Creating an Au Pair – Host Parent Partnership that Doesn’t Exclude the Other Host Parent

by cv harquail on February 12, 2016

In some families, parents aim to share childcare and home management equally.  In other families, there is one parent (of the two, three or four) who serves as the “lead parent”.  The Lead Parent is the one who runs the forgotten lunch over to school, stays home when a kid is sick, and manages the family’s childcare.

No one arrangement is best, and many families shift between these arrangements as jobs and people evolve.

8258078373_abefbec1c0_mEach parenting paradigm presents its own challenges for the Host Parent – Au Pair relationship. This post is about Au Pairs and a Lead Host Parent.

When there’s one lead parent, that parent takes direct responsibility for managing and coaching (and often socializing with) the Au Pair.

The Lead Host Parent and the Au Pair work as a team to care for the kids. They have to align their expectations, coordinate their strategies, and share up-to-date information about what’s happening in the household and with Host Child(ren).  Often, because the interaction with the Au Pair is not equal for both Host Parents, the Lead Host Parent becomes closer to the Au Pair.  Indeed, s/he needs to be.

It’s important that the Lead Host Parent and the Partner Host Parent feel comfortable about the arrangement between them about who’s in charge when. They also need to be comfortable with one parent knowing the Au Pair better than the other, not take this personally, and not use this as a wedge between them.

Reluctant GrownUp (a Host Parent) writes:   

I’d love to hear some input about strategies for keeping the AP/ HM relationship from getting too buddy-ish.

I’d imagine that there are factors that make the relationship more prone to get less businesslike – Host Moms who work from home, manage a lot of kids alongside an Au Pair, interact a lot with theirAu Pair, who really take a “part of the family” approach, are closer in age to theirAu Pair, (and who may share same-gender interests like cooking, crafts, and Downton Abbey. Or Benedict Cumberbatch, notes cv) 

My previous experience with live-in childcare was my niece who spent summers with us. With her, we had all of the pros of a true family member.

I modeled my first Au Pair/ Host Mom relationship on that one, and that didn’t work well. I’m trying to figure out whether the lack of fit was with that particularAu Pair, or is something I’ll have to adjust for all future Au Pairs. Our firstAu Pair was always waiting for concrete instructions, instead of a teammate with shared goals.

Now I learned more about DISC and selecting a complementary Au Pair. I’’m looking for someone who doesn’t need structure to thrive. I also learned (not surprisingly) that I’m a low D.

So my question is really —  

How much can the Host Mom/Au Pair team up in an equal-ish partnership without impacting the Host Mom /Other Host Parent team or the entire family?.

What are some helpful strategies for managing different kinds of relationships between the Au Pair and the different Host Parents?


Other interesting reads:

We Can Do Better Than “Lead Parent”, by Mindy Finn on Medium
Why I Put My Wife’s Career First, by Andrew Moravcsik (Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband) on The Atlantic

image: Three Degrees by Steve Maskill on Flickr


Frankfurt AP Boy February 12, 2016 at 7:39 pm

I think it is difficult to maintain a business-like relationship with an au pair. Generally being an au pair is advertised as being an older sibling to the children in the house and a lot of au pairs go into it wanting to have a close relationship with the family that emulates them actually being a member of that family. This relationship often forms a major part of the cultural exchange. What we strive for is a relationship that even goes beyond ‘buddyish’. It doesn’t always work out that way but I think that’s the image that a lot of us have in our heads when we apply.

I have never met an ‘au pair’ that is content with a solely business like relationship with a family… however I have met a lot of what they call ‘cuidadoras’ in Spain that seem to be okay with that set up. These are often women that come from South America and do a large amount of housework on top of looking after the kids. They generally earn a lot more than au pairs and work longer hours (I guess about the same as au pairs in the US though). I suppose in the end it is a matter of finding someone that is happy with it and being up front and honest about the relationship youd want. I would imagine that if you look particularly for people that have experience working in peoples houses they will be better prepared to do that without feeling the need to form a close attachment to your family.

