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6 tips for future au pairs


My first trip overseas was to Switzerland to au pair for a family with four children and it was not at all what I expected.

Au pairing is similar to being a nanny, but nannies usually care for kids as their career and au pairs are usually in their 20s, taking a break before, during or after university and go for a cultural experience more so than just to work. I was 20 and it was great to see a different part of the world, but if I could go back, I would change a lot.

While you might think you’ll love the family and it will be easy work, that’s not always the case. Many au pairs leave their families before their contract is up (as I did – here is my story). It’s difficult to be in a foreign country, without a job and without the money you were planning on. By doing research on the family, you can hopefully save yourself some worry later on.

Here are 6 tips to help you have a good experience au pairing.

The kiddos
First of all, you need to look at the kids. Yes, they all seem cute in pictures, but just remember how the von Trapp kids treated Maria in The Sound of Music. Decide if you want to care for older kids or younger kids and how many you can handle (there’s no prize for the person who cares for the most kids).

My first job I had four kids aged 2.5 to 9 and it was way too much. My second au pair stint, I only had one 10 year old boy. He had two older sisters, but I was basically only responsible for speaking English with them and I honestly don’t think I was needed at all as the mother worked from home and the boy was pretty self-sufficient.

Your responsibilities
Are your tasks only watching the children or are you required to do laundry, cleaning and cooking?

In Switzerland, I was mainly watching the kids and cooking when I was alone with them, but when the parents were home, I had to help the housekeeper with laundry, ironing and cleaning. In Italy, the housekeeper cooked all our meals, so I only needed to help her prepare and clean up after.

Are there other kids you’ll need to watch if friends come over to play? Once in Switzerland I found myself eating dinner with 9 kids while the parents were off eating somewhere else. And, lucky for me, the meal they gave us was something the kids did not like at all and there wasn’t another option. Yeah!

Your hours
Each country has different regulations for how many hours au pairs can work each week. They also have cultural standards for how much the average person works. These two guidelines are not always the same, so be sure to know which one you’ll be expected to follow.

In Switzerland, I felt like I was ‘on’ nearly all the time, whether the parents were there or not. In Italy, I was definitely ‘on call’ and even if I was in my apartment across the driveway, they told me they would call me if they needed me, so I should always be ready.

Your off time is really important, so know how much it will be and when it will be. If the parents tell you they just ‘play it by ear’ or let it happen ‘naturally’, it probably won’t work out in your favour. Speaking from experience, I strongly recommend trying to get a schedule nailed down, even if it’s tough to do. Decide how much time you need off and don’t give in too much.

The living situation
Some au pair jobs are live-in and some are live-out.

If you are live-in, you will stay in the same house as the family or an attached apartment which saves them money, but it minimizes your family-free time. You may have your own ensuite or you may share a bathroom with the kids or with the whole family.

Live-out au pairs usually need to find their own accommodation. This way, you have more freedom, but you will be spending a chunk of your wages on living expenses.

On occasion, families will have an apartment where the au pair lives that is not attached to the family’s house. For me, this would be amazing.

If you can afford being a live-out au pair, it can give you a lot of freedom and opportunities to explore.

Exploring Switzerland with au pair friends from Spain, Australia and Poland

Get a support group
Chances are your friends back home won’t know what you’re going through. You will want to talk with someone about your kids, culture shock, the language and the food, so use your free time to meet new friends.

Cities often have au pair networks and you can get to know others who are going through the same thing as you are. In Switzerland, I spent most of my free evenings and weekends with other au pairs and it was good to have their support when things got difficult.

Know your boundaries
If the family knows they can walk all over you, they will. Be firm with your time off, your working hours and your responsibilities. If they promise you something, hold them to it. Don’t feel like you are obliged to do anything just because you’re living with them.

If you aren’t comfortable with something the family wants, say so. When I got to Switzerland, the father told me he would keep a running balance of how much he owed me so I didn’t have to open a bank account in Switzerland. When I needed money, I asked him and he gave it to me, but when I left, he held on to quite a lot of my wages for ridiculous reasons. Had I followed my gut, I wouldn’t have let him do this and I would have kept more of my hard-earned wages than I did.

Being an au pair can be a huge challenge. It will be rewarding and whether it goes well or not, you’ll learn a lot. Hopefully you’ll have a good experience au pairing and by utilising these 6 tips, you can have a more rewarding experience.

For my au pair story, check out my post Not a Cinderella story: my misadventures au pairing in Switzerland.

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12 thoughts on “6 tips for future au pairs

  1. kacy says:

    i am from Nepal and i am about to join new family in swiss. they have 2 kids. my paperwork is on the process.my host family sound good but who knows of future? i am really nerves . is swiss very bad for aupair ?

