If you’ve ever hired an au pair you probably, like most families, dread the yearly au pair search.
If you’re new to the au pair game, you’ve probably also heard the frightful legends of unhappy au pairs disappearing in the middle of the night. Only to be replaced by a different surly teenager who lugs themselves around your house, at less than the speed of the average sloth, unable to assume responsibility for even the simplest of household tasks.
Maybe for you, it’s worse than a trip to the dentists for a painful root canal, when you have to choose the person who is going to help you keep all the plates spinning in your dangerously overloaded, daily juggle of work and family.
Or maybe you’re one of the host families I’ve spent two years researching, who seem to navigate, efficiently and beautifully, through the sometimes torturous maze that is hiring and managing an au pair in the sacred refuge you call home.
What Successful Host Families Do Better
I was one lukewarm au pair relationship in and another incredibly stressful, energy zapping partnership down when I realized there had to be a better way to hire and manage an au pair. I wondered what veteran host families, the ones who’ve had more au pairs than Donald Trump’s had twitter outbursts, do better or differently than other struggling host families.
Do they all use expensive agencies and get to chose from the stellar pick of the au pair bunch?
Do they pay their au pair in gold bullion and gym memberships?
Do they hire a professional interviewer and a private detective to separate the wheat from the chaff?
Or do they know something, cultivated from years on the host family front line that the rest of us don’t; about how to hire an au pair who won’t crash your car, pinch your partner’s bum or drive you to drink within the first week?
Yes, they do.
After two years of research with veteran host families around the globe (who’ve hired and managed over 301 au pairs and counting) and searingly insightful interviews with tens of au pairs from distant lands who lived to tell the fascinating tale. I made some shocking, exciting and ridiculously simple discoveries that led me to understand why the simple strategy many victorious host families employ works like a charm.
And it’s a system that goes beyond even what the agencies can provide.
What I discovered, allowed me to add to my own little, ramshackle system I had going on at home, bringing, even more, structure and clarity to the relationship, resulting in three years worth of happy, calm and inspiring au pair relationships in my own home.
And that’s no easy task in a household with two busy professionals, one of whom is also married to the endless, doom-filled news cycle as a broadcaster, working all sorts of strange hours, in sometimes profoundly unfamiliar places.
The good news is that any family, new to the au pair game or longer in the tooth, using an agency, going it solo or searching online, can learn something productive, maybe even life-changing, from adopting this amazingly repeatable and straightforward system.
So how can you get started?
Well, here’s a list of 7 things you didn’t know about hiring an au pair, that should help you find the girl or boy that’s going to make your family sing and not whimper.
The Au pair market place is shifting
If you’ve hired, or are currently hiring, an au pair in the UK, then you’ve possibly already noticed that it’s been much harder to find an au pair this time around than in previous years.
If you’re not in the UK, you can skip to the heading – Expectation Gap
You can also download this detailed blog post as an eBook and read it off screen and at your leisure here.
We’ve got the Brexit effect to thank for the bottom nearly dropping out of the au pair marketplace in Britain and a growing expectation gap for both au pairs and host families, relying on a relationship that doesn’t always feel fit for purpose.
Many of us have downed a large G&T in the course of a frantic au pair search where it seems like getting your childcare sorted is Never.Going.To.Happen. Agencies too reported being downright freaked out by the au pair Brexit effect, in fact, some of the organisations who contributed to our research told us they have never seen things so bad, in their decades of business, some had even decided to throw in the towel reluctantly.
A London based agency told one of our contributors that two things are happening: the first is that the quality of candidates applying to be au pairs in the UK has dropped, and secondly those who do apply only want to stay for six months.
Au pairs we spoke to confirmed that coming to the UK where they could be unwelcome guests had forced them to consider other au pair destinations over Britain.
Just outside UK borders in the Republic of Ireland, new regulations on minimum wage requirements for au pairs have also seen au pairs who used to want to come to mainland Britain, happily heading for Southern Ireland. Families there say they are being priced out of the marketplace for flexible live-in help because they are only entitled to deduct €54.13 a week for board and lodging which leaves a net wage for many au pairs below the minimum wage. This arbitrary figure is in stark contrast to the average monthly rent of €1,111 at the end of December 2016.
