What is it like to be an au pair?

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If you’re toying with the idea of a gap year, you’ve probably come across the concept of au pairing.

An au pair is a live in position where you look after children in return for board and food. You will also receive a small payment (basically pocket money) of around $100 AUD per week. Reasons people want an au pair is for a variety of reasons, but the most common ones are that they want their kids to learn another language or they would prefer their child be at home with someone rather than going to childcare.

I au paired in Italy and France over an 11 month period in 2012. Most of my time was spent in the south of France teaching English to two children aged two and four. I was with families where the mothers worked from home, so they wanted someone to teach their children English and also look after them when they had meetings or wanted to go out on the weekend.

So what is it really like to au pair? Here’s a summary of my experience, tips on finding a family and what to expect when you start your au pair gig.

Au pairing in Italy

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I au paired in Italy in the tiny village of Cimone for three months. I started at the end of winter, and saw spring bloom. The dead trees sprung into life, and brown and grey turned green.

As the seasons changed, I was teaching English to three Italian kids – aged 4, 6, and 8. The children had grown up with au pairs so already had a fairly good grasp of English. My role was to increase their vocabulary and conversational English.

My day started with getting them ready for school – basically getting them dressed, brushing their hair, and making sure they ate their breakfast. They were all school aged so from 8.30am to 3pm I had the day to myself. I would usually read, take the bus into the biggest town in the area, Trento, and do some window shopping, or go to the library and find more books for me and to read with the kids. Fortunately, the library in Trento had a great English section for adult and children’s books.

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After school, I would take the kids to the park, play games with them such as treasure hunts, and then read with them before dinner. Then I would help get them to bed after dinner.

I ate with the family at dinner and we all talked in English.

I didn’t really have any chores except washing the dishes every night, putting toys away, and making sure my bathroom was kept clean.

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I had Fridays and Sunday off and worked all day Saturday. I had my own room, internet access and shared a bathroom with the kids, and was also given an allowance of €50 a week. The food I ate was the meals the family cooked or I could buy and cook up my own food. Often, I would just eat the leftovers from dinner the night before for lunch.

On my days off, I would usually head a couple of hours north or south of the village. The train is very efficient and well connected in Italy so once I got to Trento, it was easy to get out. I spent a lot of time in Verona – only an hour south of Trento. I also visited nearby towns such as Bolzano and Merano in the north and Trieste to the south east. Sometimes I would get consecutive days off and travelled further afield – staying a night somewhere. Some of the places I went were Milan, Turin and Bologna.

Au pairing in France

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After my three months was up in Italy, I headed to the south of France. It was summer as I arrived and it was brilliant. Every day I woke up to bright blue skies and warm weather. I was in a small town, but there were regular buses to the much larger Aix En Provence and from there I could catch a high speed train to Marseille, Avignon, Nice, Lyon or Paris.

In France, I looked after two children. A boy aged four, and a two year old girl.

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My routine here was more of an all day affair as the two year old didn’t go to school. I would help get the kids ready for school, empty the dishwasher and then would play games or read books with the little girl until I had to start lunch. I prepared a basic meal of pasta or rice with vegetables most of the time – nothing too difficult.

After lunch – the little girl would (sometimes) go down for a nap but as the mum worked from home I still had between 1pm and 4pm to myself so I would usually Skype with friends, or go for a run or bike ride.

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At 4pm, both kids were home and I would entertain them until I started dinner. I was their first au pair so the focus was on teaching them English so I used lots of flashcards and games to teach them English.

Then I would get dinner ready, clean up after dinner, bath them and then play with them until their bedtime around 8.30pm in summer (it was still very bright outside at 8.30pm so even then it was hard to get them to sleep).

The arrangement I worked out with the family was I worked every day but Sunday but then I’d have a whole week off every three weeks when I would travel around Europe. This worked out really well and I saw so much of Europe in six months.

My Experience

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All in all, au pairing was a challenging but rewarding experience. I taught kids English, immersed myself in Italian and French cultures (although found out I was terrible at learning languages) and got to see parts of 23 countries across Europe solely during that year. But there was also some trying times – like tantrums, when the kids were sick and then infected me, and when there was miscommunication between the parents and I.

It was definitely a life changing experience and is perfect for people who like kids, are interested in living in another country for awhile, or are keen to increase their knowledge in a country’s language. It’s great as a gap year. I was 27 when I au paired and a lot older than most – the majority of  au pairs I met were between 18 and 21. But I still learnt a lot from the experience and it was invaluable.

I do have some tips though if you’re planning to be an au pair based on my experiences.

My guide to finding a family

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1. Skype with potential host families

When you start down the au pair road, you’ll probably have a general idea of what sort of family you’d like to stay with and where. When I signed up to AuPair World, I was looking for families in Italy, France and Switzerland and I didn’t want more than three children to look after. I also wasn’t too keen on looking after babies and was hoping for older children that were at least talking age.

On the AuPair World website, you can find families you like or you may be contacted by families. Once you’ve narrowed down four or five families that suit your preferences, it’s time to get to know them better to help you pick one (or two – in my case I chose to do two families to experience two different countries).

