Say it ain’t so: you can actually live in a foreign land and travel the world by hanging out with kids all day?
Who wouldn’t sign on the dotted line?
But what a lot of people have trouble understanding is that being an Au Pair is much more than fairy cakes and face painting. I’ve always loved kids, and worked with them for six years prior to taking my Au Pair job in Ireland, but even with my experience and genuine appreciation for little humans, I can honestly say that being an Au Pair is the weirdest, most difficult job I’ve ever had.
It also happens to be the best job I’ve ever had.
An Au Pair is someone who lives abroad with a host family for a temporary period of time and assists them in caring for their children while also doing some light housework. You get a real sense of what it’s like to be a resident in a foreign country, soaking up aspects of life you wouldn’t normally see as a tourist, all while receiving a bit of pocket money, living free of charge and sharing meals together with your host family.
In reality, being an Au Pair can feel a lot like being a stay-at-home mum (but with time off!)
And, as any parent will tell you, kids are a LOT of work.
So before you fill out your application on Au Pair World and start leafing through the thousands of host families just waiting to welcome you into their home, here are a few things you need to consider before becoming an Au Pair:
Do NOT become an Au Pair if …
You don’t like being around kids
This is the job, first and foremost. Au Pairing is not simply a way to make some cash and live for free while you travel the world. Your days, your life, are kid-focused.
This will be a torturous experience for both you and your host family if you can’t find enjoyment in spending time with your Pairs. This means getting a little weird or creative, handling explosive temper tantrums, exploring their world and using your imaginations to learn and grow together. You’re a role model, you’re a caregiver, you are an Au Pair. If this role doesn’t come naturally to you, do not force it.
You highly value your own space
While some Au Pairs are lucky enough to have their own apartment, you will be living in a house with kids, which means there will be instances when you feel like you don’t have much privacy at all. Kids have a hard time distinguishing your working hours from your relaxing hours; they love you, they want to spend time with you and they’ll act accordingly. You’re constantly aware that your living space isn’t your own, meaning no partying, no bringing boys home and no real say in how you inhabit your own space. You are at the mercy of your host family’s way of life, which can be a huge adjustment, especially for those who are used to living alone.
You can’t handle living with your employers
The lines that usually separate your home life from your work life are non-existant as an Au Pair, and possibly the aspect of the job I struggled with most. Melding your home life with your work life creates an incredibly complex dynamic and, as an adult, it can become confusing and a little uncomfortable to constantly abide by someone else’s rules.
“Au Pair” roughly translates to “an equal’ in French, meaning you are not just an employee, but a member of the family. This means you’ll feel compelled to help out on your time off, a little weird asking for favours, and, yes, you’ll probably feel awkward accepting money for hanging with your Pairs. Being an Au Pair is WEIRD and you will encounter so many blurred lines, your vision for taking the job can sometimes become a bit skewed.
You don’t like ambiguity
While Au Pairing can make you feel like a stay-at-home mum, keep in mind that these are not your kids. You can have your own methods of dealing with children, but you need to abide by what your host parents want and, a lot of the time, what your host parents want won’t always be clear-cut.
Would they prefer time alone with the kids or do they want you around? Are you invading a private moment or simply sharing in one? Are you making the right choice? Would they do something different? There will be so many questions that crop up throughout your time as an Au Pair and it’ll be hard to anticipate what to do in certain situations, so make sure you’re working toward the same goals and that you help raise these kids as a team.
Your schedule is all over the place as an Au Pair. Such is life with kids. Sometimes you’ll be off at a set time, while others you could be working all day long. You need to make sure you organize your chores, errands and outings efficiently. Not everyone is a master at time management, but it is essential that you are when you have three kids, each with a set of needs that must be met. You are the primary caregiver when mum and dad aren’t home, and if you can’t organize your time accordingly, you’ll find the job nearly impossible to manage.
At this point, if you found yourself nodding along thinking “that sounds like me,” THIS JOB IS NOT FOR YOU. Period. You can stop reading, check out world backpackers or volunteering abroad, literally ANYTHING ELSE, but do not pass go, do not collect 200$ and DO NOT become an Au Pair.
