Recent Widower / Single Host Dad: How to find the right au pair?

by cv harquail on April 21, 2010

Readers, Here’s a specific question about choosing the right au pair for a family that has lost their mom through tragedy.

We had one host dad comment on our earlier post about single parents, and I know that there are at least two other host dad-readers who have lost their wives and who have hired au pairs to help with childcare and to offer a little extra warmth to the kids. Likely, there are other readers out there with first hand experience or other close up advice to share.

Here is our email from the host mom & friend wondering whether to suggest an au pair to a newly widowed dad:


Sadly, one of my closest friends recently passed away from breast cancer leaving behind a husband, a 7 year old son and a 3 year old daughter. I’m thinking an au pair MIGHT be a wonderful option for this family as he needs a lot of help with his children since he must continue to work full-time. However, I have the following concerns:

* Availability. Are there au pairs that a strong enough to handle this difficult situation where the family will be grieving the loss of this wonderful person and mother? (My friend needs a stable, sensitive person in the home, not someone that would bring more problems.)

* Perception concerns. Will people think it is creepy that a 40 something man has a 20 something young, un-married woman, living in the house? How does he and the au pair handle inappropriate comments?

* Setting kids up for another loss. Should he be concerned about hiring someone who might only stay one year? My children LOVE our au pair and I know it will be difficult when she leaves. For these children, whose mother has died, would an au pair leaving after one year be just another tough loss for them?

BTW this father is a typical engineer – focused on facts, very organized and does not readily show emotion.

I’m sure there are more questions but these are some of the key ones. I welcome your comments and your advice. Thank you so much. AG

Hi AG,

It is so hard to lose a friend, to cancer or to another tragedy; I am so sorry for your loss. I can appreciate how much it could mean to you, and to your friend’s family, for you to be able to offer them some help with the childcare challenges. I hope we can offer some helpful insights.

Of course there is no filling in the space left by the loss of a mom (or a wife, or friend). And, I agree with you that an au pair may be a very good way to provide both childcare and another consistent adult presence. A great au pair could be a positive force in this family’s situation.

I’m pretty sure that other host parent will agree; there are some au pairs who would be great in this situation. I know that some of our former au pairs would have been able to handle this well, and I know two au pairs who have been in similar situations and handled it well.

The challenge is not just finding an au pair who can handle it but also finding one that can fit well with a family that (regardless of the chance that stress will change what’s ‘normal’ for the famiy) is a good fit in terms of personality.

We’ve talked a little bit on other posts about the perception issues — so look there for ideas to add to what readers will share in the comments.

With regard to the kids and another experience of loss — this strikes me as the hardest issue.

Even if an au pair extends for another year, she or he will eventually go back home. But it is also true that other kinds of caregiving arrangements don’t always last as long as you hope. People leave, they change jobs, etc. A friend of mine just lost her nanny of three years when the nanny died suddenly in her sleep! So there is no guarantee.

When people ask me if it is hard for kids to say goodbye to an au pair, I answer that yes, it can be hard to say goodbye. This is one of the things that host kids get to learn how to do when they have au pairs.

The flip side, the positive side, of this is that host kids learn that there are many different people out there who can come into their lives and create a loving relationship with them, and leave and continue a loving relationship with them. Kids learn that people leave, that this is okay, and that there is a lot of love out there to be shared.

Let’s hear from you readers— what advice can you offer AG?

See Also:

Myths about Au Pairs: Au Pair = “Hottie”
Follow Up: Rude Comments about Au Pairs– How to respond

Photo: Lost-in-Lomo from Joel Bedford on Flickr


Should be working April 22, 2010 at 1:04 am

A sad story. In my view, while an au pair MIGHT work out very well for this family, I would not recommend it in this context because of the relatively high risk of problems. The family has never had an au pair before, which means this father would have a steep learning curve and it sounds like he is not necessarily attuned to how to make the selection, settle the AP in, and deal with the APs possible homesickness, adjustment issues, creating and enforcing rules, et al.

What is more, if somewhere around 1/5 (possibly more) of matches end in rematch, that might be rough for these kids. If the dad was even tuned in enough to know that rematch is necessary and can deal with going through the breaking-in again.

If this family were to try an au pair, I’d consider an extension au pair only. or even better one of the programs where the APs have some nursing or therapeutic experience (more expensive, but likely more mature and willing to take the difficult situation on).

HRHM April 22, 2010 at 6:43 am

I also think that an AP might not be the best choice right now. Even though you always run the risk of people quitting, I think even the potential of better (ie a couple of years) stability of a Nanny/babysitter would be better than the certainty of losing an AP in a year (or less with rematches) .