Reluctant Grownup February 12, 2016 at 8:16 pm

Thanks Frankfurt Au Pair Boy,

To be clear, I was picturing a family-like relationship. I’m reading my original question and I may not have phrased it that well. Basically, since my sample size is one, I was wondering if my approach was ( both) too informal and team-oriented, or if that approach didn’t work well with one patticular person.

Maybe I’m conflating two issues. They’re related though. First is where on the scale of family to professional you see your AP relationship. The second is where on the scale you see your role between order-giver/ boss and goal-sharer/ teammate.

Reluctant Grownup February 12, 2016 at 9:26 pm

My question was originally a comment on another post about presenting a united front with your spouse/ co-parent.

So, in that context I’d add that I’m sure a close relationship between HPs and APs is great, and very possible, with the caveat that the relationship between the HPs and the HF takes precedence.

Living that caveat and respecting that precedence may be hard in practice. There are definite off limit topics (criticism of your spouse or children). But there are also gray areas. Things slip out when you’re interacting for many hours a day. A host parent treating an Au Pair like a friend and confidante may make them a less effective supervisor.

I’d love advice from long time host parents about how to make this relationship work. Is the niece model a good one? What are strategies for having a good social and childcare relationship?

Jennc February 13, 2016 at 10:35 am

I would say I’m the lead parent. I’m the mom , 3 kids, and I work outside the home. My thought would be that your first Aupair needed direction and probably saw you as “the lead” person and needed specific information to be a good Aupair. I think the relationship b/w host parent and Aupair highly depends on the Aupair personality. I am on my 4th, WOW …. Aupair can’t believe it. I took a very family oriented approach with each Aupair , worked with all but one. Currently my 2nd Aupair is living with us temporarily right now, she truly is my family , I’ve visited her country and parents etc. Even though I strive to have a very close relationship with each Aupair it depends on each Aupair how close we become. I think you have to look for an Aupair that wants that very close relationship, but I find aupairs who have had real life experience , real jobs outside of childcare are able to adapt and takeover as needed make decisions without consulting the host parent each time. I need an adult who can make decisions in my absence . Each Aupair experience is different, but when I interview I talk about my Aupair like a younger sister, cousin , not an adult child. I explain what this means to me, how it impacts structure in home, how it is necessary for me to “know ” where Aupair is in early stages for her safety and my mental well being, because I take my responsibility as a host parent to heart. If an Aupair isn’t interested in this type of family then we aren’t the ones. I definitely manage all schedules for everyone in our household , it makes it easier than having both parents trying to do it and less confusing to my Aupair. My husband understands to follow the schedule pretty close and only to go outside of schedule in emergencies. My Aupair knows I am the go to person for questions about schedule time off, special events etc. but even with me “in charge” I maintain as close of a friend/ family relationship with my Aupair as possible. It’s not always easy and sometimes is exhausting but I get more in return this way , usually.

Reluctant Grownup February 13, 2016 at 3:42 pm

Thanks Jennc,

It’s good to know that the relationship I envisioned can work with the right person. I’m hoping an adult with experience and initiative will be satisfied with the general goal “get the kids doing physical activity after school 3:30-4:30,” without me needing to spell out whether this happens at the park, in the yard, at a bounce place, etc.

In the beginning , though I need to temper my tendency to overshare and think aloud. The oversharing comes from being so excited to have another adult to interact with. But the doubts and struggles all parents have are better aired with friends. Thinking aloud is just my process but someone with English as a second language may get confused & frustrated if I don’t watch this a bit.

Having a relationship that’s somewhat equal but not quite was a challenge for me. I definitely prefer to be on equal footing. Someone who comes across the world to have a year of exploration , and with a certain personality, is up for this.

I think the reason my DH got consulted – and the dynamic got strange and inefficient- was that he can be more concrete and specific. My musings with first AP were mistook for indecision. We are being much more clear this time that I’m the lead parent. And that I’ll share the overall goal, but leave the specifics to the AP. If needed, we 2 can discuss the process. We 3 can check in weekly.