And the upshot of all of this for you and for me is that the competition for au pairs in the UK just intensified a little bit more.
Cue another stiff drink! Who could have guessed that trying to get out of the door to be a taxpayer would be this damned hard?
( I do have a solution so keep reading…)
There are also still significant, weighty questions as to what the au pair relationship might look like when the Brexit deal (whatever that may be) is signed, sealed and delivered. Many agencies and online search portals in communication with the government suggest that for now, it’s business as usual, with this comment from the British National Au pair Association.
"We do not believe the vote to leave will affect Au Pairs for the foreseeable future and feel very positive that European Au Pairs will be welcomed in the UK for many years to come. While it is impossible to predict the exact outcome of the leave vote, BAPAA is widely respected in the International and EU Au Pair community. Rest assured we will be lobbying very hard to ensure that the UK Au Pair programme continues to be inclusive and part of the UK inbound immigration policy." BAPAA
Nonetheless, there’s definite insecurity and concern on the part of potential incoming au pairs about what might greet them here in the UK, and so for already beleaguered host families, you’ll need different tactics so you can snag that all important, au pair.
Look for a Non-EU Au pair
My first suggestion is to look for an au pair who is coming from outside of the EU and trying other sites outside of the seemingly oversubscribed aupairworld.com. I swear by Kiwi and Australian au pairs, who are down to earth, hardworking, native speakers and in the case of New Zealanders, they are already used to driving on the left-hand side.
Check out this link, if you are unsure of which other countries an au pair can come from to work in the UK.
The best sites to find these au pairs, according to our host families is greataupair.com and aupair.com. I have had the most success with greataupair.com, which has a slightly complicated dashboard, but the applicants we have met and hired from there have been fantastic.
During our last search we were also approached by candidates who wanted to come to the UK next year, so we now have the contact details for four au pairs who liked the look of our family and whom we will start chatting to ahead of our current au pair leaving. These sites encourage both you as the host family and the au pair candidates to include much more information about yourselves, helping both you and them to get a better match.
It’s also worth noting that candidates coming from outside of the EU are often much less wedded to the ‘European Au pair’ model. They can often be much more open to designing a relationship that works for both parties (as long as you pay fairly, and the job list is made clear at the start).
My own experience, backed up by that of our veteran host families, is that when a candidate is coming from the other side of the globe, they are often more likely to have had to put proper thought into what they’d like their au pair year to look like. They are also less liable to see the relationship as a casual commitment with a few hours of work here and there.
Several of our host families also found that by using greataupair.com, they were also able to search candidates who were a step beyond the au pair role. You can specify weekly pay on the site and advertise for a nanny-au pair, so that if your needs go beyond that of a ‘traditional au pair,’ you can chat with candidates who have much more experience but want more free time than a regular nanny.
You will also find many more candidates here beyond the age of 25 and who are EU citizens or those with visas or passports allowing them to come to the UK, so if you are looking for a more grandmotherly figure, then this could be your ideal fishing ground.
Also check out granny-aupair.com.
Likewise, if you’re a family looking for a bit of help here and there and you are genuinely committed to giving your candidate a cultural experience, then the place to look for your next au pair is workaway.info.
This site is about providing bed and board for a ‘homestay with duties,’ and it’s the kind of place where you’ll find eel tagging projects in Scotland, or working at a winery in Southern France. Increasingly though, host families are using the site to find their au pairs, promising a genuine cultural experience and in most cases offering the pay on top of bed and board for their au pair. You’ll find people of all ages and backgrounds here, and our host families who have used it rave about the site.
Some of the success factors are again down to the fact that by searching off the ‘au pair grid’ they have to put real thought and structure into their relationships with their au pairs.
So if you do decide to avoid the Brexit effect and opt for a non-European au pair, my advice is to make triple sure you both know what you want from the relationship and then put it all in writing, well before the boarding pass is uploaded to their phone.