NJMom April 22, 2010 at 10:46 am

I also agree. It doesn’t sound as thought this Dad will be emotionally able to give to the au pair what she will need upon arrival. I think given the circumstances and the age of the children a mature nanny would be a better fit a year or two.

maleaupairmommy April 22, 2010 at 11:04 am

We actually had an au pair in our group who came to a family where the mother was going to die within a few months after his arrival. He knew this and took this challenge with courage, faith , and patience. He didn’t finish the year with them but it was because of money issue but he was able to help the kids and father over the inttial greif. I’m still in awe that he signed up for this kind of challenge. He is still in touch with the boy and girl Just help him chose wisely he may be at a complete loss at the wife always chose child care and did the interveiwing etc.

Calif Mom April 22, 2010 at 11:17 am

This is very humbling. My heart goes out to this family, and I totally concur with CV’s response.

I think an AP could work well; I know during those weeks when my hub is traveling, having an AP is just different–and vastly preferable–to having a nanny. I’ve had both, and this is a big part of why we stick with APs. I have also had unreliable part time help, and had to fire a nanny, so I know full well that there’s no guarantee of longevity with either choice. Longevity of the caregiver relationship is always a hope, but I don’t think it actually happens as often as we would wish. Even with our nanny who was with us for years, she needed a sabbatical in the middle to take care of family matters.

With an extension AP, you *know* it will only be a year; I don’t think I would go that route, personally. Having an AP definitely comes with a host family learning curve that shouldn’t be underestimated. This dad’s comfort with managing people is the biggest factor when I think about this. An engineer dad who has happy staff under him might do fine with managing an AP; but one whose employees find him inscrutable or prone to blow up out of the blue (not to stereotype, but my brother is one of these so I know the personality well!) might struggle mightily with this, since it would be outside of his comfort zone, and he’s already under big time stress.

A traditional nanny wouldn’t require him to deal with cell phones, or cars, or late nights, or all those things that are more in the gray area and cause the most friction (or potential for friction).

I am reminded of advice a wise pediatrician at my office gave me when I was coming back from maternity leave. He was a grandfather himself and a strong feminist, and he called me into his office to tell me that any childcare arrangement can work as long as the parent is comfortable with it. And the set-up that is best for the kids is the one that is best for the parent.

Oregon_mom April 22, 2010 at 3:04 pm

An au pair in our cluster recently won our agency’s ‘ultimate au pair’ award working for a single dad in a similar situation. I’ll put the link to the Dad’s essay here – not to promote a particular agency, but to share a real story of how an au pair worked out in a similar situation (get out the tissues, ladies!):

franzi April 22, 2010 at 5:07 pm

i think an AP could be a right choice if it is a mature person who really wants to do this for the love of working with children (read no party AP). this could be achieved by either aiming at an AP Pro (child care professional background) or by taking a returning AP (successfully finished her first year/years, went to home country for 2 years and now wants to join the program again). these girls know more about childcare and the regular ups and downs and i tend to think they are more reliable.

i agree with what was above mentioned, the fact that the AP has an “expiration date” could be a problem for the kids (yet another loss) but this really depends on how the AP is being introduced into the family. it is not a new mom or second mom. it is a big sister who will help out. and it is important that the HD steps up to being both parents. if having an AP is he option he decides to go i think it is vital to make that clear distinction between “mom” and AP in order not to be confusing/raise misunderstandings/receive racy comments.

or, how about taking in a male AP?

please don’t get me wrong in the above comment. my dad passed away when i was a child so i know how important it is to keep that “other” role model in the kids lives. but the AP is not that. an aunt, the grandma etc are better fit for the family role model of a “mom”.

PA AP mom April 22, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I think Franzi offers a good option….a returning au pair. One of the APs in our cluster was in the US in 2007 and just returned about 2 months ago. She seems so much more mature that a lot of the others in the group.

It’s a difficult situation. I am not sure what the best childcare option is for them.

Matt April 22, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Sadly, I lost my wife to breast cancer and for this reason got an AP to help with our four kids so I could continue to work. It has been one of the best decisions since loosing my wife. I considered a Nanny but chose an AP for the flexibility and stability.

One thing I did and recommend to the friend of AG is to choose an AP with a minimum age of 21. This will hopefully give you a better chance of getting a more mature AP. I also had family help with the selection process since I was not in a stable mind (grieving).

My AP has fit in great with the family and community. Everyone likes and respects her. I have never had any comments about having a “younger woman around”. She has definitely taken a load off my mind.

When I was interviewing my AP I was straightforward about the type of situation she would be coming into. Knowing this and still wanting to come says volumes about her maturity.
Good luck to your friend AG. Life goes on and does get better again.


Katie PAP April 23, 2010 at 8:48 am

Sounds like you would have to select and interview the au pair very carefully. She would need to be very mature and sensitive. Although the au pair might be leaving that doesnt mean that your friends family still couldnt keep in contact with her after the year. I am sorry for the loss of your friend.

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