In November 2014 I made a spontaneous decision to work in another European country as an au pair. The decision was made partly because I wanted to put off the shoulder-drooping reality of needing to find a full-time “grown-up” job after university. I signed up with a free website (I believe it was aupair.com) and created a profile. I was open to any country that I hadn’t been to before, but I did like the idea of being able to speak German, having taken it as an elective during my degree.
Just over a week later, I boarded a flight to Geneva and from the airport I was collected by my host. Along with her came her two kids that I would be looking after and teaching English to. I worked for the family for about two months. The initial plan was to work for three months, but I was unexpectedly offered a job that would start in mid-January.
My experience as an au pair was a mixed bag. There were definitely some great things about it. From the family’s house there were amazing views of the Swiss Alps over Lake Geneva. I got to practise German (the host father was more confident in this than English) and French. On two occasions I met up with two friends I hadn’t seen in a few years – one in Basel and one in Bern. The job taught me a little more about parenting and raising kids. It taught me that I don’t love cooking, and that that’s okay. And it honed my ability to persevere.
The negatives of the position included issues that couldn’t have been predicted, but also included issues that could have been avoided had I approached things differently. Here are my tips for anyone that is thinking of becoming an au pair.
1. Decide which ages you are comfortable looking after
Before working as an au pair I had quite a bit of experience volunteering with kids. However, the age range I had worked with had been 8-16. And I think I should have kept it that way. Everyone is different; some people are better with toddlers than they are with pre-teens. It’s about identifying your own strengths and preferences and sticking to them.
2. Make it clear in your profile what you are and aren’t willing to do
Doing this risks reducing the number of messages you’ll get from hiring families, but it also reduces your chances of being unpleasantly surprised by your responsibilities when you start the job.
Example: I started my job assuming that the children I would be taking care of would be potty-trained. As it turned out, I discovered (in German) that I would be required to help with toilet stuff. Had I known this sooner, I honestly don’t think I would have taken the job. It’s not that I am too proud to…get my hands dirty (ugh) but a heads-up would have been courteous. I quickly concluded that this requirement had been kept from me on purpose.
3. Take your time in choosing a family
It wasn’t long after I created my profile that I received a message from the Swiss family. The mother liked my education and the fact I spoke British English. I think the interest went to my head and got me excited too quickly. I was eager to get on a plane again, but really I should have waited to find and speak with a few more families before confirming anything. It’s a bit like looking for a new roommate or house – the first viewing might seem to go well, but it hasn’t been compared to anything. Don’t feel obligated to say yes to the first family that makes an offer.
4. Money isn’t everything
I fell for the rookie mistake, and it’s one that I warn friends and clients of to this day. Each family’s profile would include their monthly wage. The family that hired me appeared to be offering a lot more money than other families (and the mother didn’t hesitate to point this out when we spoke!). The mother was high up in a bank, and I figured this explained the reason for the seemingly generous amount. However, it wasn’t long after starting the job that I realized there was probably more to the high wage than that. In fact, it wasn’t long before the wage didn’t feel that generous anymore!
Had I taken a lower-paying job, I might have had more free time and a less stressful experience. Since then, I’ve been a firm believer that work-life balance is the most important component to consider when looking for any job.
5. Ask for a employment contract
It’s thanks to my work in HR that I’ve come to appreciate the importance of this. By accepting a paid job, the hours of which were determined by someone I would be reporting to, I was entering into an employment relationship. Some families already send NDA’s to au pairs, but I should have asked for a contract that outlined my job duties, confirmed my hours of work and confirmed my wage/payment schedule. I should have made sure this contract was signed and dated by both parties. This would have helped with #2 by giving me more leverage in refusing to do tasks that I hadn’t expected and wasn’t comfortable doing.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the kids
There have been many times during my recruitment career that I’ve thought a candidate seemed perfect on paper or made a great first impression, only for red flags to be raised during an interview.
After replying to the Swiss family’s message, we set up a Skype video call. The camera came on to show the mother sat between two quiet kids, who of course looked really cute with their big shy eyes and toys in their hands. I asked about their age and whether there was anything they needed special assistance with (hmmph), but I didn’t probe about their temperament or ask what previous au pairs (if they’d had any) had had challenges with. Perhaps I was wary of causing offence. Either way, I should have been more thorough because it was a two-way relationship.