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    • It depends on the family. You can have a good host family of any nationality. It can also depend on the relationship between the family and the au pair. The au pair before me stayed with the family for nearly two years and loved it. I didn’t have the same experience as her. I hope you have a good experience! Be sure you are honest with them and that you are comfortable with your duties and time off. 🙂

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  2. thisenvy says:

    Returning to this blog entry after my experience finally:

    I went with to Rome via an au pair agency in early May and it was the worst experience of my life (seriously). Even though the contract stated I would work 5 hours a day, 5 days a week and I sat down the 1st day with the mother to go over what hours that would be, I ended up working 14-16 hour days. I was told that using the internet (w/ my own computer) for online homework was no problem but ended up not being able to use it but a couple short minutes total, and that was nearly having to sneak on before they’d turn the router off. I was also not allowed to contact my family, who I had planned to Skype. If I ever left the room where the family was- on my OFF time- I was practically yelled at. Then I found out the mother called the consulate every day and was telling her nasty things, like I tried to throw her 4 year old off the balcony. WHAT. She did speak English, no one else in the family (dad & 3 boys) knew how and I would teach the older boys some things. I was supposed to be there all summer and was informed after 8 days that I would need to leave ASAP. Since I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else in Rome alone, I had to sneak onto my iPhone’s wifi to tell my aunt to rebook my flight home early. I left after 10 days and didn’t get paid anything- I was told because I left before fulfilling the entire summer, even though it was a weekly agreement and in writing. I am still very bitter about this experience.

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  3. Really great tips. When I first came to Spain, I was working as an Au-Pair and know all about the downsides as well. Another tip I’d add is to request the e-mail/contact info of the previous au-pairs…though in my case, the previous au-pair wasn’t very upfront about a lot of things. Also, really research the town where the family lives before you commit. I was so eager to move abroad, that I chose a really horrible location, so much that all the Spanish people I met there would ask why in the world I chose to go there!

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    • Great advice, Christine! I ironically found this this family through a friend who knew their previous au pair. My friend was also an au pair in Switzerland but also had a bad experience. The previous au pair had a great time with the family and stayed 18 months, so she wanted to help them find her replacement. Through the connections and talking with her, the family sounded great, but it obviously didn’t work for me. I think it was partly the adjustment period for the kids from one au pair to the next, but since the parents didn’t want to help me with their adjustment, it just wasn’t going to work! I loved Bern and there were several other au pairs I would spend my free time with, but when we went to Burgistein, it was just me, the family and the housekeeper- no escape! And as an au pair working in a castle, I had to help clean the castle! Not ideal when I’m there to care for the kids! 🙂

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      • Hi Henriette! I didn’t go through an agency, but I know some people who have used greataupair.com (not an agency, just a website where you can connect with families). Honestly, I find the most important thing is being with the right family for you, so be sure you’re not pushed in to a job you’re not keen on if you go through an agency.

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  4. Great tips! One thing I would add is to make sure that the family feels comfortable with the idea of you living your own life during your off hours. No, I don’t mean that you’re free to do drugs or anything illegal, I just mean that one of the reasons why you’re taking an au pair job may be to experience living in another country and you’re going to want to take advantage of that. Make sure that the family knows, especially if you’re going to be a live-in au pair, that you’re going to want to go out exploring when you’re not working and that they’re going to have to be okay with this. I did private English lessons with a family (and stayed in their upstairs apartment) who at the beginning was very uncomfortable with my going out to explore on my own in the evenings. I felt like I was a teenager living with my parents again with a curfew. It wasn’t the way I wanted things and I had to really exert myself so that they understood that although I was there to work for them during the predetermined hours, I was also eager to explore. It’s a sticky situation and can be best avoided if you just make it clear from the get-go. Hope that helps! =)

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    • Thanks, Connie! That’s a great point! In Switzerland I did feel like I had freedom in my time off most of the time, but half the summer we were in the countryside in the family’s castle, so it wasn’t possible to leave, really! It was a huge stretch to get the evening off on my birthday! Besides that, they encouraged me to meet other au pairs in the area and even had a car I could use. In Italy, we were living in the countryside and it was beautiful, but it was difficult/impossible to get anywhere without a car. The nearest town was a typical tiny wine country village (mainly filled with wine shops, expensive restaurant and trendy shops) and from there, the train connection to Siena was very limited. The family thought I would be able to see the country enough by joining them on holidays and weekend trips, but going to a posh beach town wasn’t really my idea of seeing the country. 😦 Looking back, there were a lot of warning signs that I wasn’t going to be able to live my own life and everything you point out is right on the money! Thanks, Connie! 🙂

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