Multitasking Host Mom February 13, 2016 at 4:37 pm

I am the lead parent in our household. But it is mostly by default, since my husband travels a few days a week for his work and even when he is in town he often doesn’t get home until the au pair has already left for the evening to hang out with friends or they are veging in their room after a long day with my kids. I have set regular working hours. Since I set the schedule and I am the one who is around more, the au pair just naturally sees me as the go to host parent.

OP, what you discribe in the relationship you want with your au pair sounds like exactly what I want and mostly have with my au pairs. My au pairs tell me many things about their lives, I share many stories about when I was young as them and a few that they might be interested in that happen in my present life, and I feel we get to know eachother well over the course of their year together.

I think by setting this relationship in place earlier, I am able to work with my au pair in more of a team approach. We discuss issues related to my children and I really listen to their input, observations and suggestions. I also given them my reasoning both if we decide to go with a new idea and if we don’t. I feel that way they know that I hear them and value their thoughts, but it is ultimately my decision (and sometimes also my husband’s if it is a big issue and he is involved). I also think since we talk a lot about things, when the au pair has to make a decision on their own they know where I would stand on something so they can feel confident in what they are doing without needing to run every little thing by me. I also tell my au pairs a lot during their first few weeks with us that we the parents set the framework for our house hold but au pairs need to be in charge when we are not there. I think this lets them know they are empowered to do things in our absence. I also have to tell myself many times that they might do things with my kids that I wouldn’t do, but as long as no big rules are broken and the kids are happy and safe I let things go.

I think OP that you are on the right track by looking at the personality profiles of potential APs when matching. After narrowing down which APs I want to interview based on previous experience and skills, the next thing I look at is the personality profile provided by the agency. I think it tells you a lot about the au pair and helps a great deal in getting the right au pair for your family. I for instance avoid those with high dominance and instead go with those that lean towards working well with others, have patience, and also show to excel in social situations.

Old China Hand February 13, 2016 at 8:25 pm

I am the lead parent and ap main supervisor by default – DH commutes 40 miles and I commute 3 blocks. My schedule is more flexible because I am a professor. This means when I go away for more than 4 days, we bring in a grandparent to cover the extra hours. I also speak Chinese and DH doesn’t, so aps feel closer to me from the beginning. Chinese girls often don’t have male friends, so that makes it harder for DH too.

That being said, I am super organized and straight forward. We have a very comprehensive handbook and I train carefully. I leave daily notes about the kids. I have learned over the last 3 years to train more upfront and give more freedom over time, but I screen better and train better now than I did with ap1, who we adore, but wasn’t cut out for toddler care.

We have ended up somewhere between employee and family with relationships with the aps. Partly it’s because we don’t do a whole lot of exciting outings or dinners out to invite ap to. We like to play German style board games (like settlers of Catan), which totally baffles aps. I like puzzles. Also baffling. Combine all that with a time change that lets them chat with people at home as soon as they are off work and we don’t even eat with them many nights. But we are still close. I come home for lunch and do the 5 minute meeting each evening. We travel with them when possible.

Anyway, I tell aps that we love the family type situation but often eat late after we exercise, don’t stay up too late, and are generally lame. We also tell them that there are no other aps anywhere nearby and talk about their plans for making friends. It can be lonely here. I have ended up with varying levels of mature aps but all are lovely. All like my mom better than me, probably because she is more of a bestie to them. That’s ok with me though.

Taking a Computer Lunch February 14, 2016 at 10:31 pm

Your relationship with your AP will vary with each woman/man that enters your house. You might make a bad match and swing another way in selecting, but in the end, just as your kids are going to change enormously every year, so will your relationship with your AP. After hosting 12 women, I know the “types” (yes, plural) with whom I will have a successful year, as long as I learn to adjust.

