January 24, 2014 at 11:49 am

German Au-Pair- what your HM friend did is extremely inconsiderate- at best! I can’t believe your HM condoned it. I really cannot imagine being that self-involved not to see it.

Maybe it is because we have older kids, or because we have retired parents within 2 hrs drive, But we can count on our hands the number of times we’ve had to ask/been asked to provide emergency childcare in the past 6 years we’ve been hosting.

Our APs did watch other’s kids during playdates, But the general rule was that wait until it was reciprocated before inviting that friend back for another. Now the Kids are older they “hang out”, at various houses so it is not often that our AP has to watch other people’s kids.

My current AP volunteered to help coach my youngest’s sport team.. All the way to the championship. Since then the parents in town contact my AP for private lessons. Although it is all during free time, It kind of irks me that they did not ask if we host parents were OK with this before contacting our AP. Is that being petty? I don’t think most of them are familiar enough with the program to know what it is all about.

Host Mom in the City January 24, 2014 at 12:02 pm

I think your last sentence is probably what’s going on. That would irk me if a fellow host parent did it, but I’ve been kind of astounded at how little non-AP parents know about the program. They probably assume she’s like any other nanny, for whom of course you would ask them directly if they would be willing to provide a service for your family.

Skny January 24, 2014 at 1:52 pm

As an Au pair I used to dislike play dates where I was the only adults. I watched 4yo triplets. They were enough work. I feel if before age 5 play dates should only be done with the other child’s caregiver present.
There was one single mom who had a very unruly 4yo daughter and would always stay with us. My hm felt bad about it because this mom was going through a lot.
I was ok in the beginning, but the child was rude, used unacceptable vocabulary (that my girls did not use), did not listen to me, used to instigate my girls into going against what I said, and I would always end my work day frustrated and exhausted.
No, 139.05 a week (salary at time) was not enough to make me spend my day after that child.
I finally told hm that I was sorry but I would no longer watch that child for play dates. We had a great relationship (they ended up sponsoring my student visa for 2 years) and while she might have felt bad about it, she understood.

anna former au pair June 19, 2014 at 8:52 pm

I was avsked by my hm if I was willing to bsbysit her best friend’s toddler who was best friends with our toddler for 9 weeks untill their new au pair arrived (unfortunate problem with backup childcare with hm’s friend). I was at first reluctant to agree, but since I already knew the child well and my hm assured me she was fine with it I agreed.

As payment I got to borrow their ap var (great boon since I only had limited access to reglar minivan and got paid the going rate for each hour. The 70$ and a car sure made my summer a lot more fun, and the house was a lot more organized because the girls entertained themselves a lot more leaving me time to get laundry/foodprep and so on done before the big kids got home from school.

However, hm felt bad she couldn’t provide the same perks, and towards the end seemed almost to resent the situation, making me feel bad, which was silly since she had begged me to do it in the first place?!

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