Childcare support, particularly the live-in kind (think au pair or nanny), can dramatically help working parents to coordinate kids, school drop-offs and pick-ups, and family life overall. But if that person isn’t the right fit for the family or they aren’t in the right headspace, it can have the opposite effect and actually be quite stressful. Your home is your refuge and a place to recharge your batteries. Home life with kids is hard at the best of times; even harder when there is extra drama in your home. So, here are the things every working parent should know about having an au pair.
The stresses of having an au pair were not on my radar when my husband and I decided to give an au pair a go. We were optimistic that an au pair would alleviate some of the daily coordination craziness and, who knows, make it possible for us to go on an occasional date night! With a big spare bedroom and a house over a few levels, what could go wrong? Well, a lot apparently!
My eldest son started school this year and, I won’t deny it, it’s been a struggle coordinating all of the pick-ups and drop-offs. We have one child in school and one at pre-school and it hurts my head just trying to figure out who needs to be where on each day. Toss in curriculum days and school holidays, lunchboxes to be packed, forms to be completed and returned, readers and library books to remember and special event days and and and … stressful much? Hmmm, I see all you working parents out there knowingly nodding your heads!
So, we found our au pair on Facebook (there are a lot of au pair Facebook pages you can easily find) and after a video chat and a few questions, we thought she sounded like a nice person and she was available when we needed her. I was quite organised and had an au pair contract agreement and daily planner ready to go. Everything was super clear, so we thought that we were starting the relationship off on the right foot.
Our French au pair arrived and she was lovely. And the idea of her speaking French with the kids on a daily basis seemed like an added bonus when they were also learning French at school and pre-school.
But within two days, the reality wasn’t quite matching up to expectations. First, I arrived home to her in tears because she was struggling to communicate with the kids. Being an au pair and travelling solo for the first time in your life can be quite isolating, and I felt for her being so far from home. With a bit of coaching and empathy, we navigated the initial settling in hurdles and seemed to be finding a rhythm.
But before long a constant stream of issues came up, accompanied by more tears—so many more tears.
We had a headlice infestation which saw me administering a treatment for two hours to our au pair (bearing in mind no one else in the family had lice). Not in the job description as far as I was aware!
Then we received several stories from France of her friends and family members that were sick or going through challenging times.
But it all reached a huge crescendo when one night I was woken up at 1AM to a hysterical au pair. A close family member of hers was very ill and in hospital. Such horrible news to hear when you are living on the other side of the world. So, after settling her down and making a nice cup of tea, I went back to bed to catch up on some sleep. A few hours later, I was woken again to an even more hysterical au pair. I didn’t really know what to do at this point and I was torn. I felt so bad for her but at the same time I wasn’t loving being woken up during the night when, apart from lending a sympathetic ear, there wasn’t a lot I could do to help.
The next day she wasn’t in a great state to look after the kids and later that day, together we decided that she needed to be with her family. Being an au pair living in our home wasn’t the best thing for her or us at this point in time.
So, what did I learn from this experience? Here are my top tips for working parents to make sure you set up a great au pair relationship and that your au pair is a good fit for your family.
Ask the right questions
Don’t assume that just because your au pair candidate is nice and available you’ve found the right person for the job. Be clear on your priorities going into an interview and define your non-negotiables. Ask lots of questions before you engage candidates about their motivations and experience as an au pair/nanny. Make sure the candidate genuinely loves being with kids and that this is why he or she wants to be an au pair. Also ask for any previous relevant experience and do your reference checks.
Formalise an agreement
Have a clear agreement that sets out expectations, kid’s routines, hours of work and pay. This is really important and will help avoid any confusion around what is expected and what is included in the hours of work and pay. Having everything agreed upfront will minimise confusion and set up a great working relationship. There are a range of basic conditions and entitlements that you need to provide for if you have an au pair. AuPairWorld is a good source of information. We also have a contract agreement template on our website, so feel free to make it your own.
Be prepared for an adjustment phase
It can take a little while for you both to settle into this new relationship. Take the time to invest in setting your au pair up well so he or she can bond with your children. During this adjustment period of the first few weeks, make sure you spend time demonstrating and explaining routines and stepping him or her through how to deal with certain situations. Check whether your au pair has a support network in place that is outside your household. Do you know any other au pairs that you could introduce your au pair to? Try putting yourself in the au pair’s shoes. It can be quite exhausting for someone to adjust to your family way of life especially if English isn’t a first language, so make sure you allow time to adjust.
Written by the Kate Pollard, Co-founder of Circle In.