You can download all of the accessories you need to do this from our research-based site theawesomeaupair.com.
Our host families also admit to at some point falling out of love with aupairworld.com and say they are now to signing up for several sites and often with agencies too, to get the broadest possible set of options for hiring their au pair.
Four of our very experienced host families also recommend needaupair.com.
Despite having fewer candidates on their books, there are some excellent agencies out there, who will hand hold you through the process of finding an au pair. But even the best agencies aren’t psychic; they can only match host families and au pairs according to who is on their books at any given time with the information the host family offers.
Our host family advice is to give to be utterly forensic about the information you provide the agency. It’s better to overload them with pictures, videos, timetables, and lists headed ‘Things I am a control Freak about’ than to assume you’ll fill in one of their family profiles and then expect Mary Poppins to walk in the door
2. The Au Pair/ Host Family ‘Expectation Gap’
The second factor in the changing au pair marketplace is this, ‘The Expectation Gap.’
Our research pointed to the growing expectations of both host families, and au pair’s, something that’s cat nipping au pair relationships across the globe. In fact, it’s driving host families and au pairs to change up the way they search for their support system.
The au pair role was first designed to be an extra pair of hands for wealthier families; it also gave young women the ability to work in a home without the stigma filled title of ‘servant,’ hence the au pair becoming a member of the family and not being treated as an employee.
However fast forward a hundred years and both host families and au pairs tell us they want to be able to flex the role. Families say their real needs aren’t reflected in the outdated au pair model – they admit to bare-faced lying to agencies to try to shoehorn their actual needs into what the role traditionally allows.
" I got sick of having to lie to agencies about what our family actually needs. They'd say,'Well traditionally au pairs don't cook for the family'. I'd be fuming, trying to explain that there's very little difference in throwing together spaghetti for three people than for five people. We pay well, we are truthful about what our needs are, and we've never struggled to get an au pair who loved her role in our home. Agencies can be very narrow, and the whole starting point for a great au pair relationship is honesty. That's why we hire online. Amanda A, HostMum UK
Au pairs say they want to be able to search for and find a real family ‘match,’ without as one put it,
"Filling out old-fashioned forms from agencies, and feeling like you have no control over which family you might match with you. How are they deciding which family I might end up with? I prefer the au pair websites because you get to see more variety in the families, but you must be careful because sometimes they are not clear about what the role is. I have been an au pair twice, and both times I chose families online who were very organised and clear about what they wanted. I have many friends who wanted more 'casual' families and had terrible experiences, so my advice to other au pairs is to ask for loads of information and detail and not to accept anything less".
But and it’s a huge BUT.
Many of our host families and au pairs swear by using agencies. In the past, I too have been a thoroughly satisfied paid up member of this club precisely because you get so much information on each candidate, so spotting compatibility gaps are much more comfortable than trying to wing it on-line with barely a paragraph and maybe a photo to go on.
Some agencies also have tremendous experience to bring to the table in matching au pairs and host families, so call up and have a chat with agencies in your area – see whether you like the sound of them. Ask them –
- How will you match me with my au pair?
- Do you look at how compatible our family will be with each au pair?
- How do you security check your au pairs?
- What will you do to help me manage my au pair?
- What happens if it all goes wrong?
The au pairs we surveyed also told us that the one ingredient was missing for them in the whole equation, and that’s respect from their host parents.
They didn’t feel like a lot of host families saw real value in what an au pair can bring. Interestingly these candidates weren’t talking about money (although they all agreed that fair pay is a must) but the whole mindset around what an au pair is.
One au pair, Greta, put it like this,
" This is an entire year of my life, and I wanted to spend it with a family who will value me and not just have me washing dishes and picking up socks and sometimes an invite to dinner. My family was amazing, they told me all the time how grateful they were, and asked me to teach their youngest gymnastics and French too. I didn't feel like I was, how you say it,'a spare part' ".
So is it possible that instead of minimizing the role of the au pair, the key to success is giving your au pair enough to do, and enough ownership of her position, that she can feel a real sense of pride in her efforts?
