HC's Guide to Being an Au Pair: the Good, the Bad and the Reality

The lure of being paid to lie on a beach all summer is what attracts most University students to the prospect of being an Au Pair, but not all of their adventures turn out to be peachy as the guidebook paints it out to be. Within our own team, many of the girls have spent previous summers looking after little angels and making the most of the live-in nanny lifestyle. We spoke to two of them to find out if they can’t wait to get back, or never want to work with children again. Ever.

Let’s start with THE BAD:

Marie's Story: Au - NO

Being an Au-Pair seems to be the perfect opportunity for many young girls to get out of their comfort zone and see the world. And getting out of your comfort zone is such a big part of the Au-Pair life. Just to let you know in advance, it mostly differs from what the all happy Au-Pair companies are trying to sell you. So here’s to the negative sides of being an Au-Pair, which nobody will tell you about in advance.

I was one of the girls who believed in the Au-Pair life as being a dream come true. I thought it would be the perfect chance to become a part of a new family, to explore culture and live the American dream. Years before I finished school and I was actually old enough to participate in the program, I watched shows that accompanied Au-Pairs on their way. I read articles and I even applied one year in advance at the most popular agency for Au-Pairs in America. I knew this was going to be my thing, I was made to become an Au-Pair. I was outgoing, I loved kids and most of all I loved the English language! When I had my first match I was instantly in love with them. We Skype-d a lot, they sent me postcards and I was so happy when I got a call and they told me that they wanted me to be their Au-Pair. I was blinded, because in fact I knew nothing about choosing the right family. How was I supposed to know what exactly to look for?

I could tell you many, many stories about my time as an Au-Pair. Thirteen months is a long time for crazy stories, but I will stick to the most important facts that made me realise what being an Au-Pair is actually about and how my dream started to crumble. First, let me tell you that I didn’t stay in my first family. It all started right when I arrived at the airport. I’d often dreamt about the moment of meeting the family for the first time, but it was not at all like what I’d pictured. I was alone at a huge airport in the U.S. for the first time of my life, I had no phone with me (my host family was supposed to give me one) and nobody showed up. Nobody. So I waited for an hour or two before I got really anxious, ran around the airport to find a phone and called the emergency number of the agency. They forgot me (which I today still don’t believe).

That was just the beginning of everything not being the way I expected it to be. One of the children had a mental disability, which I knew nothing about in the beginning and wasn’t suitably prepared for. The parents left me alone with the kids the whole day without a car, yet at the same time they were control freaks wanting me to write everything down that I did with the kids (so I always felt the pressure to do something special all the time) and they called constantly. I felt like they didn’t trust me at all. I also couldn’t sleep at night, because my host-dad was always playing the piano until around 3am. I was exhausted.

The funny thing is though that I tried to hold on to my dream and I waited for things to get better. I was really trying to get along with them, but in the end they told me that they felt like I was unhappy and said it would be better for me to leave. From that moment on I felt awful. They ignored me, didn’t let the kids come to my room and the day I left they were gone in the morning without even saying goodbye. I left after three months, leaving a note, thanking them for their hospitality. But from now on things just got better! (Can you sense the sarcasm?)

My second host-family, where I stayed for ten months (I was an exception as a lot of Au-Pairs had left them earlier) was even crazier. The kids were very spoilt and their behaviour was shockingly bad. My host-dad was an alcoholic and they lived in the most superficial society I have ever been a part of.  Here again, there is so much I could tell you. I didn’t really have regular working hours. It was especially crazy in the summer. I felt like I was never really off. The parents just left without telling me and even when they were there I was working. They just didn’t want to spend time with their kids at all. I had to be with them everywhere, all the time. I had some crazy encounters with my drunk host dad and we fought about money. I had to sleep on random stranger’s couches just because the kids were staying there. And worst of all I was all by myself with the kids regularly once a month for about five days when my host-parents went to Florida, and one time even for two weeks. I was basically being their mom, never being off, rarely being able to plan any trips or events that I wanted to do with my friends. The point is that your host-family has the power. They can send you home any time and that is why you at some point just accept the way things are. I did not want to leave early, I wanted the full experience.

I had a lot of Au-Pair friends and I realised that being an Au-Pair can be tough for everybody. I heard even crazier stories then mine. Nearly half of the girls were changing their family at one point, one girl for example got hit by her host-dad, and another one was watched by her host-family through cameras. Many had to work more than they were supposed to. My agency knew that my host-family was not sticking to the rules. Nobody helped me.

But I have to say still I don’t regret it at all. All these crazy stories made me stronger and I grew a lot from the experience. I saw the world from another perspective (the rich high society superficial lifestyle I don’t want to participate in anymore) and I made so many new loveable friends that I am now, after four years, still in touch with. But most importantly I got to love the kids. When they were having nightmares they came up into my room and crawled into my bed. The day I left they were crying waterfalls. Later, the next Au-Pair told me that my oldest host-kid had to be picked up from school the day I left because she wouldn’t stop crying. And this is my final and strongest argument for why I will never be an Au-Pair again. You will miss the kids forever.

And now for THE GOOD:

Alison's Story

Many of my friends had worked as Au Pairs before me, so I felt as if I kind of knew the drill:

1. Look after the kids

2. Be nice to the parents and their friends

3. Don’t die (because my travel insurance didn’t cover that, it was not an option).

With clear instructions from my mother not to be sold on the black market or fall so in love with the beach/mañana lifestyle that I decide not to return and complete my final year at Uni, I boarded my flight to sunny Spain. Well, not really because I was to be staying in the north where the average temperature was 25c and the surrounding greenery looked more like Scotland than the desert-like terrain of the south.

 

With my heart racing I left my flight and met my host family. Kiss kiss, kiss kiss. The rest of the story, which follows, was arguably the most idyllic two months of my life. Think beach walks, reading novels, swimming pools and sunshine. Kind of sounds like a romantic get-away for one right? You’re probably wondering where the child I was supposed to be looking after was. My top tip would be to choose a kid whose parents describe them as independent or who will be old enough to go enjoy their summer on their own and leave their au pair to bronze herself and talk to attractive lifeguards.

In all serious though, most Au Pairs are employed to bring your English language to the family’s home environment, and your main responsibility will be to speak English to your kid’s friends and be subject to ridicule as you attempt to say ‘rabbit’ in Spanish. You really are the funniest comedian in the world to them. My top tip #2 is to at least speak a little of the language of the country you’re heading to- my biggest mistake was not doing this and it could have been fatal had I not been staying with the right family. Socialising with people your own age (going to parties in fields and returning smelling of sidre and sangria at 7am as your host family are heading off to work) really can make or break your summer. Your host family should realise you are young in a new country and let you have time off every so often.

If you pick the right family and have the best experience, you too will be blubbing as the security guard decides to randomly frisk you at the airport. But not to worry, as they are now your 2nd family and you can return to that little piece of paradise whenever you wish.

 

So there we have it collegiettes, the good and the bad of au-pairing life. So now you’re equipped with the tips from our au pairs themselves, why don’t you give it a go next summer?!