CalifMom has been a key part of the AuPairMom community since Fall of 2008. She was one of the first au pair host moms to contribute wise advice, regularly and generously, on many of the toughest situations. Every now and then CalifMom leaves a treat in my inbox — a guest post. Here’s her latest…
For those of you who are new here, I — CalifMom – have had an especially bad track record when it comes to matching.
Our 3 best au pairs (who each extended; I’m not a bad host mom, just a bad selector of au pairs): all from rematch. Which, if you do the math, means that we had at least that many au pairs who left/needed to leave our family. Let’s just leave it at ‘at least’ because every time I do the math I feel like an utter au pair mom failure.
We found a way to save the spring, bringing in a family friend for a stop-gap end of the school year visit. She leaves soon. We had to find a new au pair. I couldn’t put it off any longer.
This time around, my husband decided that my preternatural tendency to really like most au pair candidates — some might call this cockeyed optimism, or a deep-seated need not to disappoint others and to be liked — was going to be held in check.
He let me update the “I Dare You to Match With Us” letter, which has morphed into more of a “We Really Are Honest About Our Challenges, Which Makes Us a Great Family For The Right Kind of AP” letter.
I find that this baring of all our worst attributes actually makes au pairs more interested in us. I think the subtext is that we are not looking for a perfect au pair, being imperfect ourselves, and that we will be understanding of their foibles.
But the emphasis in interviewing is all about finding the right fit.
My husband normally believes that I should be doing most of the au pair management. And yet, he manages a large team at work. I do not. He hires well. I am one of those senior advisors who cajoles and leverages the things I need from others in a matrixed environment. I don’t do a lot of hiring.
So hub stopped seeing this as a learning opportunity to be foisted on me for my own good and instead took charge of the interviewing. (Thank all that is holy!)
In the process, here’s what I learned (irony much? :-) ):
1. Skype is your friend, even if you haven’t had a haircut in months.
Luckily, you don’t have to look great on Skype, because the field of view is pretty small and the fidelity is terrible. Let’s hope they don’t upgrade to HD any time soon. After we hung up with our first skype interview I mentioned that this would have killed our very first favorite au pair, because she admitted to us later on that her dad was listening on the extension and telling her what to say in English during her interview with her original host family. I met her in person and loved her energy as a rematch, and my kids were little so the language wasn’t as big a problem. My kids now get really frustrated at not being able to understand au pairs with less-developed language skills.
2. Start with an important but casual-sounding icebreaker. For us, being foodies, it was “So, are we interrupting lunch/dinner/breakfast? Did you get a chance to eat?” The au pair looks confused but it’s an easy question so they build confidence in speaking in English as they reply. Then he slides into questions about their favorite meals, what they like to cook, etc.
What he’s listening for: signs of picky eaterness, unhealthy or undisclosed dietary habits (like the flameout we just had who insisted on fighting a pre-diabetic status by eating huge quantities of fruit and fruit juices and drinking half and half, not milk (not even whole milk). From a glass. Wives tales are us!).
We want to be sure they will eat leftovers, because besides being a big red Princess flag, would mean they would be unhappy with 2/3 of the meals in our house. My whole family feeding plan is based on cooking big when I do cook, and reassembling CV’s famous “encore presentations” during the week.
So asking about what they like to eat was very much on purpose, even though it sounded random and top-of-the-head. Very casual.
3. Shift between light and hard questions.
DH also explained that when he senses the au pair is getting too stressed by harder questions, it’s time to shift to something lighter. “It shouldn’t feel like the inquisition.” He had several easier questions in mind for that. What do you like to do with your friends, your favorite kinds of movies, that sort of thing. (There’s a big difference between au pairs who only watch chick flicks, frequent the art houses, or have seen every vampire movie ever made.)
How big was your high school? is another really useful one to provide context around their own attitude toward school. Supervising middle school homework is a HUGE part of our AP’s responsibilities now, so this is a big priority in hiring. Again, something that never mattered much when the kids were little but we have to pay attention to now.
4) Sibling relationships.
Any time they mention a time when kids were not behaving or sibling fights came up, he would probe harder. “What did you do to bring peace to the land again?” These are the questions that got harder for the girls.
5) Always ask them what questions they have. And, don’t just save that for the end of the conversation.
You would not believe how many were happy to answer our questions, but then said, Oh, your letter had so much in it, I don’t have any questions at all. (Buzzer!) Sometimes they had really good questions that took our conversation in a new direction.
6) What do your parents do for a living? (one of those easier questions to answer that also helps you know something about what kind of workload she is expecting.) Also gives you a sense of what her expectations are of moms and dads who work.
7) Which follows into What do your parents think about your au pair year?
(Listening for too-strong of a relationship with their mom. IMHO, au pairs whose mommies “are their best friends” are not the best au pairs for me. I need a helper, not a third girl.)
8) What’s the thing that excites you the most about au pairing?
(They all have the same basic brochure-based answer, but if they don’t mention kids it’s all over.) And the corollary: what makes you the most nervous about being an au pair? (Responses to this give you great insight into their personality as well as how realistic they are about the situation before them.)
9) When are you able to come to the States?
This may be very different from what the profile says. “I want to be home for my mom’s birthday so can you wait another month?” is a very important request to know about.
10) Don’t hesitate to say no.
Also, we interviewed MANY au pairs this time and didn’t hesitate to say no to even the really nice ones if they didn’t seem to have the right mix of skills. I consoled myself with the knowledge that setting them up for failure is a much worse hurt than declining them politely after an interview. Which is worse: not getting a job you interviewed for, or having a boss you can’t stand and starting to look for work in six months? We’ve all been there…
I followed all my own advice. Now we just have to see if we picked well this time!
We’ll know in September, when the dreaded third month starts to roll in.