This model has certainly worked well in our home and those of our research families. Our opening statement to any of our au pairs is this,
"Our au pair is the most important person in our home, without you, we can't make it all work. Are you happy with that level of responsibility?"
It’s an easy way to figure out who is going to fit in in our home, while the others will politely decline the role.
Host Families are living ever more complicated, stress-filled lives, and au pairs are often left to carry the can. Legions of host families wrote to us to tell us that they didn’t feel the au pair relationship as it currently stands is ‘fit for purpose’ and that they often ended up with an additional, seemingly inefficient and surly teenager in their home, while the insurmountable juggle continued and their bank balanced waned.
These families didn’t feel that they were ‘allowed’ to flex the relationship and ask for the au pair to own individual things. Or in some cases, the host parents were unable to let go of specific draining daily tasks, because of the unspoken psychology of allowing someone to be competent and helpful in your own home, in the sacred role of looking after children.
So what can host families and au pairs do to make sure that their relationship doesn’t collapse hopelessly into the ‘expectation gap’?
For host families, it’s about understanding your needs and being brutally honest with yourselves about what tasks an au pair could do to lighten the load, while of course maintaining a respectful, fair relationship. It’s also about understanding that Generation Z, is in large part expecting to be valued, useful and fruitful in their role, which requires a different sort of strategy, planning, and management around the au pair role.
All of this no doubt seems like a total drag, given your already over the top to do list; but it’s really about valuing this person in your home and making the best of their skills and talents. Not just the ones that get the dishwasher loaded, the school bags in the boot and the kids into bed alive, and all before 10 pm.
Some au pairs will still want and are expecting a ‘cookie cutter’ au pair relationship, so the best advice is to check their motivations and to ask them what else they would like to achieve in their year. HostDadMike told us his story,
" We figured out around au pair number 3 that in order for them to get all the menial stuff done that matters so much to us, we had to find out what else drives them - this really helps you to avoid the emotional dips you usually get if the au pair feels that you invested in and that they are not only there to get your stuff done."
3. Host Families aren’t looking for Au Pairs – just Useful People.
Weirdly, the families in our research told us that they didn’t search for the best au pair, they only looked for the best person and best fit for their home and their circumstances.
They treated their au pair search pretty much like hiring someone to do a ‘job,’ a role of proper grave responsibility in the real world. So instead of employing a ‘Let’s find the Make Do’ candidate and hope for the best, they made concerted effort to locate the person who could genuinely make a difference in their home and then actually invested in the relationship.
I know it sounds crazy (given that finding a decent candidate seems hard enough already!) that you might have to do more work, but this is more about a shift in mindset. If you believe this ‘role’ is vital for your sanity, and that of your partners, and incredibly valuable to the economy of your home, then you’ll give the process of finding that certain brilliant someone a bit more effort in the right places.
That means that hiring an au pair who is expecting to hang about on the fringes of your home, lifting a finger twice a week, is not a recipe for finding someone who wants to be god damned USEFUL in your home.
Au Pairs who are not relied upon don’t tend to become reliable.
There is a desperate amount of what I call ‘Assumption Overwhelm,’ around the host family – au pair relationship. Both parties tend to stick to the outdated and overrated ‘rules’ of what they think the partnership should be without giving serious thought to what they’d each like the relationship to look like. It’s vitally important to set your own rules around the relationship explicitly at the start.
We’re not talking slave labour here, but a different way of thinking about the ‘role,’ as something with tremendous potential, rather than a loathsome burden.
One of our British Host Mom’s involved in our study put it like this,
"When you start looking for someone who is really up for being useful and helpful in your home, instead of just accepting that they want to be an au pair, you'll be able to tell them what that means for being a 'useful person' in YOUR home. Every candidate thinks they know what being an au pair is, but the job is different in every single home. It's much better to look for a person who is already finding ways in life to contribute, to be useful, to be helpful. So many host families think the agency will explain the real specifics of the role, but in my experience, that still falls on the host family."
