WHAT IS AN AU PAIR?
Definitions will vary, but the kind of au pair that Z is and the kind I was interested in hosting are young adults (18–26) who come here on official au pair status through a Department of State program. I think there are ways you can sponsor someone you know to come to the U.S. on an au pair visa, or ways to hire someone to do live-in childcare that is more ad-hoc, but I wanted to do a regulated, established program because it makes things a lot simpler to organize. The process and rules are clear and someone else is taking care of the paperwork.
The link above will give you a ton of information about the rules and regulations of the au pair program. The main points are the following:
- You must provide the au pair with her own bedroom. It needn't be anything fancy, but it has to be her own, private room. You also provide her with food to eat. You also need to provide her with reliable, safe transportation, but this could be anything from a bike to a bus pass to use of your family car to her own car.
- Au pairs are paid a weekly stipend set by the U.S. government. Currently that rate is $195.75/week.
- Au pairs can work up to 45 hours/week (although no more than 10 hours in any 1 given day). You are required to give your au pair consecutive days off per week and one full weekend off per month. Au pairs also get two weeks' paid vacation per year. You negotiate mutually agreeable dates for that.
- Au pairs will do any work around the house directly related to the kids: the kids' laundry, cleaning their room, preparing meals and cleaning up after, etc.
- There is an educational component to the program. You are required to pay (up to $500) for your au pair to take a class of her choosing during her stay. You also need to help her find the class—it could be through a community college, a local university, or really anywhere.
PROS AND CONS
Maddie and Riley have been in a home daycare, an independent preschool, and had a live-out nanny, so I have experience with quite a few types of care. While I think all of those situations have their advantages and disadvantages, here are the advantages I see to having an au pair:
- Flexibility with the hours. Forty-five hours/week is quite a lot of hours, and they can be totally flexible. Z works from 8 a.m. to noon every day, then again from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., so 6.5 hours/day. (M&R are in preschool during the afternoon break.) This means that if I want to go out in the evening, those hours are covered as long as I don't exceed my 10 hour/day limit. Also, when it's school break or a late start day or an inservice day, I'm not scrambling around to figure out childcare. Z is there!
- Language and culture. M&R have been in some type of Spanish-speaking care since they started daycare at four months. Their public preschool program is Spanish immersion. I love that they are getting their language skills reinforced at home and that they are learning about another culture. Z cooks Bolivian food for the kids and tells them about her life back home. The kids love hearing these stories.
- Help around the house. I think that Z is particularly helpful, so this may not be typical, and I have emphasized to her that she goes beyond the call of duty. That said, I'm not complaining that the house is always neat as a pin and I have pretty much not washed a dish since she came to live with us. I no longer think about what M&R will have for lunch; Z takes care of it. So, so helpful.
- Logistics of someone working for you. The au pair program and agency take care of much of the logistical hassle of employing someone. The au pair agencies usually require the au pair to purchase health insurance through them, so there's one hassle taken care of. The tax implications are straightforward. The rate is set for you, so no worries about how much to pay, raises, etc.
- Someone else is living in your house. For me, this is an advantage, but for some families, this can seem like an intrusion. I'm extremely social, and I'm single, so having someone else around is actually really nice. For some families who like more privacy, I think it can feel overwhelming to have someone else around all the time. We welcome Z on all of our family activities if she wants to come, but that might not be OK with everyone. Something to consider.
- You're dependent on one person. Just as when you have a nanny, if that one person is sick, it can be a problem.
I mentioned above that you pay your au pair $195.75/week. What a steal for full-time care, right?! It is, but not quite as much of steal as you think. Unless you have the temerity to find and sponsor the au pair yourself, you're going to have to go through an agency, and the agency will have fees. I used Au Pair in America and I paid them around $7,000 in up-front fees to get Z here. I also paid for her airline ticket from New York (where she had her training) to Portland. I will need to pay $500 for her educational component. And I'm feeding her and buying her a bus pass and paying for her cell phone every month.
All that said, it's still cheaper for me to have Z with us than it was for me to pay for private preschool in the morning and an afternoon nanny. I'm saving about $5,000 this year for a situation that works *much* better for our family.
I think there's a misconception that live-in au pairs are only for very wealthy families. I'd venture to guess that any family paying for full-time childcare for *two or more kids* in a city of any size in the U.S. would break even or save money with this option.
CHOOSING AN AU PAIR
To choose your au pair, you have to first choose your agency. The two biggest agencies are Cultural Care Au Pair and Au Pair in America. I wanted one of the bigger agencies because they have larger applicant pools and more established support systems. That said, they can be more expensive and I'm sure the smaller agencies are fine. Our former live-out nanny originally came to the U.S. with Au Pair in America, and she said she enjoyed the program and had felt well supported, so that was a point in their favor for me, too.
Once you choose your agency, you fill out a family profile and send in some photos talk to a counselor (or this is what I did; I'm assuming it's much the same from agency to agency). Once your file is complete, you can either search the database of available au pairs yourself or have the agency screen applications for you based on criteria that you provide. The number of available au pairs is overwhelming, so I had the agency screen for me. You are able to see quite a lot of information about the au pairs: photos, their educational history, an essay in English about why they want to be an au pair, notes from interviewers about how the candidate presented herself and how her English is. I will say that au pair shopping felt strange to me in the way that online dating feels. There's something a bit dehumanizing about specifying criteria and then choosing people from a lineup. But you do have to make a real connection with the candidates as you must conduct a phone interview with anyone you are serious about inviting to the U.S. You can do this via Skype (if the au pair has access) or regular phone or whatever works for you.
I found the experience of making our match with Z somewhat like choosing a college. Once we found Z, it just felt like the right fit. I had three final candidates, and I'm sure they all would have been fine. But Z seemed like a part of our family from the first time we talked. That's not very scientific, but it seems to be working out quite well.
Once you make your match, the agency takes care of helping the au pair get her visa and arranging for her travel to the U.S. Then you just wait for her to arrive!
I'm happy to answer specific questions about the au pair gig. There are also lots of blogs out there written both by au pairs and by host families. I have certainly found it to be a great solution for us, but like anything, it's not for everyone.