If, however, you’re still on board and confident this is the right fit, make sure you …
Are picky when choosing your host family
Know that saying you can’t choose your family? FALSE. Not true. Take advantage and write down exactly what you’re looking for in a host family and don’t stop searching until you find one that meets all (or most) of your criteria. Do not just pick a family simply because they are nice.
Although I got EXTREMELY lucky with my host family sans list, a lot of Au Pairs I met along the way did not have my same luck. They were miserable with their families just because they didn’t mesh and couldn’t find common ground. Don’t be one of these Au Pairs! Remember that you will be living with these people for a significant amount of time, so be certain of your choice.
But no matter the decision, always remember the more you put in as an Au Pair, the more you will get back from your host family.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Once you’ve landed a family, make sure you communicate with them regularly and try to nail down as much information about the job and their expectations prior to your trip. The more of a connection you make early on, the more easily you’ll adapt to your new family.
You also need to be honest as you communicate with your host family. DO NOT dress up your resume with things that are not true; you are going to be living with these people and they will learn your true colours one way or another. The best thing you can do is let them know who you are upfront.
Remember, this family needs to be a right fit for you, too, so speak up when things aren’t working and let them know when you’re struggling. The best way to establish trust with your host family is by being honest and communicating as much as possible; you’ll only create resentment by staying mute.
Are ready to leave home
You will certainly experience some culture shock when you arrive at your new home. If you’re anything like me, the first moment you’re left alone you’ll have a huge freakout, thinking “What the Hell did I just do!?” But relax, it’s perfectly normal – it takes time to adjust to so many new things happening all at once, so don’t be so hard on yourself in those first few weeks.
Nevertheless, you need to prepare for this. Understand you’re not just leaving your family, but an entire way of living behind.
Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Make sure you can handle living in the middle of nowhere or in the heart of a major city. Make sure you’re willing to stick it out even after you’ve had your 43rd meltdown at the checkout in Lidl. The more you understand about the life you’re taking on, the easier this transition will be.
Get out of the house
After you arrive and the excitement of your new life has faded, it can be pretty mundane dealing with housework and nappies all day long. At this point, it’s pretty easy to fall into a rut where you hole up in your room the second those dishes are put away and pass the time with Skype and Netflix.
Remind yourself of the true reason you became an Au Pair and get out of the house! Research the culture, try new foods, meet new people and explore all the incredible things your host country has to offer. Make time to travel the countryside, to experience things far beyond your comfort zone while spending quality time with your host family, too. Do everything you set out to do and make sure you leave with no regrets!
Above all, though, the most important thing I could possibly tell you about becoming an Au Pair is this:
It’s hard to leave
You will learn the ways and language of the country, make incredible memories with friends from all over the world and fall madly in love with your host family. You will watch your Pairs grow, learn and take a part of you with them as they brave new wonders and overcome old fears.
You will make this place your home, forever.
Another Au pair will most likely take your place, take “your” kids, and you’ll surely feel a little lost without them. I remember coming back from Ireland, unable to even look at another baby and talking to my host mum, telling her how “this feels like a breakup I never wanted.”
And while this job is difficult and a huge adjustment, it is just as difficult and as much of an adjustment to leave it all behind.
Being an Au Pair has made me more confident, more compassionate and more disciplined than I ever thought possible. It has opened my world, given me new perspectives and bigger dreams to chase; it has, quite literally, changed me completely.
Caring for children in this way and becoming a part of a family who voluntarily takes you in and makes you feel loved, safe and who truly has your best interest at heart is a remarkable experience. My host parents made me feel like a valued member of their family and I was so incredibly lucky to have them guide me on my journey. The Au Pair life is not glamourous by any means, but it can be a truly enriching and unforgettable experience if you let it.
Travel blogger for thehereandwow.com and member of the Travel Media Association of Canada. Follow her adventures on twitter (@ginaalward), Facebook (The Here and Wow) and Instagram (@thehereandwow).
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