There are so many different stereotypes of the au pair lifestyle: ranging from the glamorous, wordly traveller to the under-paid slave labour who is constantly covered in a thin layer of old food, snot and grime. So what is the reality?
Let me just say, right off the bat, that my host family were wonderful. They were very sweet, very understanding and they genuinely appreciated the work that I did for them. Therefore, a lot of this stuff doesn’t apply to me and is more of a combination of my experiences and those of people I know (directly or indirectly).
Truth number 1: you will work hard
A lot of people have this preconceived idea that an au pair year is going to be a few hours a week of playing with children, followed by a whole lot of swanning around to major US cities. They forget that this is a work and travel programme (emphasis on the work) rather than a traditional travel-oriented gap year. With most au pair programmes, you could be working up to 45 hours a week (legally – many families pay extra on the side for you to do more) with only one and a half days off, not necessarily on a weekend. You also have to fit in at least two college classes across the course of the year, meaning you could have an extremely tight schedule and not a whole lot of time to swan around. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means that work comes first and you may have to be a little flexible with your social schedule.
Truth number 2: you will learn a lot
Being an au pair teaches you so many life skills and definitely makes you grow up pretty fast. You are essentially running a household part time: doing laundry, grocery shopping, organising kids’ schedules, cooking – all things that may not be the most fun but really do develop a sense of responsibility. Plus, you are helping to raise someone’s children: if you ever want to go into teaching or childcare as a career it is such an incredible way to get an in-depth view of how children grow and develop over the course of a year and it is such a satisfying feeling to be part of that. As an added bonus, you will develop completely random skills like fort building, pumpkin carving, sandcastle building and semi-acceptable baseball pitching that will definitely come in handy in any future career…
Trust number 3: you will be cash poor but experience rich
So maybe au pairing doesn’t pay much cash-wise: at $200 a week ($195.75 technically, but most families round up) you are working for well under minimum wage by the end of the month so your bank account is never going to be flush with cash, and any big expenses might need careful budgeting. But… in what other job could an 18-21 year old working 40-45 hours a week afford to live in an incredible house in the suburbs, drive a brand new car, and use an iPhone with $200 cash to spare at the end of the week? When I think about what my host family actually paid me, I feel very fortunate: I ate food that I bought as part of their grocery shop, I drove their car (which they filled with gas) and they paid my phone bill with no questions asked. It’s important to weigh up the wage versus the standard of living before writing it off as an under-paid position!
Truth number 4: you may end up with a nightmare family
Ask any au pair about the worst host family they have heard of, and they could talk your ear off for a week: the au pair who had to sleep on a mattress on the floor because her hosts wouldn’t buy her a bed, the host Mom who forced her au pair to wear a uniform because she hated her dress sense, the host Dad who got arrested for paying his au pair in pills (true story). Every au pair has a friend of a friend who lived with nightmare hosts, and unfortunately someone has to be that unlucky girl. You could also end up with nightmare kids: like my good friend who was badly bitten not once but multiple times within the first few weeks, or the teenage host child who stole from her parents and blamed the au pair. The important thing is to think carefully during the matching process, go with your gut on what feels right and never choose a family based entirely on their location.
Truth number 5: you will meet amazing people (but it will take time)
Let’s be realistic: as an au pair you move to a new continent where you know no-one, and unless you are extremely lucky you aren’t going to have an amazing, tight-knit friendship group within minutes of arriving. It took me about five months until my group was fully formed; the beautiful au pairs in my town who I knew from day one ended up meeting a huge group of German volunteers and forming an international mega-squad which now covers 3 different continents. Be patient, and make an effort: friends aren’t going to just turn up at your door, you have to go and find them. Having said that, don’t expect to find them at cluster meetings, which can be badly organised and very poorly attended. Just stay positive, be active on Facebook and say yes to opportunities as they arrive.
Truth number 6: you will become a little bit weird
When you spend all day with kids, it’s inevitable that you will eventually turn a little bit odd. You will find yourself singing nursery rhymes at random times, you will try to help your adult friends zip up their coats because you forget they aren’t five, you will get into the habit of always calling red grapes ‘purple’ because your hosts kids will eat one but not the other and you will absentmindedly cut up your food into tiny child-sized portions in restaurants. You will also develop a supernatural ability to make up a song about anything on the fly- and I must say some of my teeth-brushing and tidying-up songs were practically Grammy worthy and I am expecting a call to write the next James Bond theme any day now. Your life will revolve around these kids and you will absolutely love them, but sometimes you will be very happy to hand them back to their parents and go right off to bed so you can be an adult for a little while.
Truth number 7: you won’t regret it
Regardless of how your year goes – whether you end up with a second family who you never lose touch with, or you hate every moment and come home after a month – you will learn and grow and change because of it. You will become more independent, more fearless. You will learn how much courage you have inside you just to take the leap and go. You will love someone else’s kids more than you thought possible and they will say and do things that make your heart grow three sizes, Grinch-style (like this impromptu and completely adorable group hug before school). You will have ups and downs and very hard times, but you will come out the other side whole and changed and better.