Here’s a true look at what life is like with an au pair.
We host an au pair to help with our two children: 2.5 years old and five months.
At first, I thought hosting an au pair was overkill. I mean, I grew up with five sisters. My mom did everything. Here I am with just two kids– do I really need the help?
The answer is yes. 100% yes.
See, having extra help doesn’t mean I am failing as a mom. It just means I’m vulnerable enough to realize the extra help is just that– extra help.
I’ve got to tell you– it’s totally worth it. And it can be less expensive than having both kids in daycare.
Hosting an au pair isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Let’s dig into the nitty gritty.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I had preeclampsia. My ankles, knees, legs, and feet were swollen beginning at 28 weeks. I was nauseated every day. Needless to say, I did not enjoy pregnancy. Even so, my husband and I decided to have a second. I knew it would be hard to be pregnant while raising a toddler, especially if my symptoms were anything close to what I experienced with my first.
So, we looked into more cost-effective options. We love the daycare my first daughter goes to, but paying for both kids to go there full time was really not an option. We do not trust in-home daycares because of a negative experience. We have no family around to help us out. We felt so lost. How do people have more than one child in one of the most expensive cities in America?
Someone in my mom’s group suggested Cultural Care Au Pair, a service that matches you with an au pair based off of personality, experience, interests, and ability to just get along. I scoffed at first. Aren’t au pairs for ridiculously wealthy parents who traipse up and down Europe each summer? Aren’t they for families with personal chefs and cleaning services? We just aren’t that family (yet…fingers crossed for book deal).
As we looked into the price structure, we realized how doable it is and how incredibly wrong we were about the stigmas around having an au pair. So, we called Michaela Lowery, our Local Childcare Consultant, just to see what the process looked like and if it were something we could even consider.
Y’all…I’ve never worked with a service that was completely honest with us the way she was. When we inquired about it, she said up front, “If you’re uncomfortable with another person living in your home, this is not for you. If you want an employee, this is not for you. If you’re looking for someone to be a part of your family and help, we can help you.”
So, sure. The pricing structure looked manageable, especially compared to local daycares, but is this what we wanted? Wouldn’t it feel like someone would invade our space? Are we ready to welcome two people into our home, one being a full-fledged adult?
We decided it was too good to pass up. We began searching for au pairs.
We knew we wanted someone to speak French because French was an important part of my upbringing, since my mother is a French teacher. We began looking through au pairs from France who had infant experience. That’s when we found Julie..
We read through Julie’s profile which includes pretty personal questions– religion, race, medical history (which was important to us for vaccine history), and comfort for different types of cultures. We wanted someone open-minded, experienced, and fun. Plus, we wanted someone who would be honest with us if they ever felt uncomfortable and who would generally love our children.
We wanted another member of our family. And we’re so happy we found Julie.
We knew in our first Skype session she would be a great fit for us. Our sassy daughter was being insane in the background of our call. She was singing at the top of her lungs, scaling the bannister of the stairs, and swinging her dress around. I was so nervous her energy would scare off a potential caretaker.
Julie saw her and said, “Wow. She is so cool.”
So, we kept chatting. Julie’s English is fantastic, which was a requirement for our family since my husband is not fluent in French. I am Catholic and my husband is atheist. Julie was comfortable with both. My husband and I both work from home sometimes. She was pretty relaxed about that, too.
We are sarcastic. Julie gives it right back to us.
Then we gave her the one piece of news that may scare her away:
“So…we would love an au pair to help with our toddler…and potentially a baby. We’re trying to get pregnant.”
Pause. If I were her, I’d run for the hills. Staying with a family who has a crazy toddler and a crazy, hormonal pregnant lady? No way.
“Sure! That’s so exciting! I love babies!”
Done. Julie was chosen.
We chose her quite a few months prior to her coming to live with us. Most families have their au pair come within just a few months, but we matched seven months ahead of time. We were lucky that Julie was willing to wait for us, but she did. We stayed in contact with her throughout that time so she would already know us before she came to us. We shared news of our work and family, including when we finally did get pregnant.
She was so excited for us. Everything was really falling into place.
