Tips from the Au Pair Trenches: Our Fifteenth Au Pair!

September 8, 2009

Today's post is by guest contributor Deb Schwarz, local coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair and the mother of four. Learn more about Deb and Cultural Care Au Pair at d-schwarz.local.culturalcare.com.

As we begin a new year with our fifteenth au pair (oh my!), I took a moment to reflect on the fond memories, the twists and turns, and things I've learned over the years. Many of you may have heard about "au pairs" through friends, the news, or from the Internet—and are likely more educated than I was 9 years ago when, pregnant with triplets and with no relatives in sight, I stumbled upon the term "au pair" in the yellow pages. What a wild and wonderful ride it has been since then!

From Done, our very first au pair from South Africa, who filled our house with laughter and wisdom (and helped drive my husband to visit me when he was sick, and I was trying to hang on for just one more week pregnant with triplets in the hospital), to Nicole who made looking after three preemie babies look like a walk in the park, to our beloved Emma from Australia who traveled the world with us and still visits us nearly every year (and taught our children their polite manners), Carli, who taught me how to organize our lives, to Amy, who this summer has managed to teach our four children their multiplication tables and made it look like fun. The fifteen au pairs that have braved our crazy family, along with the hundreds of families that I have helped (and learned from) over the years, have given me many invaluable tips on how to have a great au pair experience.

Here are a few of the tips:

  1. The au pair program isn't for everyone. The best host families are those that besides having a need for inexpensive childcare ($7 an hour), also have an appreciation of travel and cultures.  Although Jo Frost on "Super Nanny" has an accent, most au pairs don't have her level of experience. Having said that, our second au pair had worked with quads in her native New Zealand—but that is more the exception than the rule. Although families cite their biggest concern as privacy, most au pairs do not sit in at night watching TV with you (they typically have a slew of friends), but if you don't want to open up your house to a 20-something-year-old, and treat them as part of your family, then the live-out nanny route is probably a better option for you.  What I love most about the many au pairs that we've had over the years, is that our children will be in weddings around the world, and many (not all) are like part of our extended family.  Some au pairs don't want to be part of your family and share their culture, but most do to some degree or another.
  2. It's all about getting the right fit for you family. For every pot, there is a lid! I think the families that have the best experience take the time to reflect on what their family is like—e.g. do you and your children mesh better with an extroverted or quieter personality? Do you need someone to take charge, or follow your lead? Do you get along with certain nationalities vs. others? Do your children have any special needs or hobbies that you'd like to cultivate? What about language?
  3. Having been a market researcher for years, I take the time to ask the right questions and get a thorough "wish list" from families that I help with matching. This helps prevent a bad match, and the heartache that can ensue. To get the right match, I focus on the three C's: Competency (e.g. can they multi-task with twins+), Character (what values do they have, what was their family life like, and is that a fit for yours?), and Chemistry (we now have video clips of the au pairs, and have a large number of second-year au pairs that you can meet in person).
  4. Ask questions. I love helping multiples families survive the chaos (and joy) of twins+. I remember how daunting it was like when I had a 20-month-old and triplets (at the age of 40!) and will be forever indebted to the many moms who helped me along the way. I call my au pair agency job "my feel good job", because every day I get calls from host families saying "you saved my marriage because we now have date nights," "I don't feel so overwhelmed anymore," or "I feel like I can give my children more quality time, instead of doing laundry all day," or "our au pair taught our children how to cook a Swedish meal, and surprised us with a Midsummer Night's feast." There will be many questions along the way, and don't be afraid to ask—there is never a question too small or seemingly silly. Asking questions will lead to a great au pair experience (and an easier, less chaotic life).

I regularly post au pair advice on this blog and others across the Internet, including www.aupairmom.com. Another great resource is "Answer Mom" (a host mom friend of mine) that you can find on my website: www.dschwarz.aupairnews.com—or give me a call or email (415-990-7571, DebSchwarz@mac.com), I'd be glad to help you navigate the au pair process. If you contact me before you start the process, then I will personally work with you every step of the way, including the all important matching process, to ensure that you have a great au pair experience! After many phone calls doling out advice, I now work for the nation's largest au pair agency (Cultural Care), with over 150 au pairs in Marin.