I’ll give you a for-instance. In general, as an extrovert’s extrovert, I do best with in-your-face/say-what-she-thinks APs. I like to live with strong, decisive people (perhaps because while DH is strong, decisive he is not) The first time I matched with an introvert, I failed to see how much she had bonded with our family until I dropped her off at the airport. She was a wreck. Sure, there were signs – at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, she took The Camel over and sat near my grandmother for an hour, so she could talk and touch her grandchild (who is impossible for an elderly woman to hold. She played child #2’s stupid games quite willingly every day while waiting for The Camel to return on her schoolbus. And, when everyone else was out of the house, she went to inspect when she heard the sound of breaking glass, interrupting an intruder (I can tell you, no other AP would have cared enough to move, no matter how much we loved them as a person). As a reward for the latter, I went to her favorite restaurant and bought a $100 gift certificate, so she and her best friend could have one or two great dinners together before she left. She was not my “type” but when we matched with an introvert a couple of years later, I used what I had learned from her to make a better year for her successor.

Figure out what you want in an AP – it will take a few years. Realize that no match will be perfect. You’ll let things slide with your rockstar AP that would annoy you endlessly with a mediocre match. Understand that the ‘seasons’ of an AP year will change your relationship, too. Remember, in the last six weeks, as every little thing that your AP does grates on your nerves, to let it go unless it’s “big,” because you’re both ready to move on.

For those of you who are younger moms (I’ve never been one – I’ve always been at least 14 years older than my AP and now I’m 26 years older – the closest I’ll ever be if my family ever matches again — it’s getting harder to match now that The Camel is in “11th” grade), don’t think you’re going to find your best friend in your AP. You might make a match with someone with whom you’re close in age or temperament, with someone with whom you’ll either become friends or be on friendly terms for years to come, etc., but you will not be their “bestie.” The bottom line is that you’re a mom with kids, and at the end of the day, they’re your responsibility and your AP gets to leave and go out. (One mom who started hosting the year I did was 26, the same age as her AP. She imagined them doing things together and being friends. She got angry when that didn’t happen. I think the realization that at the end of the day, she was a mom with two kids and a third on the way was hard for her when she watched her AP saunter off to get changed to go clubbing.

Your management style should and will differ with each AP, because each relationship will be unique and will require different skills and adjustments from you in order to be successful.

New to This February 15, 2016 at 2:16 am

Downton Abbey is a same-gender interest? For which gender? I’m working with a small sample, but everyone I know who watches it does so with their spouse. I probably wouldn’t bother if my (male) partner weren’t hooked. But then, cooking isn’t a particularly gendered interest in my community, either; women probably still do more of the day-to-day grind, but those who’d class it as an interest rather than just a chore are mostly the self-proclaimed “foodies,” who are at least as likely to be men.

The relationship-management thing in our household is complicated by language, though — I find it easiest to talk to our AP in her native language, which my partner doesn’t speak. One of our ground rules is that the dinner table is supposed to be English-only, but I slip up a lot without realizing I’m doing it. Meanwhile, he tends to be difficult to understand (talks very fast, uses an exceptionally complex vocabulary, etc.), so I find myself having to do a lot of translation into more accessible English in order to include the AP in conversations. At least the baby is good at providing entertainment that transcends language, in the form of food that seems to go everywhere but his mouth. :-)

2 kids and a cat February 15, 2016 at 11:38 am

For my personal style, I need to know that my au pair treats childcare responsibilities like a professional job. I am definitely a “it’s professional, not personal” kind of person. So, downtime, weekends, holidays, etc we’re family. But anything in the log book is your job. If my kids love you but you won’t fold the laundry, that’s not acceptable professional performance. But, since you’re “family”, we’ll still take you to the movies with us. How I like you as a person has nothing to do with your competence at your job.
We sort of have the domino model – the au pair covers my work hours, and if my husband is working beyond that, I’m home. Consequently, I’m the one who does the schedule and responsibilities with her.

Reluctant Grownup February 15, 2016 at 12:15 pm

I love the model of separating working time fr I’m socializing time.

At my house it’s a little more fluid since I’m working alongside my AP to manage 4 children and a household. Sometimes I think I should have 2 hats – a “pal” and “boss” to wear accordingly. We can laugh together, and be excited for your plans, but that doesn’t mean that you can put off dishes to see your friends.

I’m hoping that selecting for certain personality types – APs with initiative – and actual work experience, will help with this. Living where you work is a challenge, and it seems like APing comes with all the nuances of being a roommate, emplyee, and family member. Thanks to this website for helping us navigate it.