Finally, January came and Julie began her au pair journey at the Cultural Care training school in New York. She was honest about her nervousness, which we understood and appreciated. The major thing we learned from this was how important communication is between the au pair and family. She felt comfortable discussing her fears with us because we genuinely care. In order for this to work, a family and the au pair have to care.
Then, we picked her up from the airport.
It took time getting to know each other and figuring out how to navigate significant cultural differences. Plus, there are some large expenses at first. We chose to do the payment plan to the agency and we pay Julie a weekly stipend of $200 per week (subject to change) plus her food, room, utilities, and pretty much everything she needs. Things like clothes or going out for fun comes from her own pocket, but we cover all living expenses.
I would say it took about a month to really get to know each other’s living habits. We were not honest at first when something made us uncomfortable. We all acted like everything was okay. Then, we realized that wasn’t conducive to our living arrangement. We didn’t want things to build and then blow up, so, we had a family meeting.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you work from home and come downstairs,” Julie admitted, “Em doesn’t listen to me when she knows you’re home.”
Woah. That felt like a punch in the gut. My husband and I looked at each other. We genuinely had no idea it was causing a problem.
And we were so happy she spoke up.
So, we compromised. We would text Julie when we needed to go downstairs. She would either take the kids upstairs to their room or go outside. Boom. Communication.
And we’re honest with her, too. If we feel she needs to discipline differently or come home at an earlier hour, we have a conversation. Sometimes the conversations don’t go as planned, but we talk about it. She understands the need to abide by our rules, but we also listen to her concerns. More often than not, we’re on the same page.
I will say it can be hard to have private time with another adult in the house. The good thing is, Julie also gets out. She has a ton of friends she’s met in her mandatory continuing education courses each au pair needs to take (72 hours total for a year) and friends she’s met at other au pair events (she must attend one au pair meeting once a month).
I love that the au pairs get together, too. One concern I had in getting an au pair was the lack of social time my toddler would get with other kids. That fear quickly dissipated, however, since Julie often takes the kids to play with au pairs and their families. I also love that Julie can take the girls to museums, the library, play gyms, and even water parks. The girls have definitely done with more with her than in a traditional daycare.
One struggle we do have is the amount of hours Julie is allowed to work. As mandated by the State Department, au pairs can only work 45 hours a week and no more than 10 hours per day. While that sounds like a lot, most daycares have at least a 7:30-6:30 option. Of course, this amount of hours makes sense– it’s technically overtime in the US and far more than is average for a European country (France is about 35 hours a week). Even so, such a tight schedule was tough for us considering our long commutes. Since we have the ability to work from home, we’ve adjusted accordingly, but it is something to consider.
The au pairs have two weeks of paid vacation per year (but we’ve given her a bit more). When Julie goes on vacation, it is a bit of a strain to find alternate affordable childcare, but it’s worth it. She deserves the rest and to have a high quality of life. She’s a person, not a machine, so we make it work.
Another question I get often: Does she cook? Well, that’s sort of loaded.
Technically, yes. Julie does cook for us. Because she likes to cook. She is not required to cook nor is she required to clean other than typical household chores she would do in her own home (i.e., cleaning up after herself). Julie goes above and beyond, however. She often cleans more than she should because she likes to. It’s not an expectation– she just does it. She really tries hard to look after the family, especially if that means cooking some traditional French foods for us (all the cheeeeeessseeeeee).
Honestly, we’ve loved sharing in the cultural experience with Julie. We’ve celebrated French holidays with her and she’s experienced American. We discuss differences in politics, the impact of both countries on the world, and our experiences in each. It’s eye-opening, and I love that my girls get a piece of culture in their lives.
So, that’s our experience with our au pair. We love it even though there can be awkward moments. She has truly become a part of the family. We take her on vacations with us, we have dinner together, and we go to concerts together, among other things. She’s a special combination of helper, friend, and daughter. It’s weird, but it works super well.
Having Julie has changed our lives. We’re so honored to have Cultural Care Au Pair, who provides continual check-ins to make sure everything is copacetic.
and Julie. Of course.
In the words of my two year old, “I have a new big sister!”
And we could not imagine our lives without her.