7. Look for reviews from fellow au pairs
Following on from the above, reference checks play an important part of deciding whether or not to hire someone. The function of leaving reviews is available on various work-and-travel exchange websites like Workaway. They allow hosts and host-seekers a chance to see some feedback on the other party. I don’t recall if the au pair website I used had this function (possibly not because of confidentiality and non-disclosure issues), but it would have been very useful. If you’re looking for a family that’s hiring and former au pairs have left a brief line of feedback on their personal experience, see if there’s a way you can contact them to get more detail. Some people hide their real full opinions when posting reviews they know will be seen by their former employer.
8. Clarify what “free time” means and make plans for those times
Example: I was initially told I’d have weekends completely off, in addition to any remaining time in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed. On some weekends I didn’t have plans and would instead find myself staying around the house with plans to read or Skype friends. However, I found that being in the house on weekends always led to me being asked for help with the kids. I found this puzzling, as I assumed the parents would want to have some quality time alone with their children. Requests might also include helping with housework that fell outside of the standard courteous offering to do dishes, etc. Was this time spent working included in my monthly wage?? Regardless of my confusion, I felt obligated to help when asked since I was in their house. I would then find myself sneaking downstairs to my bedroom, hoping I wouldn’t be requested again. (Sometimes I was.) It seemed there was a lack of mutual agreement on the definition of “free time”.
There were a few times when the family kindly took me on a nice trip to a park or town. I appreciated this inclusion, but I also felt there was a lack of respect for my need to have time away from the family. Au pairing can be intense and it’s important to have boundaries! The dynamics were such that I sometimes felt guilty for going off somewhere without them.
There was also one unfortunate occasion when the mother suggested we go to Montreux on an approaching weekend to see the Christmas lights. A couple days later, she and her husband had an argument (in French) and she didn’t return home from work on the Friday evening. Although I’d had no idea what they were arguing about, I could tell from the father’s body language that he was shocked and worried by her departure. She didn’t return until the Sunday evening. Having not been informed about any changes to our plan and unsure when the mother was returning, I found myself spending the weekend at the house doing barely anything. It seemed like such a waste of free time.
On reflection, I should have made plans for each weekend in advance and clarified my weekend plans with the family before starting the job. I should have booked trains and accommodation to guarantee I would get away from the house and do the travelling I wanted to.
9. Choose your season
A lot of people see their mood dim a little over winter in the northern hemisphere when the days are darker and the weather colder, and I am one of them. I’ve also never been skiing in my life (fun fact), which might lead one to ask why Switzerland was my choice of destination. The answer? I wanted to see snow. (I saw hardly any.) I feel like my outlook on my au pair experience would be slightly more positive if it had taken place in the spring or summer time. I would have had more options for entertaining the kids outside (and wearing them out). I would have been able to get out of the house more on the evenings for a walk and some fresh air. I would have probably felt more motivated to make plans for the weekends. My overall mood would have probably been more optimistic.
10. Speak up if you’re having ongoing challenges with the kids
One day I’d love to read a book by someone with twenty years of au pair experience. I bet it would be filled with terrific and terrifying stories. My persistent challenges included having the daughter obsessively try to pull my trousers down/lift my sweater, and having the son bite and kick at me. This was on top of the standard refusals to follow orders, followed by screaming tantrums and shouts of “You leave this house!” when I took away their toys or turned off the TV.
The problem was, these kids were smart and cunning little devils. They had worked out when to play sweet and innocent, and when they could afford to be cheeky and rude. This would show itself in the way the daughter would say “Oww!” as I was gently brushing her hair while her mum stood by the door getting ready to leave for work. It would show in the way the son would give me death glares only to start beaming lovingly when the door opened and his dad walked in.
Why didn’t I inform the parents about the issues? I felt awkward and embarrassed. I didn’t want them to interpret it as me criticizing their parenting. Also, something told me they would think it was an issue on my end – especially when the little darlings were so good at putting on the waterworks.
I think it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to quit. Specifically, when is the job no longer enjoyable and worth your time and effort? When does the toll outweigh the reward? I can be quite stubborn and don’t like to feel like I’m “giving up” on something. In looking back I’ve realized that others in my position would have quit within the first week. Check in with yourself and remember to put yourself first.
I’ve heard a lot of great accounts from people that have worked as an au pair. Maybe they got lucky, but maybe they also didn’t make the same mistakes I did!
Have you worked as an au pair? What other tips would you recommend?