WestMom February 16, 2016 at 12:20 pm

I’ll admit, I am the lead parent.

My relationship with our AP does vary from one year to the next. Some APs are more flexible, more self-reliant and need less instructions. But at the end of the day, I am the AP manager: the one who chooses the AP, sets the schedule, does the training, and provides the feedback.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have a congenial relationship with AP. We do talk about our personal lives, watch movies on the couch, share a glass of wine. But I feel like there AP and I never really lose sight that she is here to help with our children, not to be our friends. The friendship is a by-product of living together, and having compatible personalities. It is not a goal.

I could see that this would be more difficult with certain types of situations. If I were a SAHM, I would definitely focus more on finding the right companion. I do think it could be a lot more challenging to find an AP to fill that role.

I also think that most APs want to have clarity in terms of schedule and responsibility. This is the only way for them to be clear about the boundaries between family/work life and their personal life. I am a typeA, project manager-type personality, and I could not live in a unstructured work environment. I think OPs situation, it might be wise to spend more energy on reviewing DISC info, and perhaps consider meeting int he middle by providing some structure that will make APs situation more black and white.

Reluctant Grownup February 16, 2016 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for the feedback.

We did have structure schedule-wise: 2-9pm evening shift. The jobs (homework, dinner, toddler-minding, carpool) were written down. They had to get done, usually by the same person, in the same order, but not always. (Sick kids, big school project, etc.). Usually the toddler job is the fun one, and the dinner/ homework supervision of 3 somewhat resistant students is mine. But if my 2 year old is cranky/ teething/ tired there’s the potion to switch.

With 4 young children and DH working past 10pm nightly, I need someone adaptable, who I work well alongside. I was hoping our perks of good location and lighter schedule mitigate the drawbacks of sometimes changing tasks, a HM underfoot, and more housework than some AP peers, albeit all child-related.

I understand the teammate model is frustrating for most types of people – enough incentive to get the job done, but ok with not doing it alone. I will hopefully have luck finding someone that doesn’t mind being a bit flexible.

American in Paris February 17, 2016 at 5:24 am

I’m trying to understand your question clearly, especially the part where you say “Our first Au Pair was always waiting for concrete instructions, instead of a teammate with shared goals….I’m looking for someone who doesn’t need structure to thrive.”

I think you’re almost setting yourself up for failure and it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to find a young AP who can work like that, especially in the beginning. I’m an American AP working in Paris and my HM is like that. There was no handbook when I arrived and my tasks were only loosely outlined in the contract. I felt like I was drowning for maybe the first 2 months that I was there as I had no idea what was expected of me and I was always feeling like there was something I wasn’t doing right.

I had to get settled and know the household and the kidsmore before I could work more intuitively and see problems as they arose and not be told after the fact by my HM but I think that’s pretty typical unless you are choosing someone with a LOT of previous PROFESSIONAL childcare experience. And I didn’t think at first that it was fair of my HM to expect me to read her mind. So we had to have a talk about what specifically were my jobs and what was not. There needs to be decisiveness and it’s unfair to everyone in the household, including the kids, to not have that structure.

That being said, you can still be friendly with your AP and develop a close personal friendship with them without sacrificing your “authority.” My HM is awesome and I love talking to her and I hope we will still be friends even after my AP year is over. It’s less of a question of how friendly you are allowed to be and more of a question of his/her maturity and how they define the relationship. If your AP has trouble seeing you as an authority figure that is a reflection on her professionalism and doesn’t mean you need to be colder or more distant. Hope that helps!

Reluctant Grownup February 17, 2016 at 11:18 am

Yes, that helps a lot. Thank you.

I am looking at people with more childcare experience , and at people who’ve lived with nieces/ nephews and much younger siblings.

And, I should say “less structure,” not ” no structure “. For example, I want our children being active 3:30-4:30, but whether this is at the park, in the yard, scooters to the beach and back… Doesn’t matter. Ask me if you’d like, but I’d rather you take the reins and go.

