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.
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.
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!
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.
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.