So when you start your au pair search, remember that to get the support you crave, you need to look for the right sort of person, not the one who is looking for a cookie cutter au pair experience. Instead look for the one that will leave you a little flexibility to form the relationship that’s fit for purpose in your home.
Even if you think you are looking for twenty hours a week of picks ups and drop offs and some babysitting, is there something you could let the au pair completely own, to give them a feeling of being incredibly valuable to the whole family circus?
Host Dad Rob, now living in Italy told me,
" We couldn't have managed without our brilliant au pairs over the years, they've done everything from helping build our businesses by creating graphics, weeding my Dad's garden, digging a hole for a pond, looking after our pets, and lots of other less headline-worthy stuff. The key is to find someone who just wants to be valuable in your home and in exchange you can help them by figuring out what you can do for them as a host family. Maybe it's work experience; maybe it's putting their unique skills to good use or just letting them know that they are doing a good job, even when they are just learning the ropes."
After a problematic au pair relationship in our own home, I was a not convinced at all, about the idea of ‘leaning in’ and giving what seemed like ‘even more’ to the relationship. However, I soon realized that I had not only hired the wrong person but I also had not put enough proper structure around the partnership.
However, once we started to understand who the right person was for us, investing more in the relationship happened naturally, and all those raw memories of having gone so wrong before were committed firmly to the past.
They aren’t perfect families
Don't miss-sell your family to the au pair - honesty is everything. It lets them be real with you too and sets the expectation you'll be able to talk to one another openly. J. Fordham UK Host Mum
There’s so much fear around sorting out our childcare problems that it’s incredibly common for host families (and au pairs too) to paint a glossy, seducing picture of what life as an au pair might look like. Out of fear that no one will be interested in living with a less than perfect family, in the middle of the sticks doing what are often pretty mind-numbing, repetitive tasks we can all be guilty of making the job seem like something it is not.
Looking at all the glossy, beautiful host family profiles on any given au pair site, is enough to scare the Spanx off any realistic host family who knows very well that the reality of life in their home, is not at all picture perfect.
So short of writing a profile that goes like this,
“Duties include; getting up before the birds, packing and unpacking the dishwasher at least 3 times a day, giving feral kids breakfast, listening to the same feral kids refuse to eat their breakfast, ask them to put on their school uniforms (at least 17 times) get them in the car whilst they re-enact a scene from WWF. Repeat this every morning five days a week without losing your mind and all before 8.15am.
Next, tidy up kitchen that looks like a bomb hit it, tidy children’s rooms even though you did that yesterday, put on laundry, hang out laundry, remember to pack lunch boxes, pick up kids, ferry them around whilst they bitch and moan in the back and throw sandwiches at each other, watch as they refuse to do their homework and then refuse to turn off the telly in the manner of some possessed nether-worldly beings.
Cajool kids into bed as if a member of the riot police at an anti-capitalist rally. Please do this every day, while maintaining the aura of Mary Poppins and with a pleasant smile on your face that screams ‘It’s okay I’ve got this.’
( PS. All of the above continues to be beyond my patience, despite the fact they are my offspring)
So what can a realistic host family do to paint the right picture of family life in their home without scaring the bejesus out of every au pair in a ten continent radius?
I find the easiest way is this –
1. Decide on no more the five vital things your au pair will be doing.
2. Write an incredibly detailed profile (not about the ins and outs of the job but painting a super vivid picture of who you are as a family).
3. Include a timetable and a paragraph about what you are really like as a family – what your challenges or current work-life balance are and how you feel about it, for example – are you looking after elderly parents, or are your kids going through a challenging phase?
Our au pair/host family research showed definitively that host families who are brutally honest have better, more satisfying relationships with their au pairs.
Another way to reflect your family’s real ‘glory,’ is to choose pictures and videos for your profile that are truthful. I like to share a video of me in the supermarket while my youngest throws a momentous wobbler, we also have various photos from different A&E visits.
Taking a film on your phone as you drive along on the school run, gives the au pair buckets of information about where you live and lets her see something she will be doing.
So make sure your profile, includes
1.Photos that reflect the reality of your family.
