How the au pair program works

As any working parent knows, finding the right child care is a daunting task. That goes double for attachment-style parents. We have spent countless hours holding our babies, wearing them, and sleeping next to them. We have nursed and rocked them for ages. We’ve researched diapers and baby-led weaning. And now we are supposed to hand them over to someone else to care for? The thought of it makes giving birth sound easy.

With two kids and two careers in our family, we have looked into every option for child care and tried several. We toured what felt like every daycare in town. We’ve hired babysitters and part-time nannies. Our oldest child attended a lovely Waldorf preschool. 

Once we had our second child, we began researching our options anew. I was fortunate to be able to take a yearlong leave of absence from graduate school when she was born, but after that I needed (and wanted) to return to the university to finish my Ph.D. 

After countless hours of discussion and poring over options, we settled on hosting an au pair. 

What is an au pair?

The au pair program provides full-time live-in child care combined with cultural exchange. Your family gets a responsible and fun big sister or big brother figure to take care of your children and provide some light help around the house for 45 hours per week, and an 18-26 year old from another country gets the chance to experience life in another country. The au pair lives with you as a member of your family for one year. 

How do you find them? 

There are several au pair agencies that you can work with, including Cultural Care Au Pair, Au Pair in America, Great Au Pair, CHI Au Pair, and several more. When you sign up, you create a profile to describe your family, your lifestyle, your philosophies, and your values. You post pictures and give an overview of what life is like in your family. The au pairs also write up some information and post pictures of themselves and their lives. Much like online dating, families can browse au pair profiles. The agency can help match you or you can look for matches on your own. You can also narrow down your search based on criteria such as male or female au pairs, being a speaker of a particular language or from a certain country, being qualified to work with infants, having a driver’s license, and lots of other criteria. Once a potential match has been identified, families and au pairs typically do a Skype interview. From there, a match can be made or both parties can keep looking.

So they live with you?

Yes! As an introvert who doesn’t like to be “on” all the time, I was concerned that having a stranger move into our household would be unpleasant and exhausting. Happily, that wasn’t the case at all.

First, an au pair is not like having a house guest. You don’t carefully screen every house guest to make sure you have the kind of compatibility that would allow you to live together for a year or more. With au pairs, you do. Second, your au pair isn’t going to want to hang around you 100% of the time anymore than you want to hang out with her or him 100% of the time. Everyone needs their downtime, especially someone who just moved to a new country and is speaking a second (or third) language all day. Chances are your au pair will also make friends with people her own age quickly and spend a lot of evenings and weekends hanging out with them.

Having live-in child care is also a huge bonus for attachment parenting families. With my oldest, we had a lovely couple of nannies, but leaving the house was still hard a lot of days. My daughter didn’t want me to go. With an au pair, leaving the house was usually a seamless transition. Most mornings my kids were happy to wave goodbye as I headed out for work. Some days they were still asleep when I left. Not having to rush them or deal with a difficult morning separation (we’ve been there too) is worth a lot. 

Are there any special requirements? 

The only requirement is that the au pair must have their own room with a door. They don’t need their own bathroom, although for most families I think it is helpful to have separate bathrooms if possible. Your au pair probably needs to get ready for work in the mornings around the same time you do.

Do they need their own car?

Nope! In fact, for most of the time with our first au pair, we were a one car family. My husband rode his bike to work, I worked from home, and the au pair took the kids out of the house on trips to the park, library, children’s museum, etc. Although we now have more than one car, no member of the family has their “own” car. We share according to schedules and needs. 

How much does it cost?

When I first heard about the au pair program, I was certain it was only used by families who fly their private jets to annual ski vacations each year. Although I have since learned that it is accessible to many middle-class families as well, it’s important to acknowledge the high cost of child care in the United States and the privilege of having options. That said, in our experience hosting an au pair was a more affordable option than paying for full-time daycare for two children. 

The program is advertised as full-time help (45 hours per week) for $7.77 an hour. You pay an agency fee of $8,500, which with our agency covered the cost of the visa, the flight from the home country to the U.S., and a weeklong stay at the au pair “training school” in New York before their arrival to your home. You also pay $197.75 directly to the au pair each week. The total cost averages out to about $1,500 per month, regardless of how many children you have. Other costs, such as adding the au pair as a driver on your insurance policy, adding a line to your phone plan, higher utility bills, and having one more person at dinner most nights will vary, but should also be accounted for. 

How long can they stay?

A normal contract with an au pair is for one year. As the end of that year approaches, the host family and au pair have the option to extend for 6 months, 9 months, or 12 months if mutually desired. If the host family no longer needs or wants an au pair, or the au pair wants to sample life in a different part of the country, he or she also has the option to find a new host family for the extension term.

What if it doesn’t work out?

This happened to us. Our first au pair was absolutely amazing and stayed with us for 18 months. Then our second au pair arrived. She was responsible and polite, but after a couple of weeks or so, we realized it was not a good match. We initiated re-match and both parties started interviewing again. She found a new family a couple hours from us, and we found a new and wonderful au pair our kids adore and have a blast with. We have now had four total successful au pairs who have enriched our lives so much.

From our failed match we learned to be as explicit and up front as possible about what we are looking for. Our top priority is having someone who is super engaging and shares our philosophy of a relationship-driven rather than rules-driven approach to family life. We want someone who will bond with our kids and have fun with them. Other families, we’ve learned, are often looking for a completely different type of au pair — someone who can keep the household in shape, make sure the kids do their homework, finish their chores, and practice their 30 minutes of piano. We’ve learned it’s important to know your own values and communicate them clearly to potential au pairs. 

What kind of families host au pairs?

Many different types of families host au pairs. Host families include two-parent families and single-parent families. They include same-sex parents and different-sex parents. They include two working-parent families and stay-at-home parents with many children or special circumstances. They include families with one child or many children, children with and without additional needs, and children of all ages.

Our family started by hosting au pairs as a way to achieve family-centered rather than group-centered child care. Although our oldest child attended a lovely farm-based daycare before we had our second child, we found that she really came out of her shell and thrived under the more relaxed, home-based care an au pair could offer. (Other children may thrive in a group setting, so finding the right fit for your specific kids is important.)

As our kids grew older and entered the elementary school years, things were going so well that we continued with the au pair program instead of sending our kids to school. The program became a way for us both to maintain our careers while also giving our kids the un-rushed, self-driven education we wanted for them. 

Can an au pair homeschool children?

Although some have questioned whether an au pair is qualified to “homeschool” children, we don’t view homeschooling as something that is done to children. We view it as giving our children the opportunity to explore their interests in a safe and supportive environment, which the au pair provides when we as parents are working.

Overall, having an au pair is a nice way to have your children cared for by someone they love and trust and a way to organize your work/school/family life in an outside-the-box way. If you’re a two-career family with young kids who thrive best outside of an institutional setting, the au pair program could be just what you need. 

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