TO AU PAIR OR NOT TO AU PAIR…THAT IS THE QUESTION
Every family is unique in its needs. When it comes to childcare for parents who
work outside the home, the options can seem endless and cause some analysis
paralysis. Nannies, daycare, part-time babysitter, family help, or au pair – these
are just a handful of options available to parents. Here’s how one mom, Cooper
McManus, chose to bring an au pair into her home, and the experience she’s had
since. Cooper sheds some light on what can often seem to be a very confusing
setup, and offers some perspective for other parents deciding on childcare!
Cooper McManus is a Connecticut mom who lives with her three little girls and husband. Cooper runs one of my favorite brands, Hat Attack, and she is the head of all design and product development. Like many of us, she found herself rethinking her current childcare situation, and ended up transitioning from daycare to using an Au Pair. You can find her journey below.
We decided to transition to an au pair when we had two children in full-time daycare and the cost was out of control. My husband asked me to look into other options and after some research, the au pair route seemed like the most practical solution for our family—flexible hours and a standard rate (no additional cost for additional children). Our house is a great setup for an au pair (lower level with access to the guest room through garage, separate living space, and bathroom), so we decided to give it a shot. We were nervous about having someone live in our house but figured it was worth a try! Worst case, we would go back to the daycare situation. The selection process was pretty simple, Skype interviews, emails, etc. and we selected a 26-year-old from Columbia. There are many schools of thought around the age of an au pair (I have friends who prefer younger au pairs) but we really wanted someone mature and independent, so we put a minimum age of 23 on our search.
The first month was definitely a transition period. This likely varies depending on the country the au pair comes from, but ours had no experience with “American” things such as using a washer and dryer. It was a lot of training, explaining (and re-explaining) how to do things, around the house and otherwise. We definitely had a language barrier as well but our au pair was very open and willing to learn. From day one we totally trusted her with our girls. She met great friends/nannies/other au pairs and kept the kids busy every single day. We were SO happy to no longer have to pack up every morning and get the kids out the door (dressed, packed lunches/millions of snacks) before work for daycare. We simply woke up and left for work, kids still in PJs and playing. The end of the day was also AMAZING. The kids used to be exhausted, sitting on 95 in traffic, eating leftover snacks at 5:30 pm because they were starving for dinner. Now, when I arrived home at 5:15 pm every day, they were fed, bathed, and ready to relax for the evening. Changing to an au pair was a serious life-changer for us. This au pair stayed with us for two years until her time with the program ended. This is the worst part, that they have to leave; but at the same time, change is good. There were certain things I wanted to change in the way our au pair worked, so we were excited about getting a new au pair.
It was not as easy selecting the second au pair. I felt a lot more pressure to pick someone “perfect” because we had such a good experience the first time. We decided to focus on Columbian au pairs again, because our youngest (now we have three girls) did start to pick up on some Spanish and I planned on asking the new au pair to speak to the girls in Spanish a lot more this time around. I found a great girl, 25 years old who was very sweet and checked off all the boxes for us. When she arrived and went on her first “test drive” with my husband, it was clear that the driving skills she promised to have were not accurate. It was scary. My husband came home from that drive and was in shock. We decided she was possibly nervous and unclear of the roads in the US, so we gave it a few more tries but she showed the same lack of skill each time. After about 10 days of living with us, and five lessons with a driving school, she backed into a gate at a friend’s house and that was when we decided we needed to let her go and enter the “rematch” process. She was able to rematch quickly with a family who lived close to a town that didn’t need driving.
Rematch was pretty much the worst experience of my life. We have never been more stressed in a situation than we were during this process. How it works is you are given a pool of au pairs who are also in “rematch” for various reasons (not connecting with families, families changed their mind about needing au pairs, families who move and no longer have room for them, etc.). Many of them are in rematch because they can’t drive! It was awful. Every day I would refresh the page of available au pairs like a maniac to see if anyone else popped up to interview. We were desperate, lowered our standards completely, willing to accept ANYONE who would come help us! I was borrowing other people’s nannies, leaving work constantly to get home to be with the kids, spending my ENTIRE workday searching for au pairs. Our only other option was to select an au pair who was out of the country, which meant a minimum wait time of six weeks before they could complete the steps to come to the US. Aside from six weeks being too long to be without childcare, we also didn’t want to risk another out-of-country au pair who potentially couldn’t drive. We loved a lot of the girls we interviewed, but every single au pair we interviewed did not select us (you have to mutually agree to “match”). Because we had an “infant” who was 19 months old at the time, we were required to select from only infant-qualified au pairs (CT state law). The infant-qualified au pairs do NOT have to select a family with infants. The girls in rematch seem to know the system (as they have been in the country for a bit of time) and the girls we interviewed were selecting families where they had “breaks” in the day, or the kids who were old enough to be in school and they just had morning/afternoon hours. It felt like nobody wanted a family with three kids five years old and under.
I will be 100% honest in saying that we chose our current au pair in rematch because she was literally our only option. We were left with no choice. It had been weeks without childcare, I could barely get any work done (I have a much more flexible work situation than my husband, who could never be doing all of this research while at the office), and we needed someone immediately. We matched with a 25-year-old from Brazil, who had been in an awful family situation—verbally abused and had already left the house to stay with the au pair counselor because her living situation was so bad. The counselor took her out driving and promised us she was a great, confident driver, so we decided to give her a try. Our transition was SO easy. Having someone who had been living in the country for a few months already was completely different than having someone arrive off an airplane to the US for the first time. She knew exactly what to do, the right questions to ask, and got the hang of the girl’s schedules very quickly. My girls love her, she’s made great friends, which means fun playdates and adventures with the kids.
We hope that our current au pair wants to do a second year with us so that we can avoid starting over. But regardless, we will get an au pair again. While the rematch experience was honestly terrible, we are willing to take the risk because the rest of the program works for us. I think next time around we will try to get an au pair who is in the country already, looking for placement for year two, or in rematch—because I learned how much different it is! We’ll also be out of the “infant” pool and hopefully, have more options to select from.
The question I get the most about having an au pair is about the living situation. We never thought we’d be the people to have a live-in babysitter. I think as a host family, the situations vary and it all depends on how you set it up. I have friends who include their au pairs in all family activities, dinners, etc. They spend off-hours together and consider them friends. When we are interviewing for au pairs, we make it clear that we are not one of those families. We love our au pairs! The girls DO consider them a part of our family (school stories, pictures, etc. always include the au pair’s names in the list of who lives with you), but as full-time working parents, we explain to our au pairs that our time off is our family time, and that we also want them to have their own lives. They are with the girls 45 hours a week and from our experience, they appreciate their time off. People are usually shocked to hear this but when our au pair isn’t working, we NEVER see her. At the end of the day she typically goes out with friends to eat or meet up for coffee or she spends time in her room talking/video chatting with friends and family at home. On weekends she volunteers, goes to church, explores NYC, and even takes weekend trips to travel the east coast.
Here are a few tips to help you during your process:
1) Do your research and read ALL of the documents in the application. You’d be surprised what you may find!
2) Be upfront with your expectations and house rules
3) Communication is key
4) Utilize the community counselors, they are supportive and experts in how to manage every situation
5) Go with your gut! If something ever feels wrong or off, you are probably right!