2.Videos and clips of things your au pair will be asked to do.
3. You can also include, video clips taken by your kids where they ask you a series of questions about stuff. Things like ‘Mummy how would you describe Daddy?’ and vice versa work well to build a picture not just about what your families needs are, but WHO your family is.
4. Take photos or even better video of where you live, your extended family, your home, etc. Our family is mixed race, and my brother is married to a man, so our photos and videos are direct way of saying;
‘This is our family – do your values fit in with ours?’
Doing things this way means you’ll likely get fewer replies from potential au pairs, but the ones that do click are more apt to slot neatly into your family.
One Swedish au pair told me why video clips of one family at home helped her avoid a potential host family, au pair mismatch.
"One family I liked on paper at least, sent me some videos of them at home. It was just the kids showing me around the house, but I could see from the pictures that their home was immaculate and tidy to a crazy level. When I asked the host Mum if she wanted someone who was also a neat freak, she just laughed and said they liked tidy but 'weren't crazy about it.' The video told a different story, and it made me nervous that they didn't seem to be able, to be honest. My friend became their au pair, and she spent a whole year terrified to leave anything out of place."
One word of advice though, detailed profiles don’t translate as well on aupairworld.com.
So you’ll need to make sure you share your timetable, the specifics of the job, your photos
and videos as soon as you start emailing each other, to give your candidate time to run for the hills if he or she is not the right fit.
If you are hiring through an agency, make sure they understand who you are as a family as much as what you need your au pair to do. Then go one better and send your agency candidate a timetable, more photos and videos and a copy of your house rules.
The goal here is to filter out those au pairs who might well end up driving you bonkers in your own home. Unless your agency is in the business of making exact matches between au pairs and host families, the onus is still on the host family to paint the most vivid, truthful picture they can of their circumstances.
Sometimes this in itself becomes a problem because families whose needs don’t fit in the ‘regular’ au pair mould, tend to either tell fibs to the agency and the au pair, hoping for the best. Or they head into the unregulated online space where they may or may not give the au pair the full family story.
I remember being in precisely this spot when my youngest was fourteen months old, and my fantastic Nanny quit due to a knee injury. I scoured every site and a few agencies looking for a live-in nanny who could deal with the irregularities of our working lives and came up empty-handed. Various au pair agencies told me that until my youngest was two, they couldn’t supply me with an au pair and would I consider a nanny again?
Truthfully, I was struggling financially, finding what many working parents do, that I had to work more to afford the nanny who could provide the care I could not (but wanted to desperately) because, to afford her, we both had to be there less and less.
So I took some advice from a close family member who had hosted six au pairs, and she explained that she had hired an au pair when her kids were still babies. Like me and many thousands of others, there were few other flexible, affordable childcare options, especially for people who have non-traditional working patterns.
I took the plunge and found out just how invaluable a good au pair can be, that year she became a lifesaver. We pieced together a ‘childcare jigsaw’ that meant we had professional care most of the time, our au pair did the drop-offs and pickups and spent one day a week with our youngest daughter. While it wasn’t perfect, we finally had the flexible care we needed.
The relationship wasn’t plain sailing, I still had a lot to learn about figuring out our needs and how to get the right fit, but the relationship is still an important one in our family, and it’s fair to say we both learned a lot that year.
The two most valuable things I took away from that relationship were learning to be a better delegator and communicator in my own home (which is so much harder than managing people at work) and how to be honest with yourself and your au pair about what goes on in your home.
You can check out this post, all about How to Manage your au pair without going mad in the process
I also learned later that there are agencies who enjoy an honest chat about your needs and will supply you with a Mother’s Help (these are amazing but get snapped up quickly) or a Starter Nanny if your kids are tiny.
One agency I can particularly recommend in the UK is Childcare International, run by a lady with more than two decades of experience in rooting out the best au pair candidates and matching them with families in need of care at every level. Sandra Landau who leads the agency was recently awarded an MBE for her services to families, a great deal of whom would struggle to get out to work without her diligence and expertise in this field.
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