Maybe instead of my “boss” and “pal” hats I’ll get
a “mom” and “invisible” hat :-). It would be so cool to turn invisible and let the AP take the lead easily, as we are both longing for her to do.

HRHM February 17, 2016 at 4:39 pm

Caveat Emptor – I would not allow the childcare experience listed on the application to guide you in choosing your AP, even when backed up by written, verified references. Unless she was a school teacher or some other professional care giver, you have no way to be certain that she has any of the experiences listed.

I am on AP 8 and after talking to all of my APs and many of their friends, it’s become apparent that the vast majority of the APs pad the heck out of their application. My current AP has no childcare experience (although she is educated to be a teacher and cared for relative’s kids) and she’s been the best by far. My other previous APs either made up most or all of their experience and just had friends do the references and verify them by phone.

Also, I tried the “much younger sibling” route for 2 years and while those young ladies did a fair to middling job, it was pretty obvious that they were not really that into their little sisters and it didn’t lead to them being that into my little girls either.

Reluctant Grownup February 17, 2016 at 11:23 am

And, American in Paris, it’s wonderful to hear that you persevered past the first two months and had a good year.

Reluctant Grownup February 17, 2016 at 11:25 am

Glad to hear that you’re *having a good year*. How far in are you? How much French do you speak?

The language barrier with our present OOC match is keeping me from usefully writing oodles of instructions. There is a schedule and handbook.

WarmStateMomma February 17, 2016 at 6:28 pm

I’d give it all to her her in writing anyway. It’s easier for her to take her time with written instructions (or ask a buddy or GoogleTranslate for help) than to catch it all verbally when you’re looking at her. Expecting her to understand. Judging her crappy English. Making her too nervous to respond.

Use the most simple terms you can. Short sentences. Avoid idioms, slang, etc.

She can also go back to the written material as questions arise or her English improves. She will feel too awkward to keep asking you verbally and you may not be there to answer questions as they arise.

American in Paris February 19, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Thank you. It’s Feb 2016 as of me writing this and I arrived in September 2015, so I have been here about 6 months. My French is actually quite good but I had a strong basis before I came and my number one goal for my au pair year and motivation to do it was to improve my language skills. That being said, my host parents both speak English very well so we tend to switch back and forth as needed and there are no real “lost in translation” moments between us.

Language barriers can be really tough! Do you know anyone who speaks your au pair’s language? If not, you can use a language translation service such as to quickly translate something like a handbook. This isn’t a plug for their website, but they’re quick and much cheaper than most freelance translations (you should definitely pay to get it done rather than just rely on google translate. It shouldn’t be that expensive). Otherwise, as WarmStateMomma said, it will still be easier for her to read it in English than try to catch it as you’re saying it to her.

Hope that helps!

Extension Au Pair February 17, 2016 at 1:53 pm

I stayed with the same family for the second year and I have to say that the independence you are talking about one develops with time. It happened for me very fast since asking for help and advice in simple tasks is a little embarrassing. So first I try to figure things out by myself. I ask only if I used every option I could think of. It is cultural I suppose.

In general, though decisiveness comes with age I think,also with life experience. Traveling (but real deal not 5 star hotels) teaches you a lot, living on your own etc. Childcare during overnight camps seems a little more relevant as well. Kids tend to show all their abilities there and counselors are on their own, mostly.
Even with my initiative I needed a little guidance. It was mostly just a confirmation that I do well. That my HP support my decisions. I actually sat my HM down one day and told her that I need feedback. No one was complaining about the things I did so I assumed that everything was fine but I wanted it confirmed. I also need a promise that if I make a mistake someone will react and tell me that. I am not a mind reader. I am lucky enough to have a good judgement. That helps to avoid big mistakes.
You have to give a structure that Au Pair can based her decisions on. Then if you have smart Au Pair that knows what she is doing, your kids are happy and you are happy. Happy atmosphere make everybody like each other and maintain a good relationship. You know, sometimes I am exhausted. But I make that dinner because I know that HP will be more exhausted after all day in the office. They thank me, I think it was worth it. It is all give and take.

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