You’re 18, 25 or even 30 years old. You’re eager to see the world, to have an international experience that will leave a mark on you before you carry on with your life. And the only condition is the price of the adventure. If you add to this your passion for children, it’s very likely you opt (if you haven’t already) for the same as Esther, Heather, Janika or Rode, and work as an au pair abroad.
This new trend is bidirectional: families who need a full-time babysitter for an affordable price, and people who want to get in touch with a new culture, accommodation included. Au pair agencies and webpages put these two profiles in contact . The working conditions, regulated by different laws depending on the country, are individually negotiated. “But we only have an oral contract, I’ve never signed any piece of paper,” explains Esther, who was au pair in Ireland the summer of 2011. “That’s why people of the agency gave me the advice not to get involved with housework more than was necessary. Otherwise the family gets accustomed to it and you end up working more than agreed.”
The main motivation for many au pairs is doing a gap year, improving your knowledge of the language of the country or putting off the unavoidable moment in which you must decide what to do with your life. But turning that idea into living the daily routine with the kids is very different, and not everybody is qualified for that. “You need a lot of patience and a bit of independence because when you arrive there, you know no one,” explains Janika, who was also au pair in 2011. For others such as Heather, leaving the USA for a year was a benefit to her studies in education and children development: “I walked away with a deep love for German culture and history, and a very limited, but functional, knowledge of the language.”
Working conditions are different depending on the family, and it’s the au pair’s decision whether or not to accept them. Rode, who travelled from Brazil to work in Europe, lived disparate experiences: “The last family I was with helped me and backed me up in everything, I was one more member of the family. But I didn’t have a good experience with the first one. They asked me to clean and paid me little money.”
Putting aside everyone’s subjective luck, it’s common that au pair groups come together in taking their children out for a walk or going to the park. As a consequence, good moments and anecdotes are part of their routine: “the parents of the kids I took care of used to tell them to obey me, because I was the boss,” remembers Esther laughing. “One day, in the park, one of them called my name and as I came towards him a woman approached and asked him, “who is Esther?”. Then I was surprised when he replied, “the boss.” I blushed,” she admits.
Also, for people like Heather, living with a family meant a personal challenge in other aspects: “I was 23 and it was very hard to surrender some of my freedoms to my host mother. I hadn’t lived with my own mother and had been independent from her for many years.” Despite the fact that sometimes their personalities clashed, the good relationship she had with the children compensated for this little downside. On the other hand, Rode highlights the cultural aspect of her time there: “I learnt more about a new culture and its language.”
But how do our au pairs define their adventure? “It was a great experience,” replies Janika plainly. “And I consider them my Irish family,” adds Rode. All of them agree that the good moments by far outweigh the bad ones, in the professional sense as well as the personal one. “It helped me grow up. I discovered a wonderful country where I must come back, and I improved my English,” explains Esther. Heather, on the other hand, concludes: “It was a once in a lifetime experience and worth every bit of homesickness, frustration, and cultural misconception I may have experienced.”