There are moments when life gives you a nudge and tells you to pay attention: this is important.
Ten years ago, when I was looking to buy property, I would walk my dog in our valley’s grassy meadows and think about building a home here. My throat would tighten and my eyes would water. I knew I was onto something.
I felt the same teary-eyed rush of emotion in my early days dating my husband, when I would think about one day meeting his parents: my future family.
I felt something similar when, six months ago, I met our au pair, Alex, and her partner, Oscar. It was 3 a.m. and I’d driven 10 minutes from our house to meet them as they rolled into the bus station. As I hugged Alex, I felt the lump in my throat and knew she would be more than a passing person in our lives. I knew this would be big.
It’s been said that, in today’s world, the village that parents once relied on to help raise their children no longer exists, or has greatly diminished. (Read a great blog post about this here.) Not only do we no longer live with our extended families, in many cases we no longer live anywhere near them. Couples and, by extension, children feel the burden of bearing the parenting load alone.
Inviting Alex and Oscar into our lives for six months felt like expanding our family, if only for a short time.
Au pair, literally translated, means on par or by mutual agreement. An au pair — often, but not always, a young woman — looks after children, usually in a foreign country, in exchange for room and board and a paid allowance. For the au pair, it’s an opportunity to travel. For families, it provides an alternative to daycare — a person living in your home, building a relationship with your child.
For us, it was also a cultural exchange. We wanted someone to speak French to our daughter, and Alex was from France.
I met Alex through AuPairWorld.com, which matches families with au pairs: the family fills out a profile, the au pair fills out a profile, and possible matches are suggested. She was already working as an au pair in Montreal and was looking to move on, searching for the “true Canadian experience.”
I warned them that we were remote. They said they were game.
It didn’t take long for my daughter to overcome her shyness and claim Alex as her best friend. They were together four mornings a week, most of that time at home, and while I sometimes regretted that she wasn’t attending play groups with other kids her age, the lack of travel removed a layer of chaos from her day: they weren’t rushing to swimming lessons or gymnastics or to grab groceries on the way home. Her time with Alex was hers alone, and I would come home to the evidence of their fun: half-finished puzzles, painting projects and cardboard-box lemonade stands. Alex dedicated herself to my daughter in a way that I don’t — fully and completely, not trying to squeeze in shopping or unload the dishwasher or start dinner. She was just there to play.
Oscar was an added bonus. We have a separate suite on the property that we planned to offer our au pair and when Alex asked if her boyfriend could live with us, it was the perfect arrangement (obviously, this wouldn’t work for most). On days Oscar was off work, the trio would head into town for cookies at the local coffee shop, trips to the playground and swimming at the pool. I would sometimes see them drive past, my little girl out on the town with her friends. They created a bond. She would talk about Alex and Oscar incessantly. When she woke up from naps, it was Alex she would call out for.
Admittedly, having a stranger living in your house isn’t for everyone. But if you have the space, are looking at childcare options and are open to the idea, it’s definitely worth trying. Here are a few things to think about.
Find an au pair
We were happy with AuPairWorld.com, but there are other similar sites out there, some catering to au pairs of certain nationalities. Be aware that signing up is free, but you’ll need to pay for a membership before you can message with potential au pairs. Once you’ve connected with someone, arrange a Skype interview and check references. Your au pair is travelling a long distance, so you want them to be a good fit.
Au pairs generally live and eat with their host family, an arrangement that works for some more than others. Having a small suite separate from the house worked in our situation, but it might have felt lonely for someone venturing far from home for the first time to be on their own in a rural setting. So, for us, having Alex bring Oscar along was a stroke of luck. Just make sure you clearly communicate what is being offered in advance.
Any young woman entering Canada for an extended period is a potential au pair to a customs agent, who will check cell phone records for evidence. (We know a family whose au pair was turned back at the border.) So, if you don’t want to be disappointed, make sure your au pair has the required work permit before leaving home.
According to Au Pair World, the au pair is responsible for buying health insurance, but it’s worth confirming they’ve done this before they leave home. I can’t imagine being responsible for someone who needed medical attention without insurance.
Providing a vehicle wasn't an issue for us, since Alex didn’t drive. But, particularly if you’re out of town, you might want to consider having an extra car for your au pair or arranging your schedule to share. Oscar, who was working in town, bought an inexpensive car, so on the days that he was home the trio could head into town together.
A clearly laid-out contract
I think it’s important to keep everything clear and in writing to avoid confusion, miscommunications and potential hurt feelings. Before Alex joined us, I wrote up an informal “contract” that simply laid out everything we’d discussed. It included things like her projected arrival and departure, working hours, payment and living arrangements. In hindsight, I would have included something about addition hours worked — I paid Alex a daily or hourly rate in addition to the weekly rate we’d discussed, but it was something we probably should have talked about in advance.
When you fill out your online profile, you’ll be asked about your expectations for the au pair, such as looking after special needs children or doing light housework, so it’s worth giving some thought to this in advance. I certainly didn’t expect Alex to do our dusting and vacuuming, although in hindsight I might have specified tidying up after meals and play. (Not that it mattered — this was usually done anyway.)
Au Pair World offers guidelines for compensation according to country. Because I didn’t initially feel we could offer as many hours as was suggested (25-30 hours for $200 CDN per week in Canada), we agreed on a lesser rate with fewer hours. That said, we soon realized we could use Alex more than expected and paid her a base rate for a five-hour day plus an hourly rate for additional time.
On an hourly basis, the cost was comparable to daycare, but you also need to factor in the expense of room and board. If it’s a space you previously rented out, there’s an opportunity cost there. If your au pair needs a vehicle, that's another potential expense. Also keep in mind that you may want to include your au pair in family outings or offer a parting gift at the end of their stay — even if you don’t plan to from the outset, you’ll likely feel differently by the time they leave.
Alex and Oscar left a week ago, their stay with us just a stopover on their continued adventures. As I type this, it’s hard to believe they are no longer over in their suite, Alex getting ready to come and start her day.
Would we do it again? We’d consider it, but likely not. Alex would be hard to beat and, in the fall, our daughter starts pre-school. Our au pair adventure felt like just that: a window of opportunity to bring someone into our home, into our lives, and experience the youthful energy and adventurous spirit they contributed to our family. We wouldn’t change it for the world.