To help with your decision, Skype with potential families. Talk to them about where they live, what they like to do, what the parents do for work, have they had au pairs before, and why they want an au pair. Be ready with questions you want to know and be prepared for them to ask you questions such as what you do for work or study, your interests, what your country is like, and why you want to au pair.

2. Determine the terms of your stay to help you choose on a family

Before you decide on a family to stay with, make sure you discuss the terms of your au pairing stint with each potential family first.

For example, what hours will you work, what days will you have off, and what is your allowance?

The European standard is you work no more than 38 hours in a seven day week and the minimum you should be paid is 80 euro. (Yes I got underpaid in Italy which I didn’t realise until later!)

Aim for two consecutive days off – rather than one here and there. It will help it you want to see parts of the country you’re in because you’re going away for a night.

Another important thing is to make sure you decide together what your duties will be. Will there be any housekeeping required for example or is it just purely to look after the children? Some families may want you to do some light housework such as vacuuming and loading and unloading the dishwasher. Remember you’re there to be the aupair not the cleaning ladies so make sure the bulk of activities are focused around the children. You’re not cheap labour!

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3. Find out if you will provided with a phone, bus pass or car

Some families will have a car for you to use during your stay especially if you are expected to take the kids to and from school. Find out if you can use the car for personal trips and how it works for petrol. Do you pay for the petrol if you’re using it for the school pick up or drop offs or will the family reimburse you?

If you don’t have access to a car, find out if the family will contribute to bus tickets. This is especially important if you’re in a small town and the only way to do anything is to catch a bus.

Many families will also give you either a phone or a SIM card. I had an unlocked phone and the family just gave me a SIM card for it. This saved me from having to buy my own.

Finding out this information may help you with your decision on a family to choose.

4. If you want to do some serious travel during your au pair stay, try and find a family in a city rather than a small town

When deciding on a location, my suggestion is to try and be in or near a major city. I lived in rural areas and it was often a bit of a mission to get anywhere I hadn’t seen already and I needed to catch multiple buses and trains. This took time away from seeing different parts of the country.

Being in or near a big city will provide more transport options, and also more things to do on your day off. You’ll also have a better chance of meeting other au pairs.

Find out how far the bus or train station is from the family’s house.

Before you go, look around to see if there’s any au pair groups on Facebook for the area you’re going. For example, I found an au pair group in nearby Aix En Provence in France as well as for all of Italy. This is good to meet other au pairs and you’ll have a better experience if you make friends. It’s also great if you can align your days off and go for excursions.

Some au pairs are also given access to cars – unfortunately I didn’t – but other aupairs did and I tagged along with them.

5. Discuss the terms of your stay on your arrival

When you arrive with the family, sit down again and discuss what is expected. For example, how would you like you to teach the kids English (for example through play or reading), are they allowed to watch TV or use the computer, can the kids go to the park, when you will have free time, can you eat the food in their house. Setting the boundaries and rules at the start will avoid any awkward miscommunication situations.

Discuss the routine of the children. What time do they need to wake up each morning, can they sleep in on weekends, what clothes do they wear for school, what can they eat for breakfast, what time do they go to bed.

Also, make sure you know if the children have any allergies or there’s places in the house they’re not allowed to go like the garden or attic.

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It’s also important to know the boundaries. For example, can you eat the food in their house outside of mealtimes with the family such as milk, butter, and eat snacks such as biscuits. Or are you allowed to bring friends over? Clarifying this avoids any awkward conversations later.

Make sure the parents establish boundaries with you and the children. This can be a tricky one. You’re living with the family but you need your own time, but kids will be kids and often want to play when you’re not ‘working’. Get the parents to set boundaries such as letting the kids know they’re not allowed in your room and when the times when you shouldn’t be disturbed.

It’s also important that the kids know from the start that they shouldn’t touch your things such as cameras and laptops. Kids are curious and without boundaries they will be forever in your room and touching your things.

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6. Don’t be surprised if you just don’t click with the family

Just like with anyone you meet – there are people you will not click with. The same goes with your au pairing family. I’ve met many girls who just did not get on with the family or it was a simple case of the family did not give them a true representation of what they were expected to do. I’ve heard a few stories where the girls have arrived and found they were purely a housekeeper and barely met the children. If you wanted a more rewarding experience – then get out of there.

It’s ok to leave if you don’t feel comfortable or it’s not what you expected. There are plenty of other families out there who will welcome you. And if the worst happens and you can’t find a family, you can always just travel for a bit before heading home.

Tips in a Nutshell

  • Select a family in or near a city if you can rather than a village. There will be more to do on your days off.
  • Skype with families before your choose one. Discuss living arrangements, routine of the children, your responsibilities and working hours.
  • Once you’ve chosen a family, discuss in more detail about your responsibilities with the children, if you’re preparing meals, the hours you will work and your allowance.
  • Discuss the location of the family’s home. What is there to do there, do you have use of the car, how far away is the bus stop.
  • When you arrive with the family, confirm all the details you discussed on Skype. Ask what the children like to do, if you can take them to the park etc.
  • Try to get to know the children without the parent’s influence. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to teach them another language – they won’t look to their parent’s for help and are